City of Man, City of God

April 29, 2005 | 32 comments

I want to spend my life in orchards and alfalfas. Walk-up brownstones and saunters to the subway do nothing for me. I don’t dream of Malayo-afghan fusion food. I dream of Blandings. Of Penhurst. “The traffic of the world gives way to silence and peace.” Etc.

But I also share our dream of the City of Zion, the temple town, where the streets are laid to the glory of God (see here, and here, and here (scroll down)).

Joel Kotkin, a New Urbanist type, has just come out with an argument that religion and faith were historically the organizing elements non pareil of urban environments. In his book, The City: A Global History, and in accompanying articles, he argues that New Urbanism revilatization of cities has failed because it has failed to include religion. More generally, he argues that that Richard Florida model–making cities grow by attracting the young and the edgy–is a hair of the dog that bit you cure.

We shall see. Perhaps Mormonism can survive without the city, and the city without Mormonism. But I suspect that we’ll never see the flowering of a Mormon culture–and in that flowering there lie waiting glories–until there is a place that is both consciously Mormon and consciously urban.

More, here, at the Mirror of Justice

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32 Responses to City of Man, City of God

  1. William Morris on April 29, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    Interesting idea, Adam. One benefit fo such a move — and one that seems to be implied in what you are saying — is that such a flowering would avoid the dangers of reacting against or reflecting Mormon provinicialism, a problem that has plagued much Mormon fiction.

  2. Jenn on April 29, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Consciously Mormon and consciously urban… I like that. I’ve been living in NYC for awhile and while it’s certainly urban, it’s far from Mormon, and I long for the possibility of living with fellowsaints and still participating in a vibrant community. Mormon urbanism sounds to me to be the idea mix if we want to avoid the evils of the world.


  3. Greg Call on April 29, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    Interesting, Adam. In Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she argues that the single key feature of healthy, safe cities is difference — difference in culture, design, income, in family arrangements, work. Is this compatible with the notion of the City of Zion?

  4. Jenn on April 29, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    oops, that should be “ideal mix.” Sorry!

  5. William Morris on April 29, 2005 at 2:07 pm


    In *my* City of Zion it is. I would hope that the City of Zion isn’t “Mormon” — in a big-M, Utah-rooted sort of way. Although I hope that culture doesn’t completely away — and doubt that it will.

  6. Greg Call on April 29, 2005 at 2:22 pm


    Knowing where you’ve chosen to live, I could have guessed your preferences. And I happen to share them. But I suspect most of those who have dreamt of Zion, including some prophets, dreamt of precisely the opposite of Jacobs’ ideal.

  7. Nate Oman on April 29, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    William: Alas, the “reacting against Mormon provicialism” that you identify isn’t confined to Mormon literature, but is unfortunately an all-to-often defining feature of most of what the Mormon intelligensia (which includes me and thee) produces.

  8. Silus Grok on April 29, 2005 at 2:45 pm

    Adam… if your predilections lay in the considered country life, then might I suggest any of Wendell Berry’s fiction? He’s an amazing man, with an amazing gift.

  9. Jim F on April 29, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    Greg Call: I suspect most of those who have dreamt of Zion, including some prophets, dreamt of precisely the opposite of Jacobs’ ideal.

    Greg, can you be more specific. From what I understand of Joseph Smith’s dream, for example, Zion is to be a place of diversity, including those who are not LDS.

  10. ed on April 29, 2005 at 3:29 pm

    I haven’t read Jacobs, and I’m very puzzled by the idea that “difference,” whatever that really means, is the “single key feature of healthy, safe cities.” Does this mean that, Tokyo or Seattle, say, is somehow less safe and healthy than London or Los Angeles or Lagos? Can anybody explain this?

  11. Greg Call on April 29, 2005 at 3:59 pm


    Jacobs’ ideal is a city densely populated with (mostly) strangers, a place where order is not maintained through common values (which is not to say there are no values), or central planning, or zoning laws. Smith’s “plat for the city of Zion” seems far from this, and I think most U.S. Mormons would not leave their yards and cul de sacs for Jacobs’ diverse, bustling city.

  12. Greg Call on April 29, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    Ed: Jacobs is mostly focused on different uses of space — residential, commerce, bars, churches, all mixed up and packed together. But she does mention other types of difference.
    I don’t know exactly how she’d compare the cities you list, but she does say LA’s crime problem is a result of it being basically one giant suburb, without the density cities need.

  13. Eric S on April 29, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Jacobs’ city sounds a lot like Houston. That’s about as far from Zion as I can imagine…

  14. William Morris on April 29, 2005 at 4:32 pm


    Yep. Of course, at the same time I embrace some of the provincialism as a reaction against urban elitism. I want a foot in both places — and to be loved for maintaining that posture. Just like I also want to associate with both orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

    I don’t know about all that, though. Only Eugene England seems to have been able to truly pull such a thing off.

  15. Greg Call on April 29, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    Eric: From what I’ve read, I don’t think Houston is what she had in mind. She advocates compact, walkable cities, and is no fan of the gleaming skyscraper. Her ideal (of course) is her own neighborhood in the West Village of NYC.

  16. annegb on April 29, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    provincialism as a reaction against urban elitism? Could you put that in laymen’s terms?

  17. annegb on April 29, 2005 at 6:24 pm

    Jenn, I’ll tell you something. I just got back from New York and it is a far more alive city than Salt Lake. Downtown Salt Lake (it’s been a year or so since I was there) is a ghetto, with depressed and despairing people all over. New York is energetic and unapologetically a city of people in a hurry and in charge of their own destiny. Maybe there are sad parts, but I didn’t see any….not even when we were at Bellevue Hospital.

  18. A. Greenwood on April 29, 2005 at 7:01 pm

    “Downtown Salt Lake (it’s been a year or so since I was there) is a ghetto, with depressed and despairing people all over.”

    Downtown Salt Lake is pretty quiet, but a ghetto full of depressed and despairing people it ain’t.

  19. annegb on April 30, 2005 at 9:30 am

    Have you been to the mall downtown lately? Head downstairs.

  20. Jack on April 30, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Just about every downtown district his it’s “ghetto”. Salt Lake’s “ghetto” is nothing compared to those of other larger cities. I used to drive the streets of L.A. for a living (this was back in the 80′s). I saw entire blocks of homeless folks living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. It’s my understanding that downtown L.A. has been cleaned up a lot since then. But even so, according to what I’ve heard from friends who have been through the rough parts of Chicago, Los Angeles is paradisiacal by comparison. And so the comparison goes… Shall we talk about Mexico City? Or Sao Paolo? What about cities in the near/far east? Salt Lake has it’s problems, to be sure, but as Adam said, “it ain’t no ghetto”.

  21. Mark N on April 30, 2005 at 2:15 pm

    From Nibley’s point of view, the temple is supposed to be the center of activity, from what I recall. A “city”, as defined in one of the early links at the top of the thread, with a skyline that “speaks to the ethos of the capitalism that created it” would seem to be a sharp contrast with the Zion that the temple in the center of the “city” is supposed to symbolize.

    I’m not sure you can create a “city” with a skyline that surrounds a temple without ending up with a mixture of Zion and Babylon. And, as Nibley said, anytime you try to mix the two, you end up with no Zion and all Babylon.

  22. Daylan Darby on April 30, 2005 at 9:29 pm

    “I want to spend my life in orchards and alfalfas.”

    I like mountains myself, away from the crowds, a place to think and ponder.

    I really don’t like the idea of “the mountains shall be made low”.

    I hope God keeps a few around

  23. Bro. Brandon B. on May 1, 2005 at 5:16 am

    The perfect Mormon city:
    Home/visiting teaching is 100%
    Two temples on opposite sides of town
    20-30 baptisms per week with 100% fellowship and retention rate
    at least one ward potluck dinner a month
    many volunteers for every prayer
    and everybody remembers their scriptures and manuels for sunday school/ priesthood/ relief society!
    anything else I’m missing?

  24. Daylan Darby on May 2, 2005 at 1:45 pm

    The perfect Mormon City?

    Church is about 20 minutes (enough time for announcements and Sacrament).
    We finally fulfill (Brother Brigham’s???) request that we were all prophets.
    There is no HT/VT “assignments” because we all know the needs of our neighbors and take care of them
    Each home is ‘sacred enough’ to perform all the ordinances of the temple
    Lots of parties (e.g., potlucks) open to all, organized by the hosts
    Bishops duties reduced to managing the storehouse, which is difficult because it is always full.

  25. David Salmanson on May 2, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    I don’t think I buy Kotkin’s argument. Birmingham doesn’t exactly strike me as a model of city planning (England or Alabama). More interestingly, does the necessity of wide streets as called for in the City of Zion Plat mean that a vibrant street culture is well-nigh impossible? Might a vibrant culture of the future be based on cyberspace rather than realspace (or some combination thereof such as a virtual reality cafe). As a Philadelphian, the numerous churches in my neighborhood (4 with four square blocks not counting storefront congregations) are actually impediments on revitalization. The most popular of those churches is FUMCOG which has been in the news a bit because of its controversial minister Beth Stroud who was just reinstated. The others all have about 25 parishoners each, all over the age of 70.

  26. A. Greenwood on May 3, 2005 at 7:26 pm

    “does the necessity of wide streets as called for in the City of Zion Plat mean that a vibrant street culture is well-nigh impossible?”

    The Plat of the City of Zion is clearly not meant to create an urban environment. In other threads, and to a lesser extent here, I’m asking people to re-imagine what the City of Zion would look like as an actual city. More realistically, I’m asking people to imagine what a strongly Mormon failed-attempt-at-Zion urban center would look like. More realistically still, I’m asking if there could be distinctive Mormon contribution (doctrinal? quasi-ethnic neighborhoods? other?) to the health of a major city.

    I’ve heard a rumor yesterday that some cities are taking up urban homesteading. That is, they’re taking nasty old places, fixing them up a bit, and turning them over to families for cheap if they appear to be stable and promise to stay awhile (the rumor was vague). It wouldn’t comport much with the genius of America, by turns both individualistic and egalitarian, but I wonder if it something like that might not be fruitful if targeted at Mormons, especially at the young couples who tend to be highly educated and hardworking but, because they marry and have kids young, cash-strapped and unable to move to urban areas right at the start.

    Which reminds me, Kotkin says that his thesis is that cities need religion to survive, but it looks to me like his thesis is just as much that cities need families with children to survive. Either way, he could probably accomodate your 4 empty churches into his thesis without too much difficulty.

  27. annegb on May 3, 2005 at 8:08 pm

    I hate LA, too, no offense to people who love it there. I especially hate Las Vegas, but I have experienced the same heaviness and sadness in the people of Salt Lake. So, if ghetto is too harsh a word, so be it. I didn’t see that sadness and despair in the people of New York. Which totally surprised me.

  28. Anon on May 3, 2005 at 8:15 pm

    I think a lot depends on where you go in any big city.

  29. annegb on May 3, 2005 at 8:16 pm

    Maybe I should add that in my confirmation I was told I would serve a mission in southern California. My attitude may change dramatically in the next few years.

  30. Anon on May 3, 2005 at 9:25 pm

    As Jack mentioned (#20), big cities have neighborhoods with distinct personalities just as smaller towns do. I have visited and lived in several cities of over three million in various parts of the world, and live amongst skyscrapers in a giant metropolis in Asia right now. I have found that all of them had vibrant areas, similar to many in NYC. But in my opinion, they all (including NYC) also have places of sadness and despair. In many countries, the capital city is a magnet for those who hope for a better life than they have in the provinces. Lack of infrastructure for the rapidly increasing population means no running water, no sewage system, and only pirated electricity (if any) for hundreds of thousands of squatters. Slum conditions far beyond the experience of most Americans. Yet even in those areas of incredibly crowded dwellings of cardboard and tin cans, or adobe and thatch, there are many pockets of vibrant, cheerful, street cultures, and they are relatively safe places for families to live. (After all, running water and electricity are rather recent inventions.) Others neighborhoods, however, are home to the worst evils ever practiced by man.
    So cities can offer everything. I think Adam has a point about the necessity of an urban setting for the fuller flowering of a uniquely Mormon culture. But some of the things that have been mentioned about Jacob’s ideal city (population of mostly strangers, order is not maintained through common values, etc.) don’t sound too much like a Mormon ideal to me.
    What I sometimes wonder about is the cube-shaped city of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21:16. So intriguing. Perhaps there are aspects of an ideal urban setting that we are not yet ready to comprehend, let alone embrace.

  31. gst on May 4, 2005 at 1:36 am

    There’s a lot of sad and despairing people in the world. I don’t think cities exacerbate that–they just collect people.

  32. annegb on May 4, 2005 at 9:53 am

    I had to go back to check what was the subject, in my density, I’m still not sure. Is the premise that our religion needs cities to progress? I disagree. Why can’t we progress in these quiet little towns?

    There is despair in my little town, too, but not in the same numbers, simply because of the difference in population. I can’t survive long in the city, but, off the subject, New York is the least depressing city I’ve been in, when I expected the exact opposite, because of the huge population. My point was the difference in feel of the city, without experiencing a lot of time there. There has to be something to that.

    Why would we need cities to progress? Did I miss the point?


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