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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

New Urbanism and Christianity

Unless you've been huddled in a buried camper tanning leather since Y2K, you've probably heard much talk over the past few years about urban sprawl and smart growth. Over the past decade a movement called New Urbanism has sprung up to address these issues. According to the Congress of New Urbanism:
"New Urbanism is an urban design movement that burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New Urbanists aim to reform all aspects of real estate development. Their work affects regional and local plans. They are involved in new development, urban retrofits, and suburban infill. In all cases, New Urbanist neighborhoods are walkable, and contain a diverse range of housing and jobs. New Urbanists support regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe these strategies are the best way to reduce how long people spend in traffic, to increase the supply of affordable housing, and to rein in urban sprawl. Many other issues, such as historic restoration, safe streets, and green building are also covered in the Charter of the New Urbanism, the movement's seminal document."
One of the ideas that some (but not all) proponents of New Urbanism push is the idea that better urban design will create more community. Unfortunately, there has not been much of a Christian voice in this discussion of creating true community in a geographic sense. With the exception of Eric Jacobsen's flawed "Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith" book and some good articles at the Acton Institute, very little has been said about New Urbanism and building community from a Christian perspective. This is disheartening to me because the issue of community is one that resonates with most people in our country yet historically Christians have had much to say about community but are not speaking up now.

The mistake that some New Urbanist advocates make is assuming that our physical development is the primary reason for the loss of community over the past 20-40 years. The neighborhood that I grew up in was the classic surburban sprawl neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and no sidewalks yet we had a great sense of community. As a kid, I couldn't really get into trouble without someone noticing and telling me to stop, because we knew everyone in the neighborhood (this is probably a good topic for an entire post). This happened because we were willing to open up our lives a bit to our neighbors.

Unfortunately, Christians are often creating communities that are too inward focused and insulated from the culture at large. This is a perfect time for Christians to start modeling true community. I can recommend one book that does an excellent job of describing true community and how churches can create geographic community regardless of the forms of development: "The Connecting Church" by Randy Frazee.

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