The New Urbanist: A Review of Eric Jacobsen’s “Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith”
Most of us, Christians included, take for granted the places in which we live and rarely get beyond superficial considerations about traffic and congestion or good restaurants or convenient shopping. Besides, more and more we are people who do most of our living on the interior --- in our automobiles, houses, and offices. The exterior, including the built environment around us, is simply the backdrop on which our interior lives are played out. Not so for Eric Jacoben. His 2003 book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, is a testimony to his passion for cities, his commitment to seeing our urban areas through the lens of Scripture, and his goal of bringing us into an attentive consideration of the places where we live.
A pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, Jacobsen is also a keen observer of and participant in city life. His book is divided into two parts. First, in a section entitled "Thinking About Our Cities, he shares a philosophical and theological perspective on cities, beginning with a consideration of how sprawl has affected our lives and ending with a section on "Learning to See Our Cities: A Theological Approach," where he roots our resurrection hope in community rather than the individual, relates stewardship not only to nature but to the built and cultural environment, and encourages the discipline of seeing city places as "gift-places," as holy sites where God meets us and reminds of the future hope of a New Jerusalem. To receive the blessings of cities, he says we need to "train our eyes to see the corner coffee shop and grocery in a neighborhood as the rare and beautiful species that they have become. We need to learn to stand back in awe at the broad, tree-lined avenue that has as a terminating vista a grand public building. . . . and take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly setting of the grid-pattern layout with ample sidewalks for walking (alone or with our children), treating each corner as a fresh opportunity for exploration and adventure. . . ." What he counsels is a settledness that requires reflection for a people often too busy to see the majesty of what is at hand.
In a second section, entitled "Markers of the City," he attempts to define what makes a city, using six markers: public spaces, mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass, and presence of strangers. He finds the markers helpful in suggesting what is good and valuable in existing cities and what needs to be repaired, relating the existence of public spaces, for example, to incarnational ministry, noting that public space requires sharing and, thus, an opportunity to practice love and kindness, promotes relationships, and facilitates communal discourse. He demonstrates the value of a local economy to local culture and community, lamenting the narrowness of our thinking about economic decisions, noting that "[w]e compare prices, and if we can get the same product for even a slightly lower price, we will do so. What we need to learn is to take one more step and say 'What else is being impacted by the purchase of this product?'" It's a good point, as not every cost is factored into our economic decisions. In other chapters he links density with connectivity and the existence of strangers with opportunities for hospitality, weaving in and out anecdotal strands that illustrate his points and challenging us to a New Urbanist perspective, one that values a rediscovery of the classic virtues of the city.
This is not always an easy book to absorb. There is a lot being said about things we don't usually give much thought to. Having finished the book, I have the sense that I need to read it again, carefully, or make it a part of a discussion group. But that's really a testament to the thoughtfulness of the project, to the many years the author has been engaged with the topic. I recommend the book for pastors, church planters, community leaders, and city planners, to anyone concerned with the nature and shape of our cities, for the ordinary places where we all live. As Eugene Peterson says in his foreword to the book, "Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows." Jacobsen shows us why.