Where Have All The Churches Gone In New Urbanism?

Where Have All The Churches Gone In New Urbanism? November 27, 2018

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).

"That didn’t help the 100 million killed by atheistic Marxist governments in the 20th Century."

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  • Janet Graige

    I would like an outdoor meditation path or labyrinth open to the community. I would like a community garden or better yet a community flower garden. I would like red benches in every church yard in our city – a sign of sanctuary – places for the homeless to sleep, places for honest conversations, and places of rest for the weary. I will be working on all of this. Our insides and outsides should be relevant to our mission statement and we should want to be very visible to our neighbors. Love neighbor is, after all, our motto.

  • Terry Tremwel

    “After all, new urbanism is hyper-focused on, well, urban.”
    Partly true. It is focused on compact, walkable cities that fight urban sprawl and include gardens and open spaces. Suburbia, which ostensibly was designed around the lives of workers has failed. I use passive voice intentionally because a passively designed suburb isn’t designed at all. Developers know that land which may be cheap suburban land is too expensive to farm; it is unrestrained capitalism run amok. Regulated capitalism produces better results, as we see in the largely agnostic Northwest. Which is why Seattle and Portland, OR, are popular tourist destinations. Portland pursued a deliberate zoning strategy of a deliberate ring of farmland. As a result, there is better access to farmers’ markets for farmers and workers in this, a major city. Capitalists spurn farmers markets because, “You can’t automate them,” unless it is by making the city compact. The high living density favors multiple affordable transportation modes, including functional streetcars. a metro system, buses, and intentionally narrow city streets. Narrow streets, because planners recognize cars as a last resort– as an afterthought. You have made an important point. Perhaps, New Urbanism should be renamed New Spirituality or A New Catholicity, bringing rich and poor together, where urbane farmers and visionary developers meet workers and poor folks at a downtown church, which all can get to quickly and cheaply. Where cooperation is endemic and disease is inoculated. And each one learns to love God and neighbor because the faithful community teaches, “With Liberty and Economic Justice for All.” Because creation is creative and an exercise in learning the inner realms of an infinite universe; or at least one of approximately 14 Billion Light Years’ extent or about 10^26 meters across, created by the God who thinks in Planck-length terms of 1.6 x 10^-35 meters. And God spoke… and saw that it was very good. A New Catholicity in the city.

  • John

    People drive across town to attend church, they have long commutes to work, we plan our weekend entertainment and seek out what there is to do. At large, we have lost touch with the land, with the people around us, and we don’t identify with the near-by community strongly any more. Mobility, busyness and entertainment have lessened our need for and awareness of localized community. Besides, the church across town may have a better youth group or missions focus, but the local one is too small and less talented. Proximity ministry doesn’t work when people don’t live there. It takes a strong vision and committed core group to become engaged in a localized area. It becomes an incarnational ministry where you take the church to the people instead of expecting them to come to you. Very few people get that and can sustain it over time. I have found that this is generally not something people want in their churches, so they won’t help you.

  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    A church is not a building, it is the use of a building. Spires? Gables? Apses and arches? WHY? I’ve been to church services in old theaters, in warehouses, in rented “Banquet” rooms, and occasionally in purpose-built religious structures. It isn’t the building, it’s how the space is used in that building (or outside in some cases). No churches? That’s an application, not a structure. Whether it’s a Basilica or a Quonset hut or a big Yurt – if it’s a religious center, it’s a church. Period.

  • Nanaverm

    Agreed. The church I attend started in a school auditorium, then moved to a bowling alley before renting an unused church building and finally building one of its own. The church is a community of people.

  • How about 4) think of your building as a multi-use facility and actively welcome and invite many different types of local organizations to use your building as a meeting place for nominal fees, especially if one of your church members are also part of that local organization and can be responsible for clean up, locking up, etc.

  • Markus R

    Interesting article. It seems that much of this reflects the decline of Christianity in the US, following in the footsteps of Europe where there empty churches everywhere, many converted into other uses. We are sadly a post-Christian culture. May God have mercy upon us.

  • Tom Derrick

    Maybe all the churches will go to that “Church Graveyard in the Sky”. Okay with me. I hope they pay taxes before they depart.

  • Geoff Plumridge

    And this is a cause for celebration is it? Might not be a church, but there will be a synogogue, a mosque, a golden temple, a Baha’i temple, and a Bhuddist shrine. You people aren’t anti religion, you are just plain anti Christian bigots. How boring.

  • kjrst9

    As both an urban planner and christian, I have to say that this author is confused about how one or the other “works”.

    Worshippers in new neighborhoods either (a) attend established houses of worship (HOW) elsewhere, or (b) attend church plants which almost never worship in a traditional HOW (at least when they are new and poor). Churches do not pop up out of the blue in buildings with steeples (unless they are occupying a vacated HOW). Yes, stores and homes are often built without an owner/tenant in mind. HOW’s not so much. I’ve never seen zoning that didn’t accomodate a HOWs – in fact RILUPA would have a field day.

  • ejpoleii

    Churches are not required. Matthew 6:5-8

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Why is church so boring?

  • ragline

    Many churches are involved with their local community by helping the poor/needy through donations or thrift shops, special activities such as a soup kitchen or temporary hypothermia shelter for the homeless, etc. But churches advertise very little and the local media rarely highlights these mundane activities. Churches don’t do much of interest to the general community, for example, outdoor activities that the community is invited to participate in or debates on topics of local interest (churches avoid controversy).

    Since the “unchurched” are not much interested or even hostile toward churches these days, it is up to the “churched” to reach out to them in their neighborhoods and local activity centers. This is starting to happen.

  • Stephen Roach Knight

    I saw this first-hand when I went to Issaquah, Washington (outside of Seattle) to scope out a new church start for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in that region. The “new urban” area of Issaquah, which was HUGE, was the desired site of the new church (and where Missiongathering Issaquah has since started), but in this HUGE planned area there was ZERO buildings for ANY faith community — not just Christian churches, no synagogues, no mosques.

    Which is what leads me to my conclusion: Urban planners don’t know what to do with religion, period. I think the reasoning must be: “Well, if we plan a church building for the Christians, well, we can’t just have one, we have to have a Catholic one and an evangelical one, but not just evangelical, one for each mainline denomination? How many is that? And if we let the Christians have their own church buildings, then we have to let the Jews have synagogues, but there’s more than just one ‘denomination’ in Judaism as well, so we need a Reform synagogue and a Conservative synagogue and an Orthodox synagogue? And what about the Muslims? How many mosques do we now need? And a Buddhist temple? a Hindu temple? and and and etc. etc. etc.”

    I think including religion is too overwhelming for urban planners, and so they just leave it out entirely. And assume people will go somewhere else to get their religion “fix,” I guess?

    It is rather stunning though. I could’ve written your blog post several years ago myself. It still blows me away.

    And yes, I think your other two ideas for why this is happening are true as well.

  • kyuss

    places for honest conversations…

    as long as religionists insist that magic is real, there is no place for “honest conversations” in any church.

  • Janet Graige

    It is much realer than magic. Much deeper and sweeter and realer. And yes many honest conversations happening. You are invited.

  • Janet Graige

    Yes, very much, we need to be out and present in our communities. We need to be known. It is kingdom of God work, but I always meet Jesus in the streets, so there is that.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I wonder if this is a plea for Christian churches to get with the times. they are free to try, but some people see through it.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Hmf. I think you confused Christianity and Paganism. Christians declare that magic is real, but evil and shouldnt be practiced. Either way, Atheists wont get many to come to their thinking with that kind of attitude.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Im not sad about it at all. Less chance of another Inquisition, or gods fobid, another Witch burning.

  • Markus R

    That didn’t help the 100 million killed by atheistic Marxist governments in the 20th Century.