I am sorry I have not been posting more regularly. Hurricane Ike slowed me down a bit. However, everything is starting to get back to normal. So…. Here we go.
If the nineteenth century Mormon experiment in planning claimed anything, it claimed to be founded on revelation. At the local level, church leaders relied on what is known as the Plat of Zion. This Plat came from what Joseph Smith claimed to be personal revelation. It called for things such as set-back requirements for each houses for gardens and orchards; public infrastructureâ€”like churches, temples, schools, and bishop storehousesâ€”set in the center of each village; and wide roads set off in a grid-like pattern. In practice, church leaders made sure farming and industry occurred outside of the village center and added public squares and other community space. The Mormon village plan was the main way the church integrated the poor among Mormon general society: as new emigrants came, they would strategically be directed to settle in one place or another and be given a firm foothold from which to succeed. At the regional level, church leaders and particularly Brigham Young sought to create a society that was self-sustaining. Perhaps the best known example of this is the effort to build the â€œMormon Corridor,â€ which entailed building strategically placed settlements from Salt Lake City to San Diego. This allowed Mormons to take out the middle man along the trade route and also provided a diversity of landscapes which helped Mormons produce a wide range of goods, particularly agricultural products. Brigham Youngâ€™s mantra became, â€œWe can produce them or do without them.â€
While I do not want to focus the discussion just on Utah, recent events in Utah provides an interesting corollary. So, fast-forwarding more than 150 years, we see communities struggling with the problems associated with unplanned communities (urban blight, urban sprawl, strained infrastructure, loss of open space, and poor people living in isolated enclaves). A few community leaders got the ball rolling on a public planning process called Envision Utah. The idea behind the process was to help identify community values and to create different growth scenarios to help people see various forms of future growth. The vision that came out of that process resulted from the input and efforts of more than 10,000 people. As public input was weighed, the process identified a â€œquality growth scenarioâ€ and the scenario enjoyed a great deal of community support. The scenario called for more community investment in public spaces, less suburban growth, more investment in mass transit, more integration of people of the poor, and more conservation of tax payer dollars and natural resources.
Of course building a better community takes work. Brigham Young made this clear: â€œI have Zion in my view constantly. We are not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build Zion, but we are going to build it.â€ Along similar lines, Wilford Woodruff once said, â€œ[W]e canâ€™t build Zion sitting on a hemlock slab singing ourselves away to everlasting bliss; we are obliged to build cities, towns, and villages….â€
Why did Mormons have problems creating this community and why has Envision Utah been slow to really take root (despite some signs of progress)? People put their self interest above community interests (whether they think about it in those terms or not). So, the situation plays out as a familiar problem called the tragedy of the commons.
How does this work? For whatever reason, for example, many people prefer living in suburbs over the inner cities for reasons such as cheaper housing options, fewer social problems, and more square-feet and bigger yards. In aggregate this adds up to more urban sprawl, which harms the environment, isolates the poor, and drains public resources. But the person choosing to move the suburbs captures all the benefit of this decision and only has to bear a fraction of the costs. On the other hand, if the person turned down the temptation of the suburbs, it would only amount to a small contribution to the â€œsolutionâ€ that would be allocated all to the person making the sacrifice of living some place he or she would rather not just for the good of society. Local and state governments do not stop the tide of self interest. In many cases, they do not even try to do so, and perhaps even encourage such decisions by zoning out low income housing and mandating â€œplanned sprawl.â€ In the nineteenth century, the church proved unable to stop members motivated by their self interests. Yet, the church leaders tried relentlessly to break the tragedy of the commons. Today, many local and state leaders, just as much of society, doesnâ€™t seem to care.
* In full disclosure, much of these thoughts I plan to introduce as a guest blogger are based on an article I wrote called â€œRevitalizing Zion: Nineteenth-Century Mormonism and Todayâ€™s Urban Sprawl.â€ It recently was published in the Journal of Land Resources & Environmental Law. The article in its entirety can be found here. For those of you interested in learning more about the tragedy of the commons, I recommend you read the first four paragraphs of another paper I wrote found at the same website called â€œEmerging Commons and Tragic Institutions.â€ To view either of those papers, go to the website and click the corresponding link that says â€œdownload.â€