Sam Roach, PhD, JD
One scholar defines urban planning as, “[t]he process that seeks to control the development of cities through local regulations and direct interventions, to fulfill a number of objectives, such as mobility, quality of life and sustainability.” For some, the concept of urban planning may seem foreign; for many others it may seem irrelevant and (yawn) quite boring. According to some observers, however, urban planning possesses potential for exciting opportunities for the Christian faith. In fact, some pastors and other church leaders find great affinity between the gospel and a popular urban planning movement known as “new urbanism.” I contend that support for new urbanism within the church serves as part of a broader social justice movement that threatens to mislead Christians about public policy matters and to communicate a faulty view of the gospel. In this article, I will examine how new urbanism seeks to use zoning laws to accomplish one of its key social justice aims, affordable housing.
What is New Urbanism?
Although a precise definition for new urbanism may prove elusive, the preamble to the Charter for New Urbanism may shed some light. The charter states the following:
The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.
Clearly, new urbanism involves much more than what one might think of in terms of land-use planning. New urbanism finds issues such as “sprawl,” “race,” and “income” to serve together as “one interrelated community-building challenge.” As the Charter for New Urbanism makes evident, social justice factors play a major role in the new urbanist agenda.
Moreover, although proponents of new urbanism might claim otherwise, new urbanism seeks to invoke its objectives through the force of law. It often does so under the name of “smart growth.” The American Planning Association incorporates new urbanism principles in its model legislation for smart growth. Essentially, new urbanism and smart growth, or “SmartCode,” serve as two sides of the same coin.
New Urbanism’s “Form-Based” Coding New urbanism decries traditional land use codes that classify real property based upon the use of the property (e.g., residential, commercial, or industrial uses). In place of “use-based codes,” new urbanism advocates “form-based codes” that address the form, rather than the use, of the property. A report prepared on behalf of the organization, Housing Colorado, asserts that “through New Urbanism and the invention of the SmartCode, form-based codes were conceived as a new method to address increasingly complicated zoning issues.” Supporters of new urbanism assert that, by replacing zoning laws that focus on use with those that emphasize form, various types of activities can exist within the same neighborhood block, on properties adjacent to one another, or within the same structure. Advocates of new urbanism argue that form-based codes, unlike traditional zoning codes, allow (force?) people to live, work, and worship all within easy walking distance of one another.
However, regardless of new urbanism’s appeal to pedestrian living, one should note that social justice objectives serve as powerful incentives behind the promotion of form-based codes. Specifically, new urbanism views form-based codes as a policy tool to deliver government subsidized housing for the poor. For example, one affordable housing organization advises local governments that, “when considering form-based zoning as an alternative, a community can tailor enforceable regulations to preserve and promote forms defined by community-founded goals and objectives, such as affordable housing.” The city of Charlottesville, Virginia serves as an apparent example of how a local government views form-based codes as a means to increase housing for the poor. The Charlottesville City Council and Planning Commission hired the consulting firm, Form-Based Codes Institute, to draft a new zoning code for a nearly 80-acre parcel of land as part of their strategy to provide increased affordable housing in their city.
New Urbanism as Gospel Work? Some authors stress that Christians can benefit a great deal from new urbanism. In fact, social justice advocates in the church see exciting potential for new urbanism. A promoter of Christian new urbanism asserts that “the time is ripe . . . for a theology of the city that takes into account its physical structure.” However, as noted above concerning form-based codes, lurking behind the concerns over “beautiful buildings,” walkable communities, and other items, exists a social justice agenda.
Admittedly, a Christian who supports new urbanism does not necessarily hold to a gospel based on works. For example, one author who finds great affinity between Christianity and the tenets of new urbanism concedes that, “the battle for the kingdom still takes place within each human heart,” and that Christians cannot rely on the built environment to produce the fruit of the Spirit. Yet the same writer uses biblical terms such as, “salvation,” and terms that evoke a sense of evil, to describe the issues at stake in the context of new urbanism.
Christians concerned about a robust gospel must ensure that it teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). By attempting to wed Christianity with new urbanism, a danger exists of substituting the gospel – or more subtly – of supplementing the gospel, with the new urbanist agenda. I contend that offering new urbanism as a Christian response to the spiritual needs of our cities risks exchanging the biblical gospel of grace with a works-based gospel.
Conclusion The social justice aspect inherent in new urbanism calls for discernment within the body of Christ. When new urbanism supporters emphasize the form of the city just remember that form includes affordable housing. In fact, affordable housing serves as only one example of new urbanism’s several misguided public policy objectives that would restrict individual freedom while furthering a socialist utopia. Furthermore, combining new urbanism with the Christian faith results in a gospel based on works. On second thought, urban planning may not be so boring after all.
Bristol, Debra. “Form-Based Codes and Affordable Housing: Potential as an Affordable Housing Tool.” Housing Colorado, Spring 2015. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.housingcolorado.org/resource/resmgr/Resources_Development/0615__FormBasedCodes.pdf.
Duranton, Gilles. “Urban Planning.” Knowledge @ Wharton High School, October 15, 2013. http://kwhs.wharton.upenn.edu/term/urban-planning/.
Greenhut, Stephen. “New Urbanism: Same Old Social Engineering.” Foundation for Economic Education, April 1, 2006. https://fee.org/articles/new-urbanism-same-old-social-engineering/.
Jacobsen, Eric O. Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003.
Peterson, Eugene J. “Foreward.” In Sidwalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, 9–10. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003.
Suarez, Chris. “Form-Based Code, Inclusion of Low-Income Housing Advocates Discussed for SIA.” The Daily Progress. October 26, 2017, sec. Real Estate. https://www.dailyprogress.com/realestate/articles/form-based-code-inclusion-of-low-income-housing-advocates-discussed/article_f182540e-bac1-11e7-86eb-db46093de2e6.html.
“The Charter of the New Urbanism.” Congress for the New Urbanism. Accessed August 8, 2018. https://www.cnu.org/who-we-are/charter-new-urbanism.
 Gilles Duranton, “Urban Planning,” Knowledge @ Wharton High School, October 15, 2013, http://kwhs.wharton.upenn.edu/term/urban-planning/.
 Eric O. Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
 “The Charter of the New Urbanism” (Congress for the New Urbanism, n.d.), https://www.cnu.org/who-we-are/charter-new-urbanism.
 Stephen Greenhut, “New Urbanism: Same Old Social Engineering,” Foundation for Economic Education, April 1, 2006, https://fee.org/articles/new-urbanism-same-old-social-engineering/.
 Debra Bristol, “Form-Based Codes and Affordable Housing: Potential as an Affordable Housing Tool” (Housing Colorado, Spring 2015).
 Bristol, “Form-Based Codes and Affordable Housing: Potential as an Affordable Housing Tool,” 12.
 Chris Suarez, “Form-Based Code, Inclusion of Low-Income Housing Advocates Discussed for SIA,” The Daily Progress, October 26, 2017, sec. Real Estate.
 Eugene J. Peterson, “Foreward,” in Sidwalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003), 10.
 Jacobsen, 56.
 Jacobsen, 56, 72.