Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block

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   Plans can be poetic on several levels, from simple sensual beauty to deeply embedded meaning. Great planners create profound poetry in their best plans, and while this doesn’t rise to those levels, I feel it is some of my best work. Here’s what it means:

Pienza, Italy overlaid on the outline of a Mormon Block

Pienza, Italy superimposed on green rectangle the size
of a Mormon Block to illustrate just how big they are

   CNU kicked off last year in Salt Lake City with a competition to redesign the Mormon Block. Salt Lake City is built of these mammoth blocks, measuring 660 feet on a side and containing exactly 10 acres. What do you do with blocks that big? Because the Original Green’s ideas on Nourishable Places had an early influence on Agrarian Urbanism, I was asked to lead a session on Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. My competition entry on Wednesday served as the basis for my presentation on Saturday.

view from High Street to sheep grazing on rolling meadows outside Broadway, in the Cotswolds of England

   The idea of putting a garden in the city has potential story lines that trace back thousands of years. In the Judaeo-Christian heritage, paradise at the beginning of the world was a garden and at world’s end, it will be a city. Many of the most beautiful places on earth not yet ruined by sprawl put these two ideals together, allowing you to look directly from the city out into the countryside, such as this view from High Street in Broadway, one of the most beautiful towns in England's Cotswold hills.

Chipping Camden seen from nearby meadows, and set against a lonely hilltop beyond

   It is just as poetic to see the town in the distance from the countryside, so long as the town is small enough to perceive all at once, like Chipping Camden is as seen from this meadow. The trick to building a garden inside a Mormon Block is that there’s no way you’ll feel like you’re out in the countryside because you simply cannot get that far from the urbanism all around the edge of the block.  And while a small patch of garden embedded in urbanism can be profound in the hand of a master, it’s easier to make an impact by pulling off the feeling of moving from city to garden in a short distance.

dark passage through the High Street walls of St. Albans near London open to a brighter garden beyond

   I set out, therefore, to try to move from the city to the garden in ten paces. It’s not as difficult as it sounds… it happens all the time in villages like St. Alban’s in England shown here. And then it occurred to me: maybe, if I could pull a few planning tricks, it might be possible not just to move from city to garden in ten paces, but actually move from city to what felt like country in ten paces. So I set out to try to figure out how to do it.

winding country road through the Dartmoor National Forest in the South of England

   One obvious solution is to make sure that there are turns in the road. This country road winds for miles through England’s Dartmoor National Forest, but you can never see more than a few dozen yards ahead of you because the path is constantly twisting and turning along the contours of the land as it searches out the more level tracks through the landscape.

hedgerows along a country lane through the Cornwall countryside in England

   Hedgerows are another useful technique for controlling the view, and because England is famous for them, here’s yet another British image. A hedgerow is tall and thick, creating a view wall so that you cannot see into the adjacent field. Hedgerows can also be edible, planted with fruit or berry bushes. And while bedding crops often grow at more than arm’s length, edible hedgerow plants bring the fruit right up to your face if you’re walking along the edge of the path.

narrow street through Tuscany's Pienza

   Street width isn’t often discussed as a technique for making the way seem longer, but it can be highly effective. It’s simple proportion: moving 300 feet along a street that’s ten feet wide seems like a much longer distance than traveling an equal distance on a boulevard that’s 200 feet from building face to building face. Take this simple test: Look at the second image above, then imagine walking from one end of Pienza to the other, then imagine walking one block in Salt Lake City. Which seems like a greater distance? So the path should clearly be narrow.

green gallery along French Quarter streets in New Orleans

   It’s not possible to completely hide the buildings at the street from within the garden, but it is possible to clothe the insides of the buildings with green. New Orleans does a fabulous job of this, adorning buildings with galleries that are practically begging you to hang a lush garden of potted plants, such as the one that is shown in this image.

Mormon Block 2

   So here’s how the idea developed: The first move was to decide that there should be something special in the middle, which is where you’re furthest from the city. Working edible gardens need a place for the work of the harvest, and the time of harvest has been an occasion for festivals throughout human history, so it seemed appropriate to put the place of the harvest at the center of the block. And because the block is square and urban, a harvest place that is round and green seemed to be the perfect counterpoint on several levels.

Mormon Block 5

   That mammoth block size was the very next thing that had to be addressed. Portland is famous for its walkability in part because of its very small block size, where block faces are around 195 feet per side. Dividing the Mormon Block in thirds creates sub-blocks with similar block face dimensions once you take out the width of the sub-block passages. And in order to create the best walkability, there should be corner entries as well, which create iconic flatiron buildings. All told, this scheme creates twelve gateways into the garden: four at the corners and two along each side.

Mormon Block 7

   So the basic scheme was set: enter through the city walls at the twelve gateways and proceed along narrow, curving, hedged pathways through the garden to the place of the harvest. Here’s the basic idea of one of those pathways. But should they just curve in one direction, like giant turbine blades? Doing this would give you no choices along the way from the city streets to the center of the garden, making each path pretty much identical. Once you’ve walked one, you’ve pretty much walked them all. So I decided there should be intersections along the way. But how, and how many?

Mormon Block 11

   Intersections are easy if you run the pathways both to the right hand side and to the left. How much should they curve?  Curve too little, and it’s pretty much a straight shot to the center. Curve too much, and each of the plots of the garden becomes tiny as the block is eaten up with too much roadway. A perfect balance seemed to be to lay out the pathways for seven intersections between the city sidewalks and the place of the harvest. At each of the seven intersections, you could turn right, or left, going further out or further in. And so your path from each of the twelve gates to the place of the harvest could take innumerable paths as you selected your way through the seven circles of choices.


   So that’s how the paths laid out. You’ll also notice a few more things: The twelve cottages scattered around the outer edges of the garden house the gardeners. Bio-intensive gardens this big would be full-time work for these twenty-four people (with maybe some occasional help from their children.) Just outside their cottages, at the outer circle, is the orchard border that further frames the green circle of the garden. And the innermost circle of sunburst-shaped buildings are the sheds where the tools of the garden and the tools of the harvest are stored.

   There are other stories here as well, but I’ve gone on long enough. What do you see?

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013