I just wrote about this issue at my blog on Patheos and The American Conservative has been covering the question for years, but the importance of place is so often forgotten that it requires restatement.
Where we live deeply affects how we live.
For example: I live right next to a park. Throughout the year it hosts various sporting events: little league baseball, soccer, and rugby. Children hang on the jungle gyms and run through the fields and woods. It’s a pleasant place precisely because it’s so alive; there are always neighbors on foot, families unpacking cars filled with kids and equipment, even just people sunbathing on the open grass. Only a few streets away is our “downtown.” It is easily walkable and economically mixed—projects and mansions both within 15 minutes of my house. It’s not New Urbanism, but, due to the age of my town, things feel close together. The community feels organic, not planned.
My dad, by contrast, has moved to a newly-developed area in the southern part of our state. It has parks, but his neighborhood is mostly cul-de-sacs and side streets far removed from the main road in the area—a highway dotted with Walmarts, McDonalds, and Home Depots. The streets are empty and the lawns big; pedestrians are a rarity as the easiest way to get to the main road is by car. No one could assume his community sprung up from settlers; it reeks of pre-planned development.
Living in these different places fosters different relationships with our fellow human beings. The most obvious change is that our towns and cities can now be bigger because automobiles can carry us further, faster. But being in a car means separation from other human beings, caught up in our music or a radio program. Earlier this summer, for example, I commuted an hour each way every day to Latin class. Once home, I was not interested in re-entering the heat to go outside and take a walk to see neighbors. At best, I’d drive and pick up some dinner or drive to see a friend. And how much worse is it for those who work 8 hours a day and commute one, even two hours each way to and from their jobs?
Suburban sprawl makes possible ambiguous relationships with our neighbors, and, on a wider scale, with our entire communities. Larger lawns mean less contact with our fellow human beings, while the separation of commercial and residential districts creates no incentive to walk from place to place, seeing others along the way. This is simply not how people have lived for most of history. I see this in New Jersey, a state with little developable land — how much worse it must be in places with more space.
How many of us can even walk to church? Few, I imagine.
The costs, however, are not only personal but also financial. As this report states, Edmonton’s new developments are projected to cost it $4 billion dollars more than they bring in as revenue over the next 60 years. We already know that various levels of government spend an immense amount on roads, many of which are worn down by our free use of cars to get to and from, well, everywhere.
But the human cost is what, as a Catholic, really draws my concern. Our nation is clearly fractured—religiously, politically, socially, economically, really in about every way. People call Trump fans idiots while elites often have almost no experience of the horrors of living in poverty—for people of all colors and across the nation. Part of that reality is rooted in where we live. As commercial and residential land has almost entirely separated in many parts of the country, so have our economic spheres. We prize comfort and safety (and who can be blamed for that?) but ought that be at the expense of more vibrant communities, sites for interaction, or—dare I say—conversion?
As Catholics, do we not believe in the necessity of community, of interpersonal relationships based not just on work, but on proximity and festivity?
New Urbanism seeks to return us to human-scale neighborhoods intended to foster community in a fractured nation. The shift will not be easy. It will require uncomfortable changes of heart and the willingness to live among others, not in seclusion and privacy, but with sinners—hopefully allowing us to recognize ourselves as sinners along the way.