Utah’s Grid System

Visitors to Salt Lake City are sometimes confused by the road system used in the state. Below is a how-to guide for these roads and a history of this unique grid system.

SALT LAKE CITY, SIMPLIFIED

Stephen P. Morse & Marie Taylor

Introduction

Salt Lake City follows a very logical layout, which can be daunting to anyone not from Utah.  Here’s an explanation of the layout.  At the center of Salt Lake City is the Mormon Temple.  A map of Temple Square with its surrounding streets is shown below.

Note that Temple Square is bounded on the north and south by the streets North Temple and South Temple, and on the west by West Temple.  But the street on the eastern boundary is not named East Temple –it is State Street.  Temple Square is two blocks wide, and the north-south street that would bisects the square if it continued through it is Main Street.  (Prior to 1999, Main Street ran right through Temple Square and it was considered to be East Temple.)
 

The Grid

The logical center of the city is at the intersection of South Temple and Main Street.  The streets south of this origin are referred to by their ordinal position from the origin, namely 1st South, 2nd South, 3rd South, etc.  This is true for the other three directions as well, except that one block west, north, and east of the origin are West Temple, North Temple, and State Street respectively instead of 1st West, 1st North, and 1st East.  So an idealized map of central Salt Lake City looks something like this:

The names shown above for the numbered streets are the way people in Utah (Utahns) refer to it.  Some mapmakers and signmakers refer to streets by their block number.  So 1st South becomes 100 South, 2nd South becomes 200 South, etc.  And sometimes both notations are used in the same context.  For example, exit 113 off of I-80 is labeled “5400 West” for eastbound traffic and “54th West” for westbound traffic.  Some actual street signs list both on the same sign.  There’s no confusion as to which naming convention is used because one contains an ordinal suffix (e.g., st, nd, rd, th), whereas the other does not.
 

The Marker at the Center

At the logical center of the city, South Temple and Main Street, is the following marker.

House Numbering

Houses are numbered by their distance from the origin (with each of the idealized blocks above having a distance of 100 units) followed by the compass direction from the origin.  So a house in the middle of the block on 500 West between 100 South and 200 South might be numbered 150 South, and the full address of that house would be 150 South 500 West.  And you can interpret that address as being 150 units south and 500 units west of the origin, which is what makes Salt Lake City so logical.

Just to be confusing, some mapmakers consider the house at 150 South 500 West to be house number 150 on the street named South 500 West.  And they write South 500 West on their maps.  But this is not the way Utahns think of it — they consider 150 South to be the house number and 500 West (or 5th West) to be the street name.  Your life will be much simpler if you think of it the way the Utahns do.
 

The North East

The north-east section of Salt Lake does not follow the street-naming convention of the grid described above.  Instead it has numbered avenues running east-west, and lettered streets running north-south.  And the distances between these streets in the north-east is half the distance between the streets in the grid.

The numbered avenues in the north-east line up with the grid streets as follows: 2nd Ave lines up with North Temple (1st North), 4th Ave lines up with 2nd North, 6th Ave lines up with 3rd North, etc.  The lettered streets in the north-east are skewed with respect to the grid streets, so B St and C St are in between 3rd East and 4th East, D St and E St are in between 4th East and 5th East, etc.  This is shown in the idealized map below.

The Good Old Days

Before 1973, the West and North numbered streets were numbered 100 less than what they are today.  So what is today 5400 West was 5300 West before 1973.  Similarly what is today 3rd North was 2nd North before 1973.  The South and East numbered streets were not renumbered.  And the house numbers were not changed.  This makes it challenging to correlate addresses in the census with addresses of today.

What was worse, half the house addresses were not on the blocks where you would expect to find them.  This drove the postal workers crazy, and was the reason for the change.  To illustrate this point, consider the house that is today at 750 North 500 West.  That house is on 5th West and is between 7th North and 8th North.  Prior to 1973, that house had address 750 North 400 West and was between 6th North and 7th North.  But at the same time, 750 South 400 West was between 7th South and 8th South, where it belonged.

Below is an idealized map of Salt Lake City prior to 1973.

Here are the points that you need to be aware of when trying to find residences in historical documents (the census for example).  If you are looking for the residence and you have the old address, you should have no trouble finding it.  But if you are using the current address and the residence is on a street ending in North or West, you will need to adjust the numbered street name by 100.   Do not make this adjustment for any streets ending in East or South, or for any avenues.

History of the Grid System

Sam Greenspan – 99% Invisible

The urban grid of Salt Lake City, Utah is designed to tell you exactly where you are in relation to Temple Square, one of the holiest sites for Mormons.

zero-stones
Salt Lake City zero stone from which the city’s coordinate addresses are measured

Addresses can read like sets of coordinates. “300 South 2100 East,” for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square. But the most striking thing about Salt Lake’s grid is the scale. Blocks are 660 feet on each side. That means walking the length of two football fields from one intersection to the next. By comparison, nine Portland, Oregon city blocks can fit inside one Salt Lake block.

American city street grid comparisons by Daniel Nairn (CC BY-SA 2.5)
American city street grid comparisons by Daniel Nairn (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Created by Mormon settlers, the grid of Salt Lake was part of an effort to create a spiritual utopia. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began this plan with a document called the Plat of Zion. The plat provided details as to the measurements of roads, how lots would be arranged, how many people would live there. The original document can be found on display in the Church History Museum in Temple Square.

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Joseph Smith’s original Plat of Zion (June 1833), on display at the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, UT. Image by Sam Greenspan

It’s a fairly simple plan—large blocks set at right angles, all the same size, except for special blocks in the middle, which Joseph Smith imagined would hold 24 temples. This imagined city would be as populous as New York or Philadelphia were at the time, and would offer the best parts of a city—infrastructure, education, and community—but without vice and crime. Joseph Smith thought this could be achieved by giving residents lots of space; it would essentially be a rural city. Within the large blocks, each church member would have a plot of land for fruit trees and vegetable gardens, along with a home, which Smith imagined as the essential piece of the urban fabric.

mormon-grids

Joseph Smith never got to experience his utopian community—he was killed by an angry anti-Mormon mob in 1844. Leadership of the church fell to Brigham Young, who led his followers to the Salt Lake Valley. They established Salt Lake City in 1847.

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Keith Erekson, director of the LDS Church History Library, and Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the LDS Church, with one of the original drafts of the Plat of Zion (right), and Brigham Young’s original urban plan for Salt Lake City (left).

Brigham Young took Smith’s Plat of Zion as a point of departure, but realized quickly that this utopian ideal had some real-world problems. Rather than build 24 temples in the heart of the city, Young started with one. Young also realized a city couldn’t survive on businesses run out of people’s homes—it would need commercial and industrial districts. But in many ways, Brigham Young remained faithful to the Plat of Zion.https://www.youtube.com/embed/IZPIxiLEC-o?feature=oembed

One such way was in building streets with a width of 132 feet. Which is why today, many streets in Salt Lake City—even in the downtown core—are six lanes of traffic wide (some are narrower due to larger sidewalks).

Street width, as well as the length of each block, can make the city feel hostile to pedestrians. The streets are so menacing and crossings so long that the city has placed plastic buckets on lampposts which hold flags that pedestrians can carry to the other side while crossing.

Street crossing flags, image by Sam Greenspan
Street crossing flags, image by Sam Greenspan

Not only are long blocks and wide streets more dangerous—they also offer little reason to walk in the first place. Urban planners have long known that short blocks are inherently more interesting. Shorter blocks mean more intersections, which mean more opportunities for people to interact with one another, and more pathways to move through the city (of course, they also mean more street space and less taxable real estate). In present-day Salt Lake City, it’s hard to get around without a car, and much of the city doesn’t exactly invite pedestrians to meander through its urban fabric.

But the problems confronting Salt Lake City today may not have been the fault of its founders. Andres Duany of the architecture firm DPZ and co-founder of the New Urbanist movement sees in Salt Lake City many of the same goals he strives for himself in his own work: walkabilitycommunity, low environmental impact. The problem came in the 1930s and 40s when urban designers began to plan around the car. Before then, says Duany, the roads were not paved curb to curb; rather, they were more of a greenspace, with pavement on in the places where horses and oxcarts would go.

Salt Lake City block interior via The Great American Grid
Salt Lake City block interior via The Great American Grid

Similarly, Brigham Young designed large blocks with the expectation that other people would break them down into smaller units as the city evolved. He never meant for the rigid urban grid to remain intact.

For Andres Duany, today’s Salt Lake City represents the stagnation of Brigham Young’s dream: it’s gone from one of the most beautiful in the west to one of the most hostile. Duany says that this is a misunderstanding of the intention of Brigham Young, the dream of Joseph Smith, and the framework described by the Plat of Zion.

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Walkable redesign of Regent Street in Salt Lake City by GBSA Architects

Salt Lake City government is, however, taking steps towards improving walkability in the downtown by breaking up blocks into more human-scaled sections. One current project is on Regent Street, once only an access road to downtown parking structures, which is now becoming a pedestrian walkway that opens up into a plaza for outdoor events. Another, called Granary Row, is bringing pedestrian life into unneeded pieces of wide streets.

The stakes for creating a denser, more walkable Salt Lake City are high. Even though the city feels wide open, and nature is easily accessible, Salt Lake has some of the worst air pollution in the nation—the mountain ranges that surround it traps in smog.https://www.youtube.com/embed/_SN6tBoZKec?feature=oembed

Salt Lake’s population is expected to double by 2050, and will be unable to expand its city limits because of the constraints of mountains to the east and a salt lake to the west. There is some optimism among some residents that they can find better ways to use its large blocks and wide streets, though many planners feel that the new city administration is not as receptive to these kind of tactics as they ought to be.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a principle called “continuous revelation.” Perhaps what Salt Lake City needs—and perhaps what all American cities need—is a form of continuous revelation. This could pave the way toward honoring founding principles through evolving designs, allowing cities using Mormon grids to adapt and respond to the demands of the present.