Plat of Zion

The relationship between people and place is something that has been long understood, but not often applied in the ways that it should be.  The places we build and inhabit play a role in shaping our behavior, while our activities and interactions as people also contribute to shaping the places we inhabit.  This is a delicate relationship that we all have with the places where we live, work, learn, shop, and play.

Plat of Zion

Plat of Zion

Early church leader of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, believed an understood the relationship between people and their places. Part of his vision and legacy was to determine how to best implement a plan for delivering places that would assist in growing the potential of Mormon Pioneers to become a righteous and God loving people. 

On June 25, 1833, Joseph Smith delivered to local church leaders in Missouri a plat map for the laying out of the City of Zion as dictated to Joseph through revelation from God.  The Plat of the City of Zion, as it was called, had very carefully written notes in its margins describing the principles associated with the implementation of the plan.  There were instructions about such things as community size (area), population, its layout, type, and size of lots and streets, the architecture and materials to be used to construct buildings, and its associative landscaping.

Joseph Smith’s margin notes were clear in noting that its principles would also be applied to laying out other Mormon settlements.  Joseph wrote:

“When this square is thus laid off and supplied, lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in these last days; and let every man live in the city, for this is the city of Zion.”

Between the years 1830 and 1930 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints undertook a community building initiative that is unprecedented in human history.  During that time period Mormon Pioneers settled 757 communities.  In Utah alone there were 443 communities that were settled.  One would think that with this vast number of communities, of varying size and scale, which were settled during this time period there would be a large number of failed efforts.  Interestingly enough, the failure rate was only 10%. 

Many of these early Mormon communities have been studied, sometimes ad nauseum, to evaluate the principles and applicability of the Plat of Zion from its historic perspective, as well as its validity in present times.  The genius of the Plat of Zion and its execution has not gone unnoticed by others who have both studied and analyzed its principles.  It should come as no surprise that it has been found to be just as relevant today as it was when it was first implemented back in the 1830’s.

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Plat of Zion | Community Building Tool

Within early Mormon pioneer’s push for community building were a set of principles that were primarily used with virtually every settlement.  These principles came from the “Plat of the City of Zion” in the form of instructions which were written along the sides and edges of the document directing principles associated with the implementation of the plat.  Among the instructions that were given were a number of principles which may appear familiar to one that knows the Charter of the New Urbanism well:

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While the commonality in principles is curious in nature, the understanding associated with why Joseph Smith (through principles) and Brigham Young (through execution) would want to implement the building of community in this fashion is also of interest to point out.  A key element in Mormon theology centers on the principle of “free agency”, which can be defined as the ability to choose one’s destiny as a creator of circumstance rather than as a creature of it.  With this agency comes the opportunity to learn and gain intelligence, for it is through the gaining of intelligence that we can better ourselves, our circumstances, and more fully serve God and our fellow man.

“We can think of the requisite components of community, therefore, in terms of hardware and software.  Hardware refers to the buildings and other physical aspects of a particular place. Software refers to the people who enact the communal activities and practices in that place. Another term for the software component is agent. The question of who causes (or prevents) community from forming is a question of agency.”
— Eric Jacobsen | The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment

Generally speaking the relationship between people and place is something that has been long understood, but not often applied in the ways that it should be.  The places we build and inhabit play a role in shaping our behavior, while our activities and interactions as people also contribute to shaping the places we inhabit.  This is a delicate relationship that we all have with the places where we live, work, learn, shop, and play.   Plat of Zion principles potentially play a role here.

More specifically, the principle of physical determinism puts forth the observation that there is a definitive link between people and place, and states that our built environment has a fundamental impact on people’s behavior and attitudes.  The presentation of the Mormon perspective of urbanism is rooted in the belief that as spiritual brothers and sisters we must learn to love and care for each other.  To do this there is a relationship between people and place that is identified as the pinnacle that should be worked towards.  That pinnacle is called – ZION.

Zion is recognized as both a physical place as well as a spiritual state.  Both are required in order for Zion to truly exist.  Zion is required to first be built spiritually before it can be built physically:

“And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.”
— Doctrine & Covenants 105:5

This was part of the intent and goal behind the early Mormon pioneer’s efforts in community building.  Their attempts were to establish communities that would be rooted in delivering both the spiritual and physical building of a Zion community.  To do this they attempted to master the principles of stewardship and consecration.  The principle of stewardship is a sacred spiritual and temporal trust for which there is an attached accountability.  It requires the understanding of  individual saints that all things are God’s and in turn there is no value in the purpose of accumulating more than another – all should be shared. The sharing can not happen through force as socialism prescribes.  Instead, sharing occurs through the consecration of all that one has – including time, talents, means, etc.  All is put forward for the purpose of building God’s kingdom, both physically and spiritually on the earth, and this is done at one’s own choosing.

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