September 21, 2004

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:Eric O. Jacobsen
Suburbs are a fairly new phenomenon. Before cars it was simply silly to consider building housing as far away from business as is the practice today. Most people had to walk or ride a horse drawn carriage to work, shopping, etc. and distances were spaced accordingly. (This is often referred to as building on a human scale.)

Today, however, the automobile has changed the landscape and a group of people called New Urbanists believe that it has been a change for the worse. Besides the environmental degradation caused by this new pattern of development, there are other, more social, issues at stake. Our cities aren't as grand or beautiful as they once where (Do you know anyone who would choose to visit Denver over Rome, or Pontiac over Paris?), they aren't as safe (Current redesigns of cities put fewer "eyes on the street.") and they aren't as conducive to building community. (How many neighbors can you stop and chat with when you're whizzing past in an automobile?)

New Urbanists have been around for over a decade, but for the first time (that I know of, at any rate) a Christian author has looked critically at the arguments that New Urbanists have made and has decided that not only should Christians support them, but should join wholeheartedly in the New Urbanist movement. Eric O. Jacobsen is excellent at stating the tenants of New Urbanism in a very concise, yet readily accessible way. But what I find even more exciting (and this is a step that I hadn't fully followed through on in my own study of New Urbanism) he ties their tenants to Biblical principles. He points out that evangelism, hospitality, even encouragement can all happen more naturally in a New Urbanist environment (as opposed to forcing these things in the suburban environment through programming and increasingly moving toward entertainment as a form of "worship").

I have lived in Colorado Springs (sprawl-o-rama) and in San Francisco (makes New Urbanists smile), and I've seen in my own life that these principals of architecture (of all things!) really do affect relationships. Sprawl is causing the average American to become lonelier, feel less connected, and to relate less often with people who are different than themselves (becoming more segregated than ever). I should point out here, for all those with a "small town" mindset, small towns are generally built on New Urbanist principals. It is easier to develop relationships in small towns not only because they're small, but because of the layout of the town itself. Suburbs, on the other hand, may have the same smaller amount of people, but are laid out such that community is much harder to come by naturally.

As Christians, we should be at the forefront of the New Urbanist movement. We have to have some means of running into neighbors that will lead to our giving of hospitality, making of friendships and sharing of the gospel. (I don't mean that we're accosting them with a gospel presentation every time we see them in front of their house, but passing by and meeting them in front of their house in the first place may later lead to a far more natural means of sharing the gospel later.) Meeting them on the sidewalk as we're walking to work/school/the store is a natural means of getting to know people (hence the title of the book).

New Urbanism doesn't mean that we all need to crowd into cities such as San Francisco and New York City, but it does mean developing our current cities in a more person friendly manner (on a human scale). This is not really a new movement at all, but a call to get back to basics. In Christianese, one might even call it "fundamentalism" in architecture.

Though I consider this a must read for most Christians, non-Christians may also be interested in this book, not only because it'll give them something to bug their Christian friends about, but because Jacobsen really does a fantastic job of synthesizing the issues. I’ve read a couple of different New Urbanist authors and of them all, I believe Jacobsen is the most concise and one of the better authors at getting to the heart of the matter in a way that makes the reader feel like they’ve had an “Ah ha! Now I get it!” moment.