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.

11 thoughts on “The City of God and the New Urbanism”

  1. In the past you haven’t used
    In the past you haven’t used “paleo” or “paleoconservative” as a name for the position in defense of which you write. Or, if you have, I’ve missed those occasions.

    Are you using paleo as just another term for traditionalist, or do you distinguish between the two? During the last year there has been much journalism about the meaning of neoconservatism and somewhat less about paleoconservatism. Just curious whether you’ve developed ideas about this. I’ve no objection to the label.


  2. I used it because my
    I used it because my correspondent did, not because I wanted to make some new point. I suppose I meant something like “nonaccommodationist conservatism” or “the kind of conservatism I think everyone ought to sign on to.”

  3. E. Michael Jones has been
    E. Michael Jones has been writing on this topic extensively. His latest book tells of how America’s suburbs were deliberately created to turn white ethnic Catholics into obedient wage slaves hooked to their televisions.

  4. Uh..aren’t the really huge
    Uh..aren’t the really huge churches in the suburbs?

    Jim Kalb offers—The City of God and the New Urbanism— both a logically & factually indefensible reason for supporting New Urbanism and one which concerns me because of its motive. …post-war sprawl has promoted an inhuman society deficient

  5. If you click on “TrackBack”
    If you click on “TrackBack” you’ll see a ping from a fan of the New Urbanism who says its methods and concerns are really quite mundane, which is true and part of the point of the entry, and who thinks that “uh..aren’t the really huge churches in the suburbs?” is a rejoinder to the claim that modernist urban design promotes the dissipation of religion as of other aspects of particular culture.

    He would be right if religion were fundamentally the combination of spiritual self-help and mild and wholly voluntary social connections one finds in suburban non-denominational megachurches. Still, since he’s willing to promote the New Urbanism, I’m happy for him to do so in the belief that reducing steel-and-concrete alienation in the built environment will have no influence on culture in general and will leave his spiritual world untouched.

  6. Hi Jim. 🙂

    Well, I guess I
    Hi Jim. 🙂

    Well, I guess I am a “fan” of the New Urbanism, though I’d suggest that there are some nuances. But I am confused by:

    1. Your use of the term “modernist urban design.” What is that, exactly? There is an awful lot of cant floating around when it comes to the terms “modernist” and “traditional” and it would be helpful to understand your definition of “modernist urban design” to see if we are even on the aame page. And hey! We might be!

    2. What you mean when you say “He would be right if religion were fundamentally the combination of spiritual self-help and mild and wholly voluntary social connections one finds in suburban non-denominational megachurches.” Surely you coould not be saying that people who go to “suburban non-denominational megachurches” are not truly religious? Do you presume to define religion for other people?

  7. Mr. Sucher wrote:

    Mr. Sucher wrote:
    “Surely you coould not be saying that people who go to “suburban non-denominational megachurches” are not truly religious?”

    I can’t speak for Mr. Kalb, but for myself I would say that, yes. They may think they are religious, but one can think he is a brain surgeon all day and I still wouldn’t let him take a scalpel to my head on that basis.

    “Do you presume to define religion for other people?”

    I certainly presume that religion has objective content that isn’t reducable to what people say it is or will it to be.

  8. Good heavens! I just looked
    Good heavens! I just looked at the TrackBack, saw the writer had no idea what I was talking about, and didn’t connect the title of the weblog to who he is. My apologies to Mr. Sucher.

    The point of the entry is that the “New Urbanism” appears relevant to the perspectives discussed on this weblog. My knowledge of it is limited to a few personal discussions and a few interviews and articles. Anyway, to respond to Mr. Sucher’s questions:

    1. I understand NU is opposed to something Leon Krier refers to as “urbanist modernism.” Is that term correct while “modernist urban design” is meaningless? Anyway, I understand the term I used to include an approach to building that tends to separate functions and tries rationally to fulfill each separate function, but as a result ignores what human beings and human society are actually like.

    2. If “religion” means anything of general serious interest then it’s possible to talk about what it is, how various forms of it relate to its general nature and function, where those forms are to be found, and what conditions promote one form or another.

  9. Is this one of those times
    Is this one of those times when an RSS headline has popped us totally out of context? Perhaps they are a mixed blessing. Anyway, sorry if my comment was taken as other than in the full context of Turnabout, I suppose it may have seemed out of the blue if it was…well, out of the blue.


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