Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Suburban Nation and new urbanism

Sunday, I finished reading Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. (North Point Press, 2000, 294pp). The book describes many of the problems facing contemporary American suburban design, and the social problems which arise from this faulty design. The authors also introduce the reader to New Urbanism, a movement calculated to overcome the post-war design problems which afflict suburbia and render life inhuman. For example, for New Urbanists, it is important that we construct nieghborhoods, not merely subdivisions or pods. An effective neighborhood includes mixed-use zoning, narrower streets, and walkability, among other features generally prohibited from subdivisions.

I appreciated that, while the book contained a good deal of critique, the tone of the writing was not shrill or dismissive. Also, while the authors advocate much more "traditional" building and urban design techniques, they are careful not to degenerate into mere sentimentalism (as if they were channelling Norman Rockwell into architecture). While they stress that humans are formed and influenced deeply by their environment, built and otherwise, they are also careful at points to say that this is necessary but not sufficient: better community design will facilitate better living, especially over generations, but the design itself is not everything. The book was quite accessible for the non-expert (the "armchair urbanist", as they write at one point), and I highly recommend it to everyone who is concerned about constructing a more humane culture, including the built environment.

I think New Urbanism is fascinating and highly promising, though not without a few chinks, especially when it comes to faith communities. For example, in Seaside, Florida, (a neighborhood built on New Urbanist principles) the community has constructed a multi-use chapel which is available for any "religion" to use, and while the design communicates that it is a place of worship, it is also free of any tradition-specific iconography (a cross, for example). (In fairness, I haven't been there, and am using this as a representation of one possible broader critique of some New Urbanist designers.) It might be fairly stated that the Seaside chapel is a contemporary form of the New England Meeting House, which served both for worship and more mundane municipal affairs. This is a fair comparison. But I think that the Seaside chapel, and possibly the New England meeting house, are simultaneously too specific and too general all at once.

I think it is too specific, because this kind of design emphasizes the private/salvific element of "religion" almost to the exclusion of the public/political element. That is, a nondenominational chapel is essentially a room where a person can go to express his or her inner relationship with a deity, a relationship which is supremely expressed in an otherworldly salvation. But this is a highly questionable conception, at least where Christianity is concerned. It is a common but highly dubious notion that Christianity is chiefly about this private inner relationship and otherworldly salvation (thank you, Adolf von Harnack...), and the kind of design typified by the Seaside chapel and the earlier New England meeting house reinforce this faulty notion.

At the same time it is too general. Because it sees religion primarily in this individual, privatized way, it can move to a level of complete abstraction and consider "religion-as-such" (Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous), and locate it safely away in the "god-box". One can safely expect the rest of the civic, public space to be safely free of religious iconography or discourse.

I admit that this is an exaggeration of a tendency, but I am trying to paint with bold, primary colors so that we can see this pattern when it is drawn in subtler pastels.

Moreover, I admit that I am somewhat nonplussed at exactly what the alternative would be; I think this will be a topic of consideration for me for some time. I am certainly open to your thoughts as well.

To look at the broader canvas, this is a question of the relationship between the church and the nation -- philosophically and theologically, I generally consider each to be a civitas in themselves, and I have advocated the church set its own agenda when necessary, rather than being a passive adjunct to the state/nation. But it also seems that the two cities might make common cause at times, on an ad hoc basis, and I have certainly come to believe that a more livable, more human(e) world is an entirely worthy cause.

Eric Jacobsen has written a very accessible, persuasive book which brings together the Christian faith and New Urbanism effectively, entitled Sidewalks in the Kingdom. I reviewed it along with a friend of mine in a recent edition of Reviews in Religion and Theology.

Finally, New Urbanism finds its professional voice in the Congress for New Urbanism, worth checking out.


Blogger Rhett said...

Hi Jason,

Well I finally, opened a blog. Regarding New Urbanism, I agree with many of the aesthetic points, being in local government (formerly Village Board,now I'm on the Plan Commission) I think New Urbanism produces a more visually appealing product. However, based upon my experience in local government, I'm not
optimistic that it works with our culture: 1) It can be more expensive to buy goods and services under a New Urban concept; businesses in mixed use
areas often fail because they can't compete with big boxes;
2)Our country loves cars so they don't mind driving,even in traffic; 3) People prefer to
live next to other houses not in mixed use areas.

Currently we are in a mixed use area and several of the businesses I used to walk to and frequent have failed -- one actually moved to a strip mall
and is doing better! --- but although we are moving to a newer house it is still walking distance from the schools, and the
downtown and it is not in a"tract house" development, but not everyonemakes that a priority.

I liken it to music. Classical Music is more aesthetically appealing, but my opinion isn't shared by the masses. I see
New Urbanism the same way.


Monday, June 27, 2005 9:22:00 PM  

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