Part of what’s so appealing to me about living in Shanghai is the walkability and easy access to great public transportation. That’s very important to me. In fact, I’m a bit of a nerd about it. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time researching city planning, new urbanism, and the philosophical and political battle between sustainable growth and typical American suburban sprawl. And I’m a sucker for great architecture in a compact urban environment, complimented by refreshing public green spaces. So, a walk around the Bund on the Puxi riverfront is always invigorating.
Maybe my preoccupation with this is because it is so unfamiliar. The US has spent the last sixty years or so, largely neglecting the urban landscape and creating character-less, uninspired suburban wastelands. Thus, any place in the US that’s not like that seems iconic, special. (Think New York, Chicago, DC, and on a smaller scale, Savannah and Charleston.) And European cities, all of which matured long before the invention of the automobile and the need for big imposing parking garages and surface lots, seem absolutely magical. The movement that desires a return to traditional urban planning and sensible place-making is a growing one. And one filled with passionate people. I dare say, perhaps people who are a bit obsessed.
And why is it? Why do people spend countless hours on the web searching for the latest news in the fight to rebuild America’s cities? Why is it that they tirelessly write article after article, book after book, championing this cause? It’s because this is more than just an interest, a hobby, or a lifestyle preference for those who feel passionately about it. It is for me. But I believe that the concept of new urbanism, which is mostly just old urbanism, can actually become a sort of savior in the minds of many. It’s the means to achieve the goal creating a utopia where everyone is smiling and walking around in harmony, not a private car or asphalt parking lot in sight. And this new urbanism provides tangible ways to improve ones environment. It gives people the power to change things in such a way that makes things qualitatively and quantitatively better.
That’s what we do, isn’t it? Humanity, I mean. We try to save ourselves, constantly. We try to be our own saviors, making our own way. From Beijing to Boston, we haven’t changed since Babel. (Since Eden, for that matter, but urbanity is the setting for this topic, after all.) We can create that shining city on a hill. We can build that environment where we all live satisfied, fulfilled lives.
I think the cause of new urbanism is a worthy one. I’m thrilled that developers and city leaders all over the US are jumping on the band wagon. I’m excited that a growing number of Americans are finding traditional urban living more attractive, and not just something that Europeans do. But I have to remind myself that even if every city in America had wide, walkable, tree-lined sidewalks and beautifully maintained public squares where families and friends gathered, and care-free children played, we would have nothing without Christ. Indeed, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Sometimes, it’s hard for me to keep that balance. Christianity is a war, and it’s hard work. There are times when I forget to fight for joy and to stay vigilant in my thankfulness. And of course, my idol-making heart is quick to try and fill the void that is created with some substitute savior. For me, it’s often new urbanism.
I’ll be writing soon about what God recently showed me in Psalm 119, concerning the matter. In the mean time, I’ll just leave you with this thought that I found a bit ironic, considering this post’s topic. Jesus tells us in Revelation that believers will live with him in a city, New Jerusalem. It’s a walled city and the farthest thing from a suburb! In fact, it’s a new urbanist’s dream! But the thing that makes the city heaven is not the layout or the urban fabric. It’s the presence of Jesus! And I’d be better off living in the most sprawling, car-centric suburb of Atlanta than in an urban utopia without him.