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September 20, 2007



I too believe that the new urbanism has much to commend it, but I am less hopeful that it will bring heaven to earth as you are. Are non-utopian versions of new urbanism possible? Can Christians practice the new urbanism out of mere love for neighbor or must we ratchet up the stakes with kingdom-talk to make it genuinely Christian?


Thanks for the comment. I do believe that non-utopian versions of new urbanism are possible. My point is merely that as Christians strive for authentic community, we need to be aware of the ways that physical structures enable or hinder those efforts. To that end, I believe that the New Urbanists have done an excellent job of discerning what physical attributes make a healthy community. To combine those attributes with Christian ideas of service, sacrifice, hospitality and love would make for some very special places. While those places would not be heaven on earth, they would certainly be an in-breaking of Christ's Kingdom and give us a glimpse of what is yet to come.

I would add that there is nothing 'mere' about loving our neighbor and if this new urbanism helps us to live responsibly and lovingly towards our fellow humans, than I'm all for it - it's another way to help us live out our baptisms. Not so that we can feel good about ourselves or merely act out of love for our neighbor, but that we can live a life of thanksgiving to God; to live more fully as the Body of Christ.

Amy, That was my point: is loving neighbor (the second great commandment) an adequate end? I would like to think so. But to read many Christian new urbanists that seems inadequate. They believe that urban renewal must take on the more ambitious (and to my mind misguided) project of kingdom-building. As new creatures we are still human. So why can't Christians content themselves to join their neighbors in building institutions of a more human scale in the city of man?


Is it possible that loving our neighbors is, in fact, an act of Kingdom building?


My answer is yes, it's possible but not necessarily so. If you and the Jewish neighbor to your left and the pagan neighbor to your right collaborate to make your Austin street a better place to live, has the kingdom of God been extended? And did they help to build the kingdom? Would the kingdom have been extended if you weren't involved?

Don't misunderstand: I applaud your efforts. My point is that we should be encouraged to imagine all sorts of noble callings in this world, things we are commanded to do by our Lord, which are not thereby sacred activities.

Matthew: Thank you for this post. It's great to see others engaging the New Urbanism with a supportive but critical eye! One great resource for considering the theological implications of the tenets of New Urbanism is a book called Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess (available at http://isi.org/books/bookdetail.aspx?id=e87010f2-a429-4dfb-8756-eba5b6ebd25c. Bess is a practicing architect, a Notre Dame professor, and a trained theologian. He comes at the issue at hand from a view point heavily influenced by Catholic Social Thought and Natural Law Theory.

While I (as a convinced evangelical Presbyterian) have a few quibbles with the book, it is a great collection of essays to spark some deep thought on an important topic. The Eric Jacobsen book is great as well. Thanks for giving a higher profile to an important movement!

As a student of NU and a developer of a new urbanist town, I find it intresting that nearly all the places that new urbanism sites as case studies are physicaly built around a physical church. For instance, nearly all of the incredibly dense, urban cities of Europe are formed around a cathedral. This is also true of many of the picturesque American hamlets. While NU does include language such as: civic buildings, civic sites, public space, the outdoor room, the third place, chruches, etc, the core of the matter is missed. The thought is if you create a place to go people will go, along the way they will engage their neighbor and improve the quality of life for themselves and all around them. The premise is not that the Christ alone, through the Chruch, can change a place.

Is my point that in order for a place to carry the essence of Christ a place must have a chruch? Certainly not. There are innumerable dead churches in inumerbale dead cities and towns.

However, this does point to a crucial element that is over looked in new urbanism. There is no mention in the principles of new urbanism of the spiritual side of humans. There is much mention of interaction, communication, neighborliness, community, fellowship, and the feeling of Mayberry. I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the physical built environment can and does facilitate (or hinder) interaction and connectivity to those people around you. However, without the Spirit working in people there will not be love, there will not be sacarfice, there will not be life, there will not be change. You can create a place to foster interaction and community, however, Christ alone can change a place.

The chanlenge is this: how do you minister to a place where 3,000 people will live? How do you affect people's lives? How does the Church minister to a place where there is no crime, no poverty, and every detail points to human control and to heaven on earth?

I'm very much encouraged whenever I come across Christians seriously grappling with new urbanism. Matthew and Mark are right. The connections between faith and urban planning really seem to be there, they are just not made very often. Thanks for this conversation!

On the subject of a non-utopian new urbanism: Jane Jacobs, whom many consider to be an urban visionary of sorts, actually based her entire premise on critiquing the utopian planning of the mid-20th century, especially the mistaken belief that governments could eradicate social ills by razing a neighborhood and implementing a prefabricated plan. She preferred to let cities grow organically as the product of a particular communities aspirations.

So I suppose, like any goal, new urbanism could become idolatrous. It could be seen as a panacea, and an alternative to patiently waiting on the Lord. As I'm becoming interested in this vision, I try to ask myself these hard questions. But I don't want to let this concern deter me from playing a part in bringing the values of the Kingdom of God to bear on our current situation.

All of you at Common Grounds have been a great help to me in finding that place between inaction and utopianism.

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