By Gracie James
The City Blocks exhibit at The Leonardo uses LEGO bricks to ask: What makes a good and beautiful city? It features models of some of Salt Lake City’s most iconic buildings, hands-on creative areas, as well as the ability to watch professional LEGO Master Builders in action. The exhibit area also explores the topic of city planning. Our muse, Leonardo da Vinci, was an impressive civil engineer, who designed aqueducts, theatres and even entire cities.
Salt Lake City has a particularly interesting city planning story, with one of our most unique features being our grid system. Rather than having sporadically intertwined streets like most cities, Salt Lake’s downtown blocks are set up into a neat grid.
But why is the city set up this way? Settlers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who arrived in Salt Lake in 1847, set up the grid system. Traveling here to escape religious persecution, the settlers picked the Salt Lake Valley as their new home. Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young, leaders of the church, envisioned Salt Lake as a place of safety and prosperity for the Mormon settlers.
At the center of the city lies the origin of the grid system, known as the Zero Stone. Designing the city around three bigger blocks dedicated to LDS buildings including the Temple, Joseph Smith placed the Zero Stone at a location on the map that he labeled zero-zero. From that point all street names and numbers were assigned.
In 1847 the original Zero Stone was placed on the Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian, which marks the exact center of the city. Over time, that stone eroded and has since been replaced by a more durable marker that can still be seen at Salt Lake’s Temple Square.
Many cities have zero stones. Places such as Tokyo, Sydney, and Moscow have markers that indicate the center of the city. However, the Salt Lake Zero Stone is unique in that it also marks the starting point for all streets and blocks in the city, and is the foundation for the distinctive way that Salt Lake City is organized.
The Salt Lake Zero Stone is also the origin of many of the city’s unique traits. The Salt Lake’s grid system is built perfectly into large, identical blocks separated by unusually wide streets. Although this system somewhat discourages walking, it encourages traffic flow and increases the space between buildings and houses.
The Zero Stone at the center of Salt Lake represents the very first step in a 170-year process of the planning of our community. Today, the Greater Salt Lake area has grown to include downtown, urban neighborhoods, and a teaming suburban environment where over a million people live and work. The elegant and efficient organization of people, transportation and structures around this stone attest to the foresight and vision of our founding city planners, and is central to the “good and beautiful city” Salt Lake has become.