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The New Urbanism and the church

The New Urbanism and the church

On this morning after Earth Day, we offer this excellent essay on the New Urbanism from Episcopal News Service, by the Rev. Jason Fout, assistant professor of Anglican theology at Bexley Hall Seminary.

The New Urbanism, Fout writes, “is a movement in urban planning which emphasizes developing and rehabilitating walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods. Some of the principles that its proponents value include mixed-use zoning (so homes, shops and schools can all be close to each other, rather than requiring a car); greater public transportation where practicable; more and better shared spaces in parks, plazas, sidewalks and the like; neighborhoods designed so that people of various ages, physical abilities and financial resources might live in and enjoy them; and working to develop cities and suburbs that are greener, more livable and sustainable. It might seem appealing, but the church’s role might not be obvious.”

After relating a tragic anecdote, he continues:

There are issues of justice involved here, but this is primarily an issue of design: we have designed our cities and towns around cars and not around people. We have made it dangerous to be pedestrians like Raquel Nelson and her children, and this danger holds for all those who physically cannot drive, those who cannot afford to drive, and those who don’t care to drive. Since our decision to become a car-based culture following World War II, we have consistently changed our built environment to cater to cars, particularly to enable them to go faster, with wider lanes, faster speed limits, and fewer stops. In rural areas this is eminently appropriate, but we have done so in densely populated areas as well. As speeds rise, fatality rates skyrocket: 5% of pedestrians hit by a car going 20 mph die; at 40 mph, the fatality rate jumps to 83%.

We need leaders who are aware of and can advocate for policies that foster walkable, sustainable neighborhoods, and who can teach this way of thinking to others. That’s what it has to do with the church.

Do you agree that the church has a role to play in the New Urbanism?


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It seems part of C. Wingate’s critique is the idea that planners are/will be imposing their own “New Urban” development scheme on the community. That criticism comes up quite a bit in opposition to planning, planners, and plans of all types, not just New Urbanism. This critique misses one of the fundamental tenets of New Urbanism, as well as the field of planning in general — citizen participation and engagement in the act of planning, in setting priorities and goals, and in making decisions. Citizen participation is part of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Charter. On the academic side, Sherry Arnstein proposed a Ladder of Citizen Participation in the 1960s that was a landmark in defining how we as planners share decision making. I’m sure there are some parishes that would not be any higher up on Arnstein’s ladder than some of our “socio-fascist” communities.

That said, one way the Church might play a role in New Urbanism, or in urban planning generally, is to participate more. Planners are always looking for ways to get more people involved in our work and one thing I’ve learned is that going to the people is more successful than trying to entice them to come to me. But it can be very difficult to engage the religious community. As a planner, I would love to see more churches playing a role in facilitating conversations about our community’s future, or partnering with us to reach parishioners.

The issues addressed by planners — access, equity, the environment — have a great deal of overlap with issues of concern to the Church. Churches themselves have a big impact on the built environment. I think both planners and churches are missing out when they are not working together.

Sara Copeland

C. Wingate

My comments should have come across as more cautionary than critical; in a lot of ways I share some of the values of the new urbanists. I brought up Columbia (MD) as an object example of how planning can “fail”: it is surely not, in any sense, an urban area, and it is extremely strongly bound to the automobile, as one might expect for a place planned out in the early 1960s. And as for being more virtuous (which is really where we should come into this): well, the original interfaith center plan never really worked, and the only Episcopal parish “in” Columbia predates it by two and a half centuries, incorporating the oldest church building still in use in the county. Congregations eventually found parcels in the fringes of the town which Rouse was unable to purchase. There is a strong tension between people who live in Columbia because the community association controls things, and people who don’t live there for the same reason. At any rate the actual state of Columbia is pretty much against in opposition to the views of the new urbanists.

As I said, I see some things in common with the new urbanists. But when all is said and done, they are secular planners whose vision may or may not at any given time and place align with our Christian values, much less with those of the kingdom of God whom we would like to think we represent. The temptation is to view the new urbanism as building the new Jerusalem, which might be a little OK if it were us telling them what to do. But having them tell us what the new Jerusalem ought to look like; that’s not likely to succeed, and it is likely to bind us in another past when their program is succeeded by the next planning movement.

Jason Fout

C Wingate seriously mischaracterizes The New Urbanism in these remarks. The most seminal early figures of the movement, such as Jane Jacobs, made a name for themselves specifically by resisting and critiquing modernist urban planning, modernist architecture and their attendant ideologies and articulating workable and livable alternatives. More recent figures such as James Howard Kunstler and Leon Krier are likewise light-years from the modernisms of the 1930s or the 1960s, indeed are uncompromisingly critical of modernism and, quite often, postmodernism. You would find much the same attitudes among architects and town planners working under this banner.

Nor do they simply want “NYC”. (Krier has memorably called high rises “vertical cul-de-sacs”, with all the attendant problems of horizontal cul-de-sacs.) The New Urbanism deals with all kinds of urban forms, from urban core to suburb to small town; it is concerned to facilitate more livable communities, but these may be found in any of these urban forms. As Jacobs would remind us, many of the decisions that have led to our communities being less livable came from the very modernist urban planning that Wingate decries.

As for the point about bicycling: many people simply cycle as a way of life, whether to work or for leisure, particularly in other nations where that is practicable. That is increasingly the case in many places in America, too, when weather permits: Chicago, for example, boasts quite a growing cadre of regular bicyclists. Here in Columbus, OH, I know quite a few people – not all upper middle class – who bicycle to work as well as to relax on the weekend. One friend does it year-round; my hat’s off to him. Most of us do it when we can. My wife cycles to work when the weather is clement enough, and we bicycle our children to school. (I walk to work, FWIW.)

Now, it’s a very solid point that places such as Columbia, MD, are not particularly bicyclable (in Columbia’s case, despite the designers’ intents, apparently). Although it was planned as a series of villages, it seems that it was built on a scale – as I look at it on Google Maps – that actually would discourage walking or bicycling, as many of the destinations would be rather far from most homes. (Correct me if I am wrong.) Despite the designers’ intentions, it appears to consist primarily of single-use “pods”: several large areas of housing, a couple large areas of retail, what appears to be a largish industrial park. (Kudos for the well-placed schools and recreational opportunities.) Each of these is more-or-less self-contained, connected by long, meandering (and, I would imagine often quite busy) roads. Even within the town, it would not be particularly practicable, much less appealing, to bicycle other than for a workout – and I imagine walkers find themselves even more discouraged. Plus, it seems likely that many people live in Columbia and work elsewhere – nearer to Baltimore or DC perhaps. The effect is that Columbia is actually a car-centered community; this is different from many other suburbs of the 1960s only in that most of the others were planned as car-centered communities.

As for Wingate’s concern that we be advisors, not agents: I said fairly specifically that The New Urbanism is not the Kingdom of God come in its fullness. Urban design of whatever shape is not itself the gospel. But it is, I submit, one valuable set of spectacles which may help us to see the built environment we’re placed in and how it affects (and effects) the human. At least some awareness of this is valuable for Christian leaders – in the same way that we would think that, say, a bit of counseling psychology, or an awareness of generally accepted accounting practices would be (neither of which, in most cases, has the church failed to engage, while not being “agents” of them as such). It is not a matter of replacing the distinctive Christian message with something else, but of using that something else to help us serve Christ better. And certainly there will be times to offer criticism – but criticism not just to point out wickedness or stupidity, but also to help the movement mend itself and serve people well.

Laurel Cornell

When it was a working railroad, only a few of us intrepid souls walked along it to get to work, to the grocery store and to the library. Now that it’s a rail-trail, lots and lots of people do. There are the usual hipsters and yuppies and vegans and Birkenstock-wearing folk, but there are also lots and lots of older individuals and families from the lower-income neighborhoods south of mine. Especially wonderful is seeing the young boys from that neighborhood careening around on their bikes! It’s one of the few places they can carry out that racuous play safely. They (and I and all the rest of us) can now walk to both the lower-income large supermarket and the pricey food coop.


Maybe when the new urbanists get control of the planning reins, they won’t be entirely evil, but it’s inevitable that some of what they advocate will be evil, or just stupid.

True. And in that, they’ll be just like…

…the Church.


JC Fisher

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