The New Urbanism
New Urbanism is a movement that aims to build better cities by making them more sustainable, walkable, and generally more human-oriented.
Since WW2 the design of most cities has been an exercise in prioritizing cars over people, and to a lesser extent, prioritising the distribution of goods over the building of community. This turned many cityscapes into harsh places that are unfriendly, or even unsafe to navigate on foot. It also increasingly made cities lonely places to live in where it was hard to find a sense of connection with the people around you.
As wealthy people left the city centre for the ever expanding suburbs they took their churches with them. Often all that was left was small congregations in vast empty buildings relying on volunteers to fulfill a “mission to the poor.” The city was nasty cast, in this Christian imagination, as a sinful place, full of carnal evils and rampant materialism.
But, cities are changing, and have been for some time. New Urbanism is an umbrella term of a range of policy ideas and urban design philosophies that try to reimagine the city from the human scale. New Urbanism is interested to putting the idea of neighborhood at the centre of walkable cities where pedestrians matter more than cars. Moreover, New Urbanism champions public transport, mixed use zoning, and technological solutions for making cities easier to live in. It also puts an emphasis on the role of parks, public spaces, and ecological sustainability in making the lives of the city’s residents healthier and happier.
A Vision For The City
Eric O. Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom: The Christian Practice of Everyday Life is a new book that tries to imagine how New Urbanism might change the way Christians think about the city. Jacobsen is a graduate student at Fuller Seminary and works with the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.
Jacobsen wants Christians to rethink their understanding of the city in light recent changes. As cities become more neighborhood oriented, with better public spaces and healthier local economies they also become more conducive to creating communities of faith.
I found myself frequently agreeing with Jacobsen’s description of how cities are changing and where this New Urbanism is leading us. But then again, I love city living and find the urban environments liberating and preferable to suburban life.
With that in mind I’m not so sure bout whether this book will convince anyone in a suburban church to rethink their image of the city. Increasingly I feel like churches are not looking for the kind of engagement Jacobsen desires but instead are engaged in creating a kind fo safe parallel reality where people find community amongst people who conform to similar values.
As Richard Sennet reminds us in The Uses of Disorder cities are ingernently messy and defy our attempts to control them. When we try to impose too much order we just limit ourselves and invite violence. It’s only when we create space for difference, diversity, and a certain amount of creative anarchy, that we can truly grow as responsible moral agents.
But, this vision is completely the opposite of what churches offer their communities.