Where Have All The Churches Gone In New Urbanism?

BY CLINT SCHNEKLOTH  |  Patheos

Growing Into New Urbanism

I live in a growing city in a growing region. Fayetteville frequently gets short-listed as one of the best places to live in the United States. Northwest Arkansas may be adding as many as 30 residents a day (think Walmart, Tyson, and a land-grant university), which means in the next five years, we’ll add an additional city’s worth of residents to our region.

This leaves many of our regional leaders hyper-aware, vigilant about the impact of fast growth on our community. We look at cities like Austin, or Denver, or Seattle, and wonder–are we next?

Our most proactive city and economic leaders attend in particular to  what is often called the New Urbanism.

New Urbanism focuses on urban planning that emphasizes creating and rehabilitating walkable neighborhoods. There’s an emphasis on mixed-use neighborhoods (so you can walk to your home, shops, etc. without a car); more public transportation; bike trails, shared parks, more economically and physically accessible neighborhoods; and cities and suburbs that are greener and more sustainable.

So Where Are The Steeples?

Here’s what has begun to intrigue me in the conversation on New Urbanism…

Churches don’t show up.

Like, if you read a book about new urbanism, it doesn’t include churches (read this, for example). If you look at maps and plans, they don’t assume churches. It’s literally as if in the new urbanism, churches aren’t part of the built environment.

But why?

Well, we should first note many approaches to new urbanism are definitely aligned with the values of Christianity. For example, it’s no accident that this year, 2018, our congregation AND our city both built sustainable solar power installations.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan reading a proclamation for our church solar installation.

In fact, local churches should likely champion many of the impulses of new urbanism, from walkability to sustainability to the commitment to community and neighborliness.

But I’m asking about the buildings themselves.

You know. Church buildings.

Where should they appear in the new urbanism? Or how should they be rehabilitated or made new?

I can only conclude that churches are absent from the built environment imagined by new urbanists either because a) new urbanists are largely agnostic, or b) the church has made itself mostly irrelevant to local neighborhoods.

For the time-being, I’m going to drop “a)” and let new urbanists answer this question for themselves. I don’t know how many of them are agnostic. Maybe their religiosity goes so deep that the faith is embedded in the new urbanism itself.

But I can speak to “b)” and there, the answer is resoundingly YES. Churches have made themselves mostly irrelevant to local neighborhoods. I’ve discovered repeatedly over the course of my career as a pastor that people in the neighborhood mostly have no idea what the churches right next door to them are up to, or who goes there.

Three Things

For churches to impact new urbanism, they will need to do at least three things.

  1. Become actively involved in the planning their own neighborhood. When proposals for bike lanes are reviewed, or the city commission makes long range plans for intentional growth, wise churches will be present, articulate, and helpful. As the church.
  2. Think of their church building as integral to the built environment of their city, and remodel accordingly. Maybe this means redesigning the parking lot to better manage waste water. Or maybe it means turning a portion of the grounds into a park with a labyrinth that encourages meditation. It might even mean that the church members intentionally live within walking distance of the church, and then walk to church, much like Sabbath-observing Jewish communities.
  3. Push for policies and plans in their city that contribute not just to the good of new urbanism, but to justice in the city. Let’s be honest, a lot of new urbanism is class confined. So churches will play a crucial role in encouraging the development of truly affordable housing, as well as the development of resources for the homeless and marginally housed.

Churches can add to the conversation by creatively proposing church as “public space” or exploring how it is important third space, spiritual space.

Churches, New Urbanism, and Rural America

Finally, we should mention justice and rural life. After all, new urbanism is hyper-focused on, well, urban. Inasmuch as new urbanism is particularly pondered by, and encouraged among mobile educated elites, it’s going to lack an appreciation of and sensitivity for working class and rural communities whose values and geographic location don’t comport well with some if not many new urbanist concepts.

In fact, there’s an opportunity for solidarity here. Just as much of new urbanism excludes (or simply drops off the map) church buildings, so too does new urbanism neglect and largely ignore rural America.

So too, we can consider additional issues of justice that the church will likely center more frequently than new urbanists, beholden as they are to moneyed and political interests. I leave us with this great quote from another theologian who has intentionally considered the relationship between the church and new urbanism:

“For church buildings to recover their place at the center of neighborhoods and urban environments, there will have to be a conscious effort born from an awareness of the cultural crisis in our country. The Congress for the New Urbanists (CNU) is a non-partisan and non-sectarian organization that can support any community, including religious communities, interested in urbanism. New Urbanists, Bess asserts, need to avoid becoming a tool of the real estate industry and make themselves available to cultural and religious institutions. Historically, religious communities have been patrons of good architecture and urbanism. More recently, the New Urbanists have already worked on projects that have overcome the problems of zoning ordinances, street design, and parking regulation by obtaining a designation of an area as a Traditional Neighborhood District (TND), which overrides the established legal structure. These projects necessarily involve public processes in which local church communities could certainly take part” (from Building Jerusalem by Kathleen Curran Sweeney).

 

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