Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

Highways, Hills, and Holy Visions

Story and Map by Noam Levinsky

Driving through the vast Salt Lake Valley in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, it’s easy to feel a subtle sense of dread. Interstate highways soar over block after massive block of strip malls, empty lawns mowed to monotonous perfection, and chain soda shops with lines of SUVs waiting for their daily 44-ounce kick of Diet Coke with coffee creamer (members of the LDS Church, also known as Mormons, are forbidden from drinking coffee, opting for soda instead). From the choked lanes of I-15, Salt Lake City looks like a never-ending expanse without a soul. Its placeless landscape evokes a sense that one could be in any American city at all.

This is where I found myself in July, driving home from work, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic heading north on I-15. The view through my windshield featured a series of strip malls, a looming highway interchange, and the expansive grid of cookie cutter housing developments flowing from the South Valley into Salt Lake City proper. I couldn’t help but feel the bleakness of a city that epitomizes the type of American urbanism shunned for its homogeneity, low density, and seemingly infinite growth. But more noticeably, I felt a sense of rage directed at whoever thought wide boulevards and highways were a good basis for a city’s transportation infrastructure.

The idea of infinite expansion has existed in Salt Lake City from the very beginning of its inception, so it makes sense that sprawl dominates the Valley’s landscape. Arriving with a group of Mormon settlers in 1847, Brigham Young chose the Salt Lake Valley as the right place to establish a city.God has shown me that this is the spot to locate this people, and here is where they will prosper… we shall build a city and temple to the Most High God in this place. We will extend our settlements to the east and west, to the north and to the south, and we will build owns and cities by the hundreds.”

Before the highways, before the lawns, and before the divinely inspired soda shops, Salt Lake City was already imbued with a logic of endless settlement. Brigham Young, Utah’s first governor and the LDS Church’s second president, saw Salt Lake’s future clearly in his hopes for a tamed climate and sprawling development. Dubbed by some historians an “American Moses,” Young had a divine mission that favored splitting mountains with highways rather than splitting the Red Sea. In this valley, sprawl isn’t just a relic of regrettable urban planning: it’s a prophetic vision.

portrait of Stella Bennett

It largely came true. When Salt Lake City’s plan was drawn out in 1847, its first plat covered a vast 1,415 acres, far larger than the initial extent of most new cities at the time. The massive blocks, laid out in a neat grid centered on the LDS temple, were delineated by 132-foot wide boulevards—some of the biggest in the country. Unsurprisingly, this design was heavily influenced by the 1833 plan for the Plat of Zion conceived by Joseph Smith (Young’s prophetic predecessor) as a gathering place for a righteous civilization in the end times. From its religious origins, Salt Lake City was characterized by a sprawling, extensive, and roadway-centric urban form.

Just two years after the initial plat was planned, 149 additional blocks were developed. Growth continued after Young’s death in 1877, despite the LDS Church having markedly less control over its plans. As the population increased with the completion of the transcontinental railroad and a burgeoning mining industry, Salt Lake City’s large blocks, originally divided into eight lots each for low-density agricultural use, were subdivided into smaller lots and became more densely urbanized. But the blocks could only be densified so much.

By the late twentieth century, industrialization, the advent of the automobile, and further population growth unfurled parking lots, retail developments, and interstate highways throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

Today, Salt Lake City’s urban fabric is still being rewoven. It’s a familiar story across the Mountain West: Salt Lake has shifted from intensive industry to the tech economy, rents are on the rise, and breweries are popping up across town. Utah’s industrious culture may have given it the official nickname of “The Beehive State,” but the state’s current image is more focused on the luxury ski resorts that appear on new license plates. This centuries-long process, dubbed development or sprawl (depending on who you ask), has shaped Salt Lake into what it is today: a placeless landscape of church steeples and strip malls. While neither the LDS Church nor local urban planners continue to champion Brigham Young’s desire to “temper the climate” and “possess the land,” one can still see the legacies of his vision: Almost 200 years later, his 132-foot-wide boulevards shoot outwards, enveloping the vast Salt Lake Valley.

My drive home continued. As I merged onto I-215, my gaze was redirected, away from incessant sprawl, eastward. A rupture: the face of Mount Olympus. A realization: Salt Lake City can’t sprawl across the Valley forever.

The Salt Lake Valley is nestled between the Wasatch Range to the east and the smaller Oquirrh Mountains to the west. Driving west across the sprawl, the cross streets seem to go on endlessly into Salt Lake City’s suburbs, named in numerical increments denoting distance from the urban core. From Main Street, you reach 900 West, then Redwood Road (1700 West), 4800 West in West Valley City, all the way out to 9200 West in Magna. It feels like a space straight out of Brigham Young’s imagination—one that fulfills his prophecy to “extend settlements to the East and West.” But the Salt Lake Valley’s eastern border tells a different story. Driving east on I-215, you only make it as far as 3000 East before an obstacle forces you to turn northwards: the Mountains. The street grid is interrupted when one looks up and sees the Wasatch Range. Mountains soar thousands of feet above the valley, obstructing the driving forces of highway expansion and real estate development and tearing a rift in the fabric of urban sprawl that would otherwise fulfill Salt Lake City’s prophetic destiny to continue infinitely in every direction.

portrait of Stella Bennett
portrait of Stella Bennett

Salt Lake City’s relationship with the mountains isn’t as antagonistic as their spatial obstruction would suggest. While the Wasatch Range may stop the spread of urban sprawl, it’s also a major asset to the city. Nestled up in the Cottonwood Canyons and Park City, ski resorts drive Salt Lake City’s rapidly growing tourism economy, helped even more by an upcoming bid for the 2034 Winter Olympics. In its recent attempt to draw tech firms, Salt Lake has named its concentration of offices the “Silicon Slopes,” leveraging imagery of the majestic Wasatch in an attempt to become the next Bay Area. The mountains may stop Salt Lake City’s physical spread, but they fuel its economic growth. Highways have managed to drive into the Wasatch, and the canyons surrounding Salt Lake City are no longer pristine wilderness spaces. Eisenhower-era transportation policy cut I-80 through Parley’s Canyon and highways are still expanding throughout the mountains that surround Salt Lake, fulfilling Brigham Young’s prophecy that the Salt Lake Valley would become “the great highway of nations.” Although lines of transportation may cut through the Wasatch’s narrow canyons, the mountains themselves still tower over Brigham Young’s great highways and temples. Through a combination of wilderness land protection and the physical implausibility of building in the Wasatch, infinite growth and flat expansion will never be fully realized.

Given Salt Lake’s history of urban sprawl and present political orientation, it’s unlikely that development into the Wasatch will stop any time soon. Brigham Young’s expansionist legacy lives on in the boosters of new ski resorts, the tech-prophets of Silicon Slopes, and Utah’s recurring Olympic dreams. Regardless, it’s reassuring to think that the val- ley’s physical geography still provides one immovable barrier to truly infinite growth. The mountains have a geological permanence unrivaled by anything Salt Lake City can throw at them and incomprehensible to any human conception of time. Over their millions of years of existence, the Wasatch Mountains have watched Lake Bonneville flood the valley and recede, loomed over the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone peoples as they inhabited and left camps by nearby streams, and stood silently as Salt Lake City was settled and grown. Gazing at Mount Olympus, the rush-hour traffic becomes a little less bleak. I find hope in the Mountains’ eternity: no matter how hard planners and prophets try to expand eastward, the mountains will remain, interrupting the sprawling dreams of Salt Lake City.