Evangelicals and the New Urbanism

The troubled relationship of Christians and the City

Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Baker Publishing Group, 2012, 304pp., $26
Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Baker Publishing Group, 2012, 304pp., $26
Shop Indie Bookstores

As American culture underwent the metamorphosis of late modernity, evangelical Christians signed up for the resistance. The sexual revolution, prayer in public schools, no-fault divorce, and abortion were all hotly contested battlefields in the culture wars. Meanwhile, perhaps the most fundamental change in American life was barely met with a shrug: the nearly universal spread of the automobile, and the suburban life it enabled. Unlike the other cultural fruits of modernity, suburbia was viewed as progress that the devout could embrace. Middle-class, white evangelicals followed the rest of their class in fleeing urban neighborhoods for more spacious digs. The towering steeples in the center of American cities became gravestones for dead urban congregations, while vast church campuses bloomed on the outskirts.

In the last few decades, however, evangelicals have changed their tune on the city. This is largely due to the work of one man: Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Due to Keller’s success in planting evangelical congregations throughout the supposedly-secularized metropolis, the city looms large in evangelical conversations. It’s now common for evangelical churches to proclaim that they are “in the city, for the city.” City Church has joined the ranks of Christ Church, First (Insert Denomination) Church, and Church of the Good Shepherd as a go-to church name. However, this new-found infatuation with the city is often skin-deep. As the cultural cachet of all things urban has grown in the culture at large, claiming the mantle of “the city” allows certain congregations to set themselves apart from their less hip forebears, without actually engaging with the urban realm in any meaningful way.

Eric Jacobsen’s The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment is an attempt to bring evangelicals back to the bricks and mortar of the city itself. Rather than using “the city” as a marketing buzzword, Jacobsen’s goal is to plot a course toward a distinctively Christian way of interacting with and shaping the physical patterns of development that define the cities we live in. Ultimately, it’s a much-needed exercise in thought, hampered by a failure to carve out a practical path toward thoughtful engagement.

Although Tim Keller is never directly cited by Jacobsen, his fingerprints can be seen all over The Space Between. (And it’s difficult to imagine that Jacobsen — the pastor of an evangelical Presbyterian congregation — is not familiar with Keller’s work).  As with Keller, Jacobsen’s central scriptural argument is drawn from Jeremiah 29:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7, ESV)

By framing Christian engagement in light of Jeremiah 29, Jacobsen and Keller are able to shift evangelicalism’s conception of itself in a powerful way. American evangelicals have often conflated their country with ancient Israel: a holy nation that must be defended from impurity at all costs. But this reading of Jeremiah 29 places American Christians in the place of the Jewish exiles, implicitly transforming America into Babylon. It’s an approach that acknowledges the post-Christian nature of the present American context, and works within it, rather than against it.

If Christians, like the exiles, are called to “seek the welfare of the city,” this welfare can’t be limited to purely spiritual matters. Like Keller and other new Calvinist theologians, Jacobsen rejects the view that reality should be divided into secular and religious spheres. Since there is no division between earthly and religious work, efforts to improve the world around us — including our cities — are not a temporary distraction. This point is further driven home by Jacobsen’s eschatology, which emphasizes the redemption rather than destruction of the physical world, and culminates in the advent of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation — an urban, rather than pastoral paradise.

 In practice, Jacobsen’s theology of the city can be shortened to: “God cares about cities, and Christians should too.” Christians, like other good citizens, should try to seek what is best for the city around them. This, of course, raises an obvious question: what is best for the city? Since the book is meant to be an “engagement with the built environment,” Jacobsen focuses on exploring the physical attributes that mark a thriving urban environment. But the key attributes Jacobsen identifies are derived exclusively from the playbook of New Urbanism.

New Urbanism is a movement that began in the 1990s as a reaction against the modernist pattern of development that had dominated cities throughout the post-war era. This pattern had created the America most of us grew up in: a vast landscape of residential subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks, separated by acres of asphalt and greenery. In contrast, New Urbanism asserted that pre-war neighborhoods – neighborhoods that contained a dense mixture of building types and uses – provided the best blueprint for successful cities. Today, far from being an insurgency, New Urbanism has become the reigning orthodoxy among professional urban planners, as well as a growing number of architects and developers. Given the popularity of New Urbanist ideas, it’s not surprising that Jacobsen relies on them – but it still turns out to be one of his book’s most disappointing aspects.

For example, Jacobsen spends a lot of time exploring the concept of shalom — a divine peace that encompasses the reconciliation of the created world with its creator. How can Christians advance “shalom” in concrete ways? Well, it turns out that this can be accomplished by overturning use-based zoning codes, and encouraging the development of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that feature generous public spaces and third places (e.g. coffee shops and pubs) for people to hang out in. In other words, all the things you would hear about at a meeting of your local Urban Land Institute chapter.

The fact that these ideas are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they’re wrong. After all, it’s difficult to disagree with general points like “people should be able to walk to things,” or “neighborhoods should be built for all age-groups.” But simple observation of New Urbanism’s fruit reveals that something isn’t working. Doing away with used-based zoning hasn’t created memorable, walkable places. Designing neighborhoods with all the old design elements — front porches, back alleys instead of garages, etc. — isn’t making people more neighborly. Dense, mixed-use developments in the center of cities are just as economically exclusive as sprawling subdivisions in the ’burbs.

To his great credit, Jacobsen doesn’t shy away from exploring the shortcomings of New Urbanism. In a lengthy exploration of Seaside, one of the first New Urbanist developments, he bluntly describes its failures. While Seaside has been an economic success, it has utterly failed to become the type of close-knit community New Urbanism is meant to revive:

The market has made Seaside a lucrative and attractive investment for those with enough resources to take advantage of it. But the market has also prohibited the “artist’s” lofts from actually being inhabited by artists, and the modest homes from being inhabited by people who work at Seaside. The market has also restricted the owners of homes at Seaside to the ultra-rich, who have a poor record of maintaining a permanent commitment to any particular community … To be remembered as more than a significant “market trend,” New Urbanism will at some point have to face some of the other (noneconomic) forces that shape and influence our human existence.

This sounds like the start of a fascinating critique of New Urbanism’s approach to city-making – but elsewhere, Jacobsen is content to recycle the movement’s flawed reasoning. In one particularly troubling example of reliance on New Urbanist orthodoxy, the author asserts that gentrification is largely a problem of supply and demand. To ameliorate inequality, we simply need to gentrify more neighborhoods! (An assertion that would make most housing scholars blush).

One of the chief problems with relying on the New Urbanist narrative of “what cities need” is that it produces cut-and-dry solutions that don’t meet the needs of actual places. (Which is ironic, considering that New Urbanism is meant to be a rejection of the formulaic thinking of modernist development). Jacobsen begins his work with a simple question: where are you? But the answer to this question is rarely as simple as “I live in a white, suburban cul-de-sac, and I have a one-hour commute,” or “I live in a diverse city neighborhood, and all my needs are within a 15-minute walk.” There are mostly car-dependent suburbs with ample green space and neighborhood schools, aging urban neighborhoods with narrow sidewalks, and nothing to walk to but a corner liquor store, all-white walkable neighborhoods, and diverse gated communities.  The ways that urban areas have evolved over the past century should force us to rethink the familiar dichotomy between city and suburb.

One window into this fading dichotomy is the employment market. In virtually every American metropolitan area, the vast majority of jobs are located in the suburbs. Thus, the assumption that living in the suburbs means being further away from what you need to access in your day-to-day life is simply not true in most cases. In fact, many residents of traditional urban neighborhoods are reverse commuters. Unless you live in an exceptionally large and dense city (i.e. New York), American urban life is a fragmented experience, regardless of whether you hang your hat in a McMansion or a downtown condo. And barring an unforeseen miracle, this is how life will be for the foreseeable future.

Thinking about ideals is all well and good — but lots of people have already eloquently described the virtues of traditional urbanism. For American Christians, a much more pressing issue is how to live faithful lives in a deeply flawed context. Jacobsen’s general approach to discussing the built environment is to contrast the ideal (traditional, walkable neighborhoods) with the sad reality (car-dependent neighborhoods), and then to begrudgingly note that Christian life is possible in both. It seems that a more pastoral approach would be to meet people where they are. There are plenty of questions that could be explored to the benefit of actual congregations. How might a church’s parking lot — a massive open space that remains empty for six days — be used to benefit a neighborhood? How can intentional communities be fostered within our far-flung urban archipelagos? What is the best way to connect a widely dispersed poor population to jobs and services? Throughout The Space Between, there are hints of an approach to dealing with the built environment as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. But these threads are never adequately pursued.

There is undoubtedly some wisdom to be gleaned from Jacobsen’s work, but it’s unclear who the book is intended for. Evangelicals who are already engaged in urban issues will likely be quite familiar with the arguments Jacobsen advances. On the other hand, nothing in the book is persuasive enough to bend evangelicals who firmly believe in the goodness of suburban life. It seems that the most receptive audience for the book would be an evangelical Christian who intuitively senses that something is wrong with the suburban status quo, but does not have the vocabulary to clearly articulate these concerns. However, that sort of person would be better served by older, richer works. There is nothing in The Space Between that comes close to touching The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ engaging descriptions of mid-century urban life, The Geography of Nowhere’s barn-burning assault on architectural modernism, or Crab Grass Frontier’s compelling historical narrative. And all of those works would provide a better foundation for critically thinking about the physical space of cities. The theological content of The Space Between is thin enough that it’s hard to recommend it based on that alone.

Despite all these criticisms, it would be foolish to be too frustrated with The Space Between. As Jacobsen argues, the built environment shapes our lives in fundamental ways. Critical engagement with the built environment is an absolute necessity for evangelicals, and it’s been put off for far too long. Although The Space Between is a flawed step toward forming an evangelical view of the built environment, a flawed step is still a step in the right direction.

Abram Lueders is a graduate of Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning. During his time at Georgia Tech, Abram completed his master’s reseach on Jane Jacobs’ theories of urban design, and authored a paper on concentrated poverty in the Southeast for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He currently lives in Memphis, and works as a staff planner for the Downtown Memphis Commission.