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The City of God and the New Urbanism

Another priority for paleo (or traditionalist) conservatives should be making connection with other tendencies of thought that are based on some of the same concerns and understandings. If trads and paleos are on to something real about modern life, they won’t be the only ones to notice it.

One connectable tendency is the New Urbanism, a movement in urban design that rejects modernist rationalism in favor of more traditional forms. Since urban design has to do with real money (homes sell for more and appreciate faster in New Urbanist environments than elsewhere) it gets taken seriously. So it’s one route through which an understanding of the destructiveness of modernism and the benefits of receptivity to tradition can make its way into the consciousness of professionals and practical men.

Nikos Salingaros has forwarded a couple of references that show how connections are already being made between the New Urbanism and the broader movement against modernism and in favor of more traditional arrangements and orthodoxies. Sacred Architecture Journal, for example, is a publication devoted to the connection between new (mostly anti-modernist) architecture and Catholic orthodoxy. Those involved include Archbishop Chaput, Professor Ralph McInerny, and Michael S. Rose of Goodbye, Good Men fame. An excerpt from an article by Father Michael Enright, “The Second Most Important Question”, in a recent issue (Issue 8, 2003, pages 25-27) suggests some of the concerns:

“I suspect there are some concrete, easily understandable reasons why Catholics tend to become less Catholic over generations … There is a direct connection between people’s choice of where to live and their faith life … We are wildly paving over some of the most fertile land in the world, building huge mansions in the middle of nowhere, running roads out to these mansions, and spending hours in our cars each week to get to our country estates … deadening of the spirit … my brothers and sisters living in the suburbs … would like to live the values of the Gospel, but there are a couple of reasons they cannot. The first is that they have no time or energy … The second is that they do not live in communities … we need to do some hard thinking about the relationship between the built environment and the Body of Christ … I suspect that the Church could form a partnership with mayors, for example, and other interested people (environmentalists? New Urbanists?) and perhaps put together a couple of Television spots.”

The style may seem a bit on the warm-and-fuzzy side, which is something conservatives and orthodox Catholics have reason to distrust. Still, the substance is that if you carry out the modernist program of separating functions and realizing particular individual goals in the most technically efficient manner, you destroy the traditional human connections that make a tolerable society—specifically, a religious society—possible. That principle applies to the built physical setting of life as well as to other aspects of technocracy. The more people think about such things, and look for ways to do something about them, the better.

Similar concerns get book-length treatment in Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos Press, 2003) by Eric Jacobsen, a Presbyterian minister. Reverend Jacobsen complains about what he views as the false gods of the American Dream—individualism, willed isolation, one-acre lots, the automotive city, separation from the city of human beings. He singles out “modernist hubris” and “capitalist reductionism” for criticism. Once again, the language may sometimes suggest the familiar warm-and-fuzzy collectivism that routinely ends up as a sentimental front for rule by experts and functionaries and thus—ironically—greater human isolation. Nonetheless, the concerns are good concerns, and if paleos and trads think they have some special insight into what the pitfalls are in trying to do something about them they should make contact, find out what’s actually being said, and speak up.

In general, it seems to me, as it seems to the two writers, that post-war sprawl has promoted an inhuman society deficient in religious foundation, whereas traditional and new urbanist geometries support close-knit social interactions, which in turn support religious cohesion in society. What to do about such things is of course a big question. The New Urbanism takes the issues seriously. One advantage it has from a traditionalist point of view is that it forwards traditionalist and religious concerns without demanding that supporters explicitly intend to do so. They need only support things that even today seem obviously beneficial to almost everyone.