(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
When initially designed, Salt Lake City was laid out with streets wide enough for a wagon to turn around. The width made it easy for the city to adapt streets for automobile and mass transit use in later years. Photo of Main Street in Salt Lake City taken on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.

Salt Lake City, like many communities established by Mormon settlers, was laid out with streets in a unique grid system designed to accommodate various uses and modes of transportation. It is a design scheme that today, nearly two centuries later, is revered as an ingenious example of "sustainable and sensible" civic planning.

This week, proponents of what is called the "new urbanism" have gathered in Salt Lake City for their organization's annual conference, partly in salute to the city's legacy of prescience and persistence in creating and maintaining a livable urban environment.

The Congress for the New Urbanism is a 20-year-old international organization whose theme for the Salt Lake conference is what the group calls "Living Community." It entails a holistic approach to planning that the organization says "balances the demands of physical, social, economic and environmental values by connecting people to place and awakening in us a stewardship to our land and each other."

It is a high-minded and forward-thinking statement of mission, interestingly in line with the precepts that governed the original design of Salt Lake City and hundreds of other western communities settled by early pioneers. In literature published in advance of the Utah conference, the urbanist group makes frequent mention of the planning prowess of Mormon settlers who laid out communities with an eye toward their ability to sustain future growth.

Streets were made wide to accommodate large teams of oxen, but generations later are nicely able to accommodate bicycle lanes and a light rail system — evidence that the original planners placed a high value on guaranteeing efficient movement of freight and people.

It is reflective of the urbanist's philosophy that civic planning should take a long view, and not be the servant of convenience or immediate commercial opportunity.

Planning predicated on the present tense is what has left us with the kind of disjointed suburban sprawl that is an anathema to the new urbanists. Their antidote is a planning ethic that embraces conservation, efficient transportation and the arrangement of commercial and residential properties in a way that creates more social interaction and engagement.

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Such thinking is in vogue in many communities, and in most cases, those cities are finding that making it come to fruition is a hard row to hoe. In Salt Lake City, for example, we have witnessed the recent friction over the design and location of a streetcar system in the Sugar House area, something a "new urbanist" would likely see as a necessary component of building a sustainable community. But residents and business owners wonder whether the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term inconvenience.

The reality of civic planning is that it is a job that is never done. A generation ago, resources were committed to facilitating the use of the automobile. Today, resources are expended to find ways to take cars off the road.

By choosing Utah as their gathering place, the new urbanists are recognizing that some basic tenets of successful civic planning aren't really all that new.