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We are a product of our built environment. If you put me in a crappy house that doesn’t smell good and it’s got a bad bathroom and broken faucets, I’m going to be a crappy person. If you put me in a small cute house with good door handles and good faucets [and] a good shower, that I can walk to the park when I get mad, I can walk down the street and get a cup of coffee without having to have a car—I have more money in my pocket that way—I’m going to be a different person. I’m also going to have an interaction with different people who may be able to help me with my problem, whatever my problem is.[i]
These words from Monte Anderson on the Go Cultivate! podcast sum up why I’ve come to believe that city planning/design is an issue in which Christians should become more involved. I’ll be frank: I strongly believe America should re-evaluate the way we design cities and towns. I believe this primarily because it would make life better. It would alleviate many of our social, economic, and environmental woes.
I’ve made it no secret that I think loneliness is a massive problem in America. Much of the reason for our loneliness is the way our towns and consequently our lives are structured. Living in isolation—except for when we have to go to work or run errands—is our default. We are isolated units who meet together when necessary and then disperse back into isolated units. One of the main reasons for this lifestyle is how spread out our cities are. We have to drive (generally an isolated activity) to get anywhere.
It’s not impossible to be social. But neither is it easy. It takes considerable time to drive (if you even have a functioning car); it takes increased effort to create plans while accounting for drive time; it takes no small amount of money to buy a car, maintain it, pay for gas, and pay the taxes necessary for road upkeep (not to mention police and whatever else I’m forgetting). I know for me (and I’m sure for other introverts), getting out of the house is hard enough, so putting these extra obstacles in the way just makes me want to stay inside more. And when you’re driving, there’s very little chance you’ll have the opportunity to socialize on the way to wherever you’re going. If you’re walking to your destination, you may run into neighbors and people walking their dogs. If there’s a small ice cream shop on the way, you could quickly pick up a cone or a milkshake. But when you’re driving, it’s just you and whoever is in the car with you. What do we expect when we make socializing harder? Of course it’ll result in loneliness.
There are many ways Christians address our country’s problems. Some of these problems can’t necessarily be solved or alleviated by redesigning cities, but many of them can. The flawed planning/design of our cities is a root cause of many social ills, yet I don’t hear Christians talking about it. Is it possible that we’re focusing on symptoms and not the cause? Here are a few examples.
I recently heard a pastor state in a sermon that all Christians should care about the environment. I agree. It was part of a passing statement he made while giving examples of how we pursue God’s kingdom in our professions. He didn’t get political and he didn’t elaborate much on practical steps for creation care. But he did say that we should, before driving somewhere, think about whether the trip is absolutely necessary. That way, we can drive less and release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
I don’t disagree, but the statement feels to me like a half-hearted attempt at environmentalism, like slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound. Pastors encouraging their congregations to think twice before getting in the car will do essentially nothing for the environment. Perhaps a few people will drop a trip or two per week for maybe three weeks. But then they’ll revert back to normal. Why? Because you have to drive to do well-nigh anything in our country.
If we re-evaluated our city structures, though, we could drastically reduce automobile dependence. It would become manageable for people to walk or bike to where they need to go. It would also reduce the need for parking lots and streets, which would mean fewer trees cut down and less disturbance to the ecosystem. This would actually solve problems. But who knows a preacher who discusses this approach? I don’t.
Exercise is another example. We’re told to go to the gym, to jog when we have time, to fit it into our daily routines. Yet, as a certified fitness trainer, I hear from people all the time that they’ve tried, but they just don’t have the time to fit in exercise. So our health suffers. But what if exercise had to be a part of our daily routine? If we could walk or bike to work instead of drive, our daily exercise would be taken care of. But most people work way too far from home to bike, let alone walk. And what if we could walk or bike to most of our daily errands or friends’ houses? But most of us live so spread out that walking to even the grocery store isn’t feasible.
Pastors tell us if we’re lonely to get out and see friends. But they also tell us not to drive unless we have to. They encourage us to serve at the church food bank. But there’s little mention of how Christians can advocate for affordable housing. We’re slapping band-aids on problems and not thinking about root causes. Treating symptoms is helpful, but it doesn’t solve problems. And the church needs to solve problems.
I’m not suggesting that we completely get rid of cars. I think cars are a blessing. It’s amazing that we can travel long distances in a relatively short amount of time. I just think we should use cars a lot less. Also, reducing automobile dependence would drastically reduce the number of automobile-related deaths.
One of the main arguments conservatives make against climate action is that it would decimate the economy. But if people and cities decided to restructure on their own, top-down governmental climate mandates would be much less necessary. Plus, people and communities would be more self-reliant, so the economy would be more healthy and resilient. (The current Covid-19 crisis is revealing the fragility of our system.)
Rethinking current norms on city planning and design would make life better. Americans love their space and privacy (and I’m not saying people can’t own their own homes), but if we consider the benefits of living in smaller communities closer together (and these can be pockets of big cities), I think we’ll realize how much happier we’d be. Americans vacation to Europe and gush about how walkable European cities are. There’s no reason that can’t be done here. Plus, we’ll give our cities an American flare—I’m not saying we have to become Europeans. Nor am I saying life will be perfect. Accidents will still happen and people will still get sick. I’m not advocating utopia; I’m advocating what I think is a better way of life.
Our mission as Christ followers is for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Therefore, if there’s a way to improve quality of life and alleviate multiple social ills, we should be involved. I know there are some Christians already working hard at this. But frankly, most American Christians don’t care about this subject. It’s time we start the conversation.
[i] Clark, Jordan, host. “Affordable housing & incremental development.” Go Cultivate!, Episode 48, Verdunity, 11 Dec. 2019, https://gocultivate.simplecast.com/episodes/affordable-housing-incremental-development-m5He7hvQ.