Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian FaithSidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith
Eric O. Jacobsen
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There has been much ink spilled in the evangelical community about "claiming our cities for Christ" and plenty of lip service given toward addressing urban concerns. But according to author and pastor Eric Jacobsen, this discussion has remained far too abstract. His Sidewalks in the Kingdom challenges Christians to gain a practical, informed vision for the city which includes a broad understanding of the needs and rewards of a vital urban community. Building on the principles of "New Urbanism," Jacobsen emphasizes the need to preserve the nourishing characteristics of traditional city life, such as shared public spaces, mixed-use neighborhoods, a well-supported local economy, and aesthetic diversity and beauty. Pastors, city-dwellers, and those interested in urban ministry, politics, and community development will be both encouraged and informed by this highly insightful resource. Featured in softcover with 192 pages, from Brazos Press.

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Eric Jacobsen (M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary, Ph.D Student. Fuller Theological Seminary, 2004 - ) is the author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith and is also a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  He has written numerous articles on the subject of New Urbanism and is a current participant in the Colloquim on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College. Briefly tell us what inspired you to write Sidewalks in the Kingdom.

Eric Jacobsen: About two blocks from my house was a little bookstore/coffee shop called Freddy’s Feed and Read which had become an informal gathering spot for the neighborhood.  After the owner died, Freddy's couldn’t make it financially, so the owner of the building went looking for a new tenant who could continue the role that Freddy’s had played in our neighborhood.  I won’t get into the details here, but this process brought to light the fact that our neighborhood was zoned for residences only which meant that places like Freddy’s were illegal according to our current zoning codes.  It turns out 60% of our neighborhood was non-compliant with current zoning codes.  And yet, ours was the most desirable neighborhood in Missoula.  This got me thinking why so many zoning codes make it illegal to build the kinds of traditional neighborhoods that a lot of people want to live in.  I’m not the only person to ask this kind of question – there is a whole slew of books reviving the notion of a traditional neighborhood – but at the time of writing Sidewalks in the Kingdom, the Christian community seemed to be completely left out of this conversation.  I wrote Sidewalks to remedy that situation. Many of us are unfamiliar with the underlying principles of the “new urbanism.” As a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism would you define what this movement offers and why you believe it essential that followers of Jesus embrace its ideas?

Eric Jacobsen: New Urbanism is a coalition of architects, planners, developers, intellectuals, and citizen activists who are advocating for a return to traditional neighborhood and town building principle. Some of these principles include mixed use zoning (allowing homes, coffee shops, and apartment buildings on the same block), multiple transportation options (car, pedestrian, and public transit), as well as a fine-grained urban texture (medium to high density housing, grid network of streets, neighborhood parks, alleys and sidewalks).  All of these things foster human community by enticing people out of the private spaces of their homes and freeing them up from automobile dependence.  There are a number of places in scripture one could turn to support this kind of environment, but the most obvious is the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, which seemed to largely take place in the setting of informal public interaction among people in their daily lives. In the opening chapter of your book, you state that we have “boldly and confidently” marched toward suburban sprawl because “…we have been worshiping false gods in the name of American values. These gods go by the name individualism, independence and freedom…”  What might you say to someone who does not agree with your assessment, and believes that our freedom to make individual choices on suburban living is not a moral issue, but merely their right to choose what they believe to be the best option for raising their family?

Eric Jacobsen: I want to be careful on this point because for many people a typical suburban house may very well be the best option for raising their family.  My primary concern is why this is the cheapest and most readily available option for most people when it may not be what everybody wants and it may be unsustainable for the long term.  A lot of people think that the free market has created suburbia, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Suburban tract homes and all of the infrastructure they require have been mandated by government policy, encouraged by lending practices, and heavily subsidized by tax dollars since about WWII.  The fact that people living in the suburbs need to drive cars in order to accomplish virtually every task of daily life makes the suburbs one of the most inefficient use of resources in the history of mankind.  I think as the price of oil continues to go up, the problems with suburbia are going to become painfully obvious.  They also exact a social cost for those who can’t drive.  Prior to WWII we didn’t have retirement homes and we didn’t have soccer moms because people who couldn’t drive could still participate in daily life relatively independently.  The suburbs changed all that. You also mention in part one of your book that, “We’ve given very little thought to the structure of our cities and how that provides the framework for the human relationships that go on in these places.” What is it that keeps us from turning our attention to the layout of our cities? Do you believe the strong nature of individualism within our culture keeps us from looking more carefully toward our communities, or do you believe it is more complicated than this?

Eric Jacobsen: Cities got pretty inhospitable during the industrial revolution and much of our thinking about cities is based largely on images drawn from this period.  We tend to see them as perhaps necessary but mostly evil places.  Also, because of the explosion of suburbia since WWII, we’ve had two generations of Americans who have grown up without any direct experience of living in and enjoying urban life.  These factors have turned much of our attention and our energy to our homes to meet all of our needs.  Whereas in many countries in the world people would look to the local park, the local pub, and the street for social interaction in America we aspire towards a ‘dream house’ that has a large enough yard and enough amenities to render these things unnecessary.  I don’t think that all of this can be attributed to our tendency towards individualism, it seems more that we’ve lost a sense of the good things that cities can provide and so we’ve had to look elsewhere. On a related note, what might you say to those who do not believe our use of automobiles is an individualistic venture but simply the best and only option we have available to us?

Eric Jacobsen: This is probably a good place to admit that I really like cars and own two of them.  Many people assume that New Urbanists are against cars, but in reality most of them are not.  With regard to cars, what we are really after is a return to the romance of the automobile.  The images that you see on car commercials tend to be compatible with new urbanism.  The lone car on the open highway or the car parked by itself on the plaza are images of cars as they were originally meant to be.  Cars were introduced as luxury items that promised convenience and adventure.  If it took you an hour to walk to work and twenty minutes to take the streetcar, a car could get you there in ten minutes.  But now that we’ve built our society around cars, they have become a necessity rather than a convenience.  You no longer can choose between walking, public transit, and the car; but rather have to take a car to get anywhere.  So, I guess that I would agree with that statement, on a personal level, the car is no longer an expression of individuality, because most of us have no choice in the matter. You introduce a very wonderful question in the second part of your book by asking whether or not God truly cares about the beauty and visual definition of our cities. I would wager most have seldom stopped long enough to look upon the structural beauty of our cities (or lack thereof) to even entertain the heart of this thoughtful question.  As citizens, what steps can we take in order to learn to see our cities as redemptive centers of hope where God’s Kingdom can be made manifest?

Eric Jacobsen: I don’t think that people give much thought to how and why certain aspects of the built environment are more beautiful than others, but people do naturally congregate to urban spaces that are visually pleasing.  The suburbs have been the dominant mode of development for 50 years or so, but people still flock to traditional urban areas for the vibrant street life and the experience of gracious public spaces.  We even vacation in Disneyland because ‘Main Street USA’ and ‘Downtown Disney’ remind us of an earlier mode of living that we’ve largely rejected.  We enjoy these places, but rarely consider the possibility that we could continue to build these kind of places today.  I think that the first thing we need to do is to pay attention to the kinds of urban spaces that people seem to enjoy and try to apply lessons from these places to the places where we live. I appreciated your discussion on the shortcomings of both Private (Evangelical) Christians and Public (Mainline) Christians regarding their approach to our cities. You note that private Christians have a cultural problem in that they focus more upon “conversion than the fullness of salvation.” Public Christians on the other hand, have a habit of relying upon the church and the state as institutions for bringing justice to our cities and as a result have “lost touch with both the people in the churches and the people of the world whom they purport to serve.” Would you describe for us why it is important that these two groups to find common ground when it comes to seeing our cities in terms of redemption and making God’s Kingdom manifest?

Eric Jacobsen: I think that evangelical Christians have done a really good job focusing on relationships in ministry and have developed wonderful informal networks among themselves and with people who are in need.  But evangelicals sometimes fail to see the larger structural issues that lay behind some of the needs they are trying to address.  The mainline church has done a better job looking at structural issues, but because they have not focused on relationships have sometimes lost touch with those that they are attempting to serve and have made mistakes at the institutional level.  My sense is that healthy community requires software (relationships) and hardware (buildings and institutions) and so both groups have a role to play in fostering community. In chapter 6, you make a compelling case for the implementation of mixed-use zoning within our cities and neighborhoods.  As previously stated, many of us have not given much thought to the structures of our cities, and have few ideas on where to begin advocating for mixed-use zoning in our neighborhoods.  Would you briefly describe mixed-use zoning and what methods of advocacy we might undertake in order to reinstitute this particular style of layout?

Eric Jacobsen: Mixed-use zoning allows buildings of different types to exist on the same block and in the same neighborhood.  This means that you might have a block with single family homes (of different sizes), apartment buildings, grocery stores, coffee shops, hair salons, etc to exist within a five minute walk from your front door.  In a mixed-use neighborhood, you may still drive to work, but you can walk for many of your other errands.  In a mixed-use neighborhood that has a mix of housing types, a CEO can also live on the same block as a teacher or a police officer.  I think that these kinds of neighborhoods tend to be more vibrant and interesting.  To get to this kind of a situation, I think that local zoning laws need to be radically altered or even scrapped.  This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’, however.   Prior to the advent of zoning, noxious use laws were used to prevent objectionable businesses from entering a neighborhood.  Also, I think that neighborhoods should develop design criteria for buildings so that a particular neighborhood can have a coherent look and feel.  Zoning is so focused on how a building is used that it loses sight of these other more important issues. In discussing the economic impact our spending dollars can have at the local level, you suggest we view our personal spending as a means of impacting our communities in positive ways.  Do you believe that purchasing locally is a positive means of impacting our communities, and is there an overall greater benefit to this than purchasing non-locally? If so, what are the positive benefits of doing so?

Eric Jacobsen: Locally owned businesses tend to be interested in making a profit and in the good of the community.  The owner often lives in the area and may have children that connect them to the community.  When money is spent at the locally owned store, most of the profits tend to get plowed back in to the community.  A nationally owned store, generally has a regional perspective and will open and close local stores in order to meet regional goals, which can be disruptive to the local economy.  Also, profits from nationally owned stores go to stockholders and are not generally recycled into the local community. Focusing upon the development of our cities in a more foot-friendly fashion may at times ask us as citizens to advocate for certain measures that would challenge business opportunities and the growth principles of capitalism within our living spaces. Do you believe it worthwhile for us to rethink how our economic system can better function for the benefit of the people and their communities?

Eric Jacobsen: I think that among the available options, capitalism seems to be the best tool for human flourishing.  That said, I think that capitalism can become distorted when it is seen as an end in itself.  The goal of human life (according to the Westminster Confession) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  Insofar as capitalism can help us with that project, I’m all for it, but when growth, accumulation and conspicuous consumption are treated as primary criteria for determining the success of our economic system, then yes, I think that we need to rethink things a bit.  In my area, I think that enjoying God involves enjoying the goodness of one another and the joy of human community.  The fact that pursuing these goals might bring in less revenue is not a matter of ultimate concern. Could you briefly explain Albert Borgmann’s model of the two-sector economy and how the implementation of this idea can positively benefit our cities and communities?

Eric Jacobsen: Borgmann advocates for locally produced goods, but acknowledges that this doesn’t make sense for all products.  He thinks that things like food, furniture, and crafts are best produced locally, but also acknowledges that medical technology and certain financial instruments are best produced globally.  By making these kinds of distinctions, we can better evaluate policies that might favor localism or globalism. Would you describe for us the concept of the “twenty-four-hour city” and how existing cities which are built and zoned under this model (such as Vancouver, British Columbia) generally provide a more holistic sense of safety and security while offering visitors and “strangers” a better sense of hospitality?

Eric Jacobsen: When we first started building the suburbs, there was a period where we thought that the cities would continue to be useful as places to conduct business and for evening entertainment.  The problem with this idea is that without a strong residential population, many parts of the city started feeling dead during many hours of the day and night.  Sometimes this deadness just meant that these areas felt boring, but sometimes dead places became dangerous places.  A twenty-four hour city, by way of contrast is a city with a strong residential population that spans the socioeconomic spectrum.  In a twenty-four hour city, there are less dead spaces and dead times because there are people around during all hours of day and night and these people support businesses that add life to the city.  Currently, it is the 24 hour cities that are flourishing economically because people want to live there and they want to spend time there. Aside from the writings of both Albert Borgmann and Daniel Kemmis, are there other writers or religious persons who have influenced your faith and the redemptive perspective you hold with regard to our cities?

Eric Jacobsen: From the secular side, I really like Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction), and Richard Sennett (Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civiliation) although I don’t agree with everything that they write.  Theologically, I have been appreciative of the work of Tim Gorringe (A Theology of the Built Environment:  Justice, Empowerment, Redemption) and John Inge (A Christian Theology of Place) who are also looking at the theological significance of place.  Colin Gunton (The One, The Three and The Many: God Creation and the Culture of Modernity) doesn’t deal as directly with place or the built environment, but his doctrine of creation seems to provide a good foundation for exploring these questions. Do you have any upcoming books we can look forward to?

Eric Jacobsen: Every couple of months I come up with a different idea for a book and sketch out a little outline.  But the next thing that I must write is my dissertation.  Once that is done, I’ll see if there is still something on my list that still needs to be written.  I’m not interested in writing books just to write books. I’ve been really encouraged by the people I’ve met over the past few years who are exploring these issues from different areas of specialization.  Frankly, I’d be more excited to see books being written by some of these folks than a second volume of my ruminations.  I’m looking forward to the day when people don’t raise there eyebrows when I tell them that I’m interested in theology and the built environment. Sidewalks in the Kingdom is a eye-opening read, which directs us as followers of Jesus to re-examine how we view our cities in order to better integrate the redemptive practice of our faith within them.  For those of us interested in joining the Congress for the New Urbanism, where can we acquire more information on membership?

Eric Jacobsen: You can find out more information about the Congress for the New Urbanism at their web site Is there anything else you would like to add?

Eric Jacobsen: Yes, occasionally I’ll get a response to my work that paints a picture of me as some kind of ideologue.  I want people to know that with the help of a wife, three kids, and many friends; I stopped taking myself too seriously years ago.  I think that it is important to think about the kinds of places we build and how we use them, but in the meantime we make the best decisions that we can given the multiple demands on our lives and the network of relationships that we are involved in.  Every day, I think that I do something that contradicts the kinds of things that I write about and I’ve got a lot of people in my life who remind me of that fact. 

I’ll give one example of what I’m talking about.  A few years ago, my family and I were driving from Seattle down to our new home in California.  We had our mini-van stuffed with all of our possessions, three kids, and a bird.  Our battery died in a little town in Southern Oregon at about 7pm.  We were starting to panic about how we were going to get to our next destination, when the mechanic mentioned that there was a Wal-Mart that was open late.  We got our van to automotive department and a very helpful employee took care of our problem and sent us on our way.  As we were pulling back onto the highway, one of our children piped up, “Dad, do we like Wal-Mart now?”. A gracious thanks for your participation Eric. We appreciate your taking time to provide an eye-opening perspective on our cities and demonstrating how Christians can make a Kingdom-oriented impact within our local communities.


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