New urbanism and churches

This article was written by Randy Bright, who has written similar articles in the Tulsa Beacon in the past.  The long story short of this article is that he advises Tulsa against New Urbanist development.  He says that cities want to build according to the New Urbanist model because it lowers infrastructure costs, which is true, but that they dress it up as a place with improved quality of life.  The number of articles confirming that New Urbanism actually does improve quality of life, as opposed to being some sort of sales pitch, speaks for itself.

He also claims that New Urbanism is some sort of big government liberal conspiracy.  How does a return to traditional building forms derive from liberalism?  William S. Lind, of the American Conservative, argues quite the opposite in this article.  According to him, there are only two out of the 27 principles of New Urbanism that conservatives would take issue with (one of which is regional government, but as we can see from the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, similar goals can be achieved without government, or regional government can replace outdated models such as county governments).  In addition to this, and as was argued by John Norquist, we know that the modern architects which inspired suburbia were mostly socialists and communists, so really suburban development is closer to a vast leftist conspiracy.

He also points out that there are many folks who don’t want to live in these sort of developments.  Who says they have to?  Even if your community does adopt New Urbanist principles, they would only apply to new development.  Your house, your cul-de-sac, your subdivision would be grandfathered.  And even within New Urbanism, there is room for single-family development.  There’s a whole part of the Transect (T3) devoted to it.  He also claims that “Anyone who has lived in an apartment complex for any time at all can attest to” the fact that people don’t want to live close together.  The use of the word “anyone” would make his claim useless in court.  I, for instance, live in a wonderful apartment complex with some of the best neighbors I’ve ever had.  My parents, on the other hand, only know the neighbors across the street from them because they called the cops on my parents for leaving their van parked on the street overnight.  My point is, there are indeed some people who want to live close to others, and living in suburbia doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy living apart from undesirable people.

He points out that a problem with New Urbanism is that it often encounters high capital costs.  This is generally true, but as he mentioned himself, the infrastructure costs are lower, and the energy savings of shared walls and other high-density features are much more cost-effective in the long run than suburban development.

He finishes his article with a variety of prophetic claims that cities will all set up urban growth boundaries, that there will be land shortages which hurt churches, and that cities will increase their use of eminent domain, none of which he substantiates with any sort of facts.  I find it funny that Bright, a builder of churches, is concerned about shortages of large tracts of land for church building.  Now, I’ll admit, being Mormon, I don’t understand much about the subject, because our church has very few standard models for church design, thus limiting the size needed, and we are assigned to congregations based on geography, so we don’t worry about looking around for a church we like.  But despite my general ignorance, I decided to look up some information on churches.  I went to Bright’s website to look at some of his work, and all of his churches are huge structures surrounded by parking and fields.  So yes, his version of a church might not be buildable in New Urbanist communities.  But look at this congregational church from the downtown of where I live, in Provo, Utah:


This church has no off-street parking.  That’s because it’s location allows people to walk or bike there, or they can park on either of the two streets the church fronts.  The chapel is quite spacious, and there are plenty of offices and classrooms.  This church is also a real part of the community, participating in monthly art walks by showing collections of religious art.

Even more Urban is the Provo Baptist Church:


This small church is just another storefront, using the ample on-street parking.

Want more space?  That’s okay, you can still be urban:


This Lutheran church is on a quarter of a block and has ample parking as well as plenty of green space and offices.

Really though, churches are significant civic buildings and should be designed to the highest standards and saved for a place of prominence, like the Provo Tabernacle:


All of these work in an Urban context.  And really, there isn’t much that is new about New Urbanism.  It’s essentially just a new phase of good urbanism, where we hope to bring back the best of yesteryear, before modernism and suburbia.  And churches are a significant part of that revival.

One response to “New urbanism and churches

  1. Great thoughts Dave. I enjoyed the your blog post. As one who is an evangelical Christian I’d have to strongly disagree with Randy Bright. I think in many ways the suburbanization of America has done more than any “social evils” to lead to isolation, workaholism, consumerism, lack of community, and so on. While New Urbanism may not be the savior of our cities I think there’s a lot in it the actual provides needed traction of a deeper sense of community, less dependence upon the auto and thus lowers the demand for oil, better city infrastructures including more efficient public transportation which again diminishes overdependence on oil, and so on.

    I think the church should be one who embraces New Urbanism. Benefits would be churches within walkable distances to where people live, more investment by the church back into the surrounding community, not as much money spent on large facilities, and a better partnership with the city as co-laborers in making the city a better place to live, and SO much more.

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