Can the New Urbanism deliver true community?

Our greatest hope for healing our fractured and atrophied communities will involve a joint effort between hardware people (like New Urbanists) and software people (like church, neighbourhood, and civic leaders).

April 3 rd 2009

Recently I was at a conference where I was asked to answer the question, "Can the New Urbanism deliver true community?' While I think that is a very important question to ask, I also perceive some cynicism in it. The implication of the question seems to be that perhaps this burgeoning movement might just be offering us a kind of 'fake' community.

Before I answer the question, I want to see if I cannot first extract some of the cynical overtones to the query. I believe that New Urbanism is misconstrued if it is primarily seen as an aesthetic trend for an elite class. New Urbanism isn't to housing what chocolate martinis are to drinking. New Urbanism is not a "flavour of the month" that will be passed over for something else in a year or two.

I say this because, as the pastor of a church, I am familiar with the genre of the conversion narrative. When someone comes to Christ, their story usually involves a sequence of recognition, repentance, and belief. In a much less significant way, people's acceptance of the principles of New Urbanism often come in the same way. "I was leading tours at the Mall of America and someone slipped me a copy of The Geography of Nowhere and now my life will never be the same" is not an atypical story.

The New Urbanist pioneers such as Andrés Duany and James Howard Kunstler need to be given credit for fundamentally changing the way that we think about the impact the built environment has on our experience of community.

Specifically, through their sustained critique of post-war suburban development, they have taught us that community can be impeded by building places for living, working, shopping, and playing that are insular and fragmented. And, by recovering time-tested forms of civic art, they have demonstrated that in times and places where community life is more vibrant, the built environment contributes significantly to that vibrancy.

The question that asks if New Urbanists can deliver true community probably cannot be answered adequately, because it involves a historical anomaly. We know that a particular kind of built environment can be correlated with the experience of community. What we don't know is if in a situation in which the built environment has presented a barrier to community for a couple of generations, fixing the built environment alone will cause community to re-emerge.

I suspect that when the question is framed in this way, we would have to answer that no, the New Urbanists cannot deliver true community on their own, but need the help of others to bring this about. There are three specific areas in which the need for partnership seems to be the most acute.

The first has to do with the practice of neighbourliness. David Greusel claims that the purpose of the suburbs were to ensure that residents wouldn't come into contact with anyone who wasn't a member of their immediate family or a close friend. I agree and would add that this "benefit" to the residents of the suburbs came at a significant cost.

The cost of such a hyper-privatized existence is the loss of the traditional practices of neighbourliness. We have lost some of the informal traditions of hospitality (often involving the front porch) to those who live in proximity to one another. We have lost the traditions involved with navigating appropriate levels of distance and intimacy with strangers as they pass through one's neighbourhood. And we have lost the ability to settle petty disputes with our neighbours without involving institutional intervention (police or homeowner association).

So the question here can be recast as one of whether we can take people who have experienced two generations of hyper-privatized living, place them in a traditional neighbourhood, and expect them to start acting neighbourly to one another. I suspect that this is too much to expect in very many cases and that the practices of neighbourliness will have to be deliberately recovered and exercised. This will require the help of pioneer residents who can lead the way in these practices as well as community groups that can act as incubators for neighbourly interaction.

The second area of concern has to do with housing the poor. In the 1960s in the United States, we made it illegal to exclude people from a particular neighbourhood on the basis of their race. This was a very important development and we are right to be proud of that achievement. However, at around the same time we began segregating neighbourhoods according to the socio-economic class of their residents, and that practice has become ever more pronounced, to the present day.

One of the most pressing problems that this practice has created is the areas of concentrated poverty where social problems are rampant. This is not only a problem for those affected by the social problem, it also creates a stigma associated with low income housing that didn't exist before. Now it is very hard to supply adequate levels of low income housing, because no one wants a low income housing project anywhere near their neighbourhood.

The New Urbanists were among the first to suggest that the solution to both of these problems has to do with mixing in low income housing in smaller concentrations on every block in every neighbourhood. While mixed-income neighbourhoods are a good idea, New Urbanists face two significant barriers to achieving them.

The first has to do with New Urbanism's own success. In some cases, where New Urbanists have built modest dwellings on the same block as more sumptuous houses, the market responded so favorably to the design quality of the project that the price of the modest dwellings exceeded the ability of low income residents to pay for them.

The other problem has been cultural. There are some significant cultural differences between how wealthy people live and how poor people live; unfortunately, those differences have become more pronounced (to the worse for both ends of the spectrum) as we've kept these classes separate from one another. Consequently, in many cases, a wealthy person may not want to purchase a home where he/she will have to deal with neighbours from a lower socio-economic class. It may be that the market on its own will not support mixed-income neighbourhood development on a wide scale.

This is regrettable. I believe that once the initial discomfort associated with bringing diverse socio-economic classes together has subsided, all parties stand to gain from such an arrangement. In the meantime, however, we need the help of groups that can employ a richer vocabulary than those who work primarily with markets and consumers. In my community, words and terms such as love for neighbour, justice and hospitality can give clarity to our wider mandate to live in places characterized by shalom.

Lastly, although I see the New Urbanist movement as encouraging a radical rethinking of the way we think about community, it has taken root within a more general political culture that may impose some limits on what it may achieve. New Urbanism in North America is implemented in a broader tradition of political liberalism which may place some limits on what it may achieve.

Political liberalism sees the only relevant political entities to be the individual and the state. In this view, most political activity has to do with balancing the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Religious communities, within this framework, are not seen as politically relevant. They are understood as voluntary organizations indistinguishable from, say, bingo halls or model train clubs. But people who are deeply committed to their religious community see it as much more significant than these kinds of voluntary associations—they often understand their church, synagogue, or mosque as being central to their lives.

One of the most beautiful parts of Jane Jacobs's famous The Death and Life of Great American Cities is her "ballet of street life" passage, where she describes her neighbourhood as a kind of choreographed dance wherein the various rhythms of the day and week are enacted by the residents. The problem with political liberalism is that it only recognizes a narrow range of rhythms that it can acknowledge and support. It can recognize market rhythms, and perhaps a few sanitized civic holidays. However, the religious and other deep communities add some of the most wonderful rhythms of neighbourhood life. In the Christian tradition, we help set the cadence for weekly rhythms of worship and work, yearly rhythms of Advent to Easter, as well as joining in with the life rhythms of birth, marriage, and death.

I believe that our greatest hope for healing our fractured and atrophied communities will involve a joint effort between hardware people (like New Urbanists) and software people (like church, neighbourhood, and civic leaders). By calling into question the suburban experiment of the postwar years, the New Urbanists have removed some of the most significant barriers to community life. But they cannot, on their own, deliver true community; I wonder whether anything that is delivered to us can really be called community.

Topics: Cities
 

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.

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