Faith-Based City Planning: Exorcising the Suburban Dream

church and town, college hill RI.jpg

We're coming to the end of the season when we focus a great deal of attention on faith. What is faith? The Biblical definition calls it the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Humans have the capacity to firmly believe in something that cannot be explained by reason and is not visibly evident. Faith is the basis of the world's major religions, and often is a cause for war, and today, terrorism. But though the season of faith may be winding down, there is still a place where faith remains strong year round: It is often the basis of the way we plan our communities.

Over the past two decades, our city planning has become faith based. A new preacher has evolved in the form of the Architect or Planner who evangelizes to the congregation that they can all live in serenity if they have faith in the teachings. Their sermons of architectural commandments introduce dimensional ratios that can deliver a utopian existence, promising a wonderland for families.

To enforce faith, you of course need an evil entity to oppose. The evil entity in the faith of land planning is The Suburbs. Those that believe in the suburbs are inherently evil and must be converted or they may spend eternity dammed to a cul-de-sac. The automobile is sacrificed on this altar, with the chant "Space – Space – Space".

Converts to this faith include many if not most, politicians (not just liberals), architects, planners, environmentalists, movie stars, and many in the press. Those that have not converted yet include land developers, builders, city council and planning commission members, and the majority of the home buying market.

Some of the principles this faith are as follows:

  • Thou shalt build upon thy dwelling a porch of such magnitude that it can serve as a gathering place.
  • Thou shalt construct a path of 2 cubits (approximately 4 feet) wide near thy porch for followers to meet and pray that a cul-de-sac shall not influence thy offspring.
  • A place for chariots shall be placed upon the buttocks of thy dwelling. Thy chariot must not be nearer to the dwelling than 4 cubits or thee will be smitten.
  • Thou shall plant a tree half a cubit from thy curb and in front of thy porch.
  • Create a place for gathering no farther than 600 cubits from thy dwelling.
  • Thy dwelling shall have Craftsman trim.
  • The path to heaven is taken by bicycle, light rail, or walking, not by powered chariot.
  • A congregant must dwell in extreme closeness to thy neighbor.

Myself? I’m a disbeliever; a heretic who thinks there is no place in the design of our cities and neighborhoods for this belief system to be regulated or enforced. If development companies are believers, then by all means let them develop their land in such a manner, as they will have the faith that homes will sell to those that also believe.

The danger arises when Federal funding is tied to the faith, on the basis that developments of extreme density will surely result in less vehicular miles traveled and a more healthy environment for human creatures. Do not follow this faith, and good luck getting funded. Is this the American way?

I do not believe the automobile is evil, and I'm thankful that I live in an era where I can think nothing of traveling 20, 30, 40 miles or even 400 miles. A hundred years ago my ancestors had no such luxury.

I am thankful that I live in a place that offers a sense of space, yet is not too distant from neighbors and services. I am especially thankful for choice. Yes, there is a coffee shop about a 10 minute walk away, but a three minute drive will get me to a coffee shop that offers more tasty drinks at lower costs.

Looking outside, I see two feet of new snow. I’m especially thankful that I do not have to use our icy walks in the sub-zero temperatures, and wait for the bus that connects downtown to the bus that would take me to within a ¼ mile of my office. Yes I’m thrilled to have a 5 minute drive to work instead of an hour bus ride (buses connect downtown, not in the burbs). Of course, those with faith believe that exposure to sub-zero weather and walking along icy surfaces is somehow healthier.

I lack the faith that extreme density without car ownership is a better way. As a disbeliever, I cannot find the faith to believe children being brought up in high-density, high-rise projects have the same quality of life as those brought up in homes with a secure and safe yard to play in. I cannot find the faith that living in high rise rentals is an American Dream.

I do believe the consumer will not flock to this new life of high density living. Yes, New York today is a somewhat exciting place to visit, but just a few decades ago it was a truly awful place. What will it be like two decades from now? Will it be a great place to live for those on the lower side of “middle income”?

I believe there is no magic architectural solution to create a better society – none. There is no special setback, density, or building-to- street ratio that can somehow provide a better life. There is no software button one can press to analyze land use and, bingo, spit out a solution. To believe that any of formula of that sort could be workable takes faith, a faith that is apparently held by many.

I also believe that it’s simply untrue that the suburbs are not walkable. In the southern states, most cities demand walks to be constructed on both sides of the street. Because of snow, as one ventures north, walkways become less mandated. I have visited (and not on a press tour) the developments of the faith of land planning: I’On, Kentlands, Celebration, SeaSide, WaterColor, etc. What I’ve observed is that there seem to be no more or less people walking than what I have seen in conventional suburbs. On these visits I have never seen a single person sitting on his or her front porch – not one.

Yet I do believe that a full front porch is important for two reasons. The first is that it connects the living spaces to the street, and it can be used to congregate. But secondly, there is a warmth to a neighborhood of homes that have full porches. It adds character, compared to the coldness of a development lacking porches. So— how the porch is used is not the only measure of its success.

The sooner we can get faith out of the design of our cities, the sooner we can implement sustainable solutions that have a positive effect on our living standards and help get our housing market (and our economy) back on track. And yes, I hope I’m dammed to a cul-de-sac for eternity!

Photo by Will Hart of College Hill, Rhode Island - Looking North-East with The First Baptist Church in America (1775), 75 North Main Street in the foreground.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are and

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

faith inspires common sense?

I'm but a mere dabbler in things urban planning, but I am intrigued by this conversation. How's this for faith-based planning? I may not be as quick as others to dismiss this traffic plan - I think there's something to be said for forcing people (however non-coercively) to open their eyes and see the others around them. I'd be interested to see what you all think about the project.

What property values say about people's preferences

I live in an older neighborhood in the inner core of Portland in a Craftsman bungalow with a large front porch that I sit on all the time in the warm weather. And, if I sit on the porch for an hour, I'm almost guaranteed to have at least one conversation with with one of the many neighbors passing by on foot. My neighborhood is almost all single-family houses on 50' x 100' lots, with back yards, and there are plenty of families with children. We're a 10 minute walk from the light rail line, a bus stops on my corner, and we can drive downtown in 9 minutes when traffic is light. Most people in the neighborhood have cars, but people also walk and ride bikes a lot. I ride my bike to work much of the time in the warm weather, otherwise I drive. I think my quality of life in my neighborhood is higher than it would be in either a newer cul-de-sac suburb or a very dense high-rise neighborhood. Apparently a lot of people agree with me, because my house is easily worth twice what a house of the same size would be in most of the Portland suburbs.

In many ways, my neighborhood is the best of both worlds. While it would be silly to require new developments to have Craftsman trim, I think there is something to be said for encouraging relatively high density development that takes the best from the "streetcar suburb" style development that characterizes my neighborhood.

Thank you, Rick, for your common sense

All the arguments for and against "New Urbanism" or Suburbs, or whatever else do not really matter so much as this: We are Americans and WE WANT TO BE FREE TO LIVE WHEREVER WE WANT! We do not want bureaucrats, politicians, or do-gooders telling us, or requiring us, to live where they think they know best. This is not the Soviet Union. Some people want to live in a city in an apartment or on a small lot. Some want to live out in the country on a large lot. I say let people live where they want--period. Let the free market control what type of subdivision and home is built, how it is built, and where it is built. Anyone who wants to dictate to us has basically adopted a totalitarian mindset. So thank you, Rick, for bringing some common sense to the table.

Everybody believes in something

Mr. Harrison, I reviewed your Prefurbia slideshow - nice graphic presentation, btw - and I see just as many "articles of faith" operating here as you criticize in New Urbanism. Indeed, each slide is based on an ideology that another writer could as easily turn into the Rick Harrison "10 Commandments," as you acknowledge in a later post.

As a practicing New Urbanist developer, I have encountered that these - or similar - articles of faith are carved in the stone tablets of local, regional, state and federal development regulations. Moreover, when we've been able to get past that gauntlet we're stopped dead in our tracks by banking regulations and Wall Street practices that are tied to the same belief system.

It is a common misconception that auto-oriented, low-density suburbia is the market preference but those of us who have tried to do anything have learned instantly that this "market" is anything but free and, as some posters have pointed out, suburbia forecloses choice rather than opening it. To blithely say that people can choose to live in dense cities (where cost of living is often much higher, for reasons mentioned below) is a glossing over of the real market choices, and ignores the fact that people ARE choosing to live in dense urban areas, driving up the values there.

Suburbia, as a child of Modernism, has its intellectual roots in none other than Marxist Communism. The suburban project has been facilitated by massive Federal wealth-redistribution projects (Highways, GI Bill, Fannie/Freddie, FHA, HUD) and continues to be subsidized by taxes at all levels of government that either redistribute wealth from urban areas, or borrow from future growth - the ultimate in unsustainable models.

If real estate markets were truly free and unsubsidized the landscape of choices would be dramatically different, and likely in ways that would surprise ALL of us - urbanists and suburbanists alike. For examples of how it might differ, though, I think it is instructive to look to the patterns of development that precede the Modernist era (pre-WWII). (this is not to advocate or dream of a complete return to this era, but merely to find a meaningful existing sample.)

Traditional urban patterns and practices held sway for thousands of years in every culture, not because of blind faith, but for extremely practical reasons. Access to other people for economic production and protection of farmland for food production went hand-in-hand, for example. This was not because people "believed" it was good to live close together; life simply demanded it.

It must also be noted that traditional urban forms were incredibly resilient in the face of both catastrophic and gradual changes, because the basic urban armature - streets and blocks - is immensely adaptable, as the enduring history of cities has demonstrated.

This brings me to my last (and then I'll shut up) point about your proposed (defended) planning methods. I see in Prefurbia a set and immutable mix of uses and building types. How does it (or suburbia in general) accommodate fluctuations in the balance of residences to commercial or changes in demographics? How would it handle a change in transportation mode, communications technology, or even the primary industry of its region? How will future owners add value to their property (ala adding on) without ruining your composition? (and I haven't even brought up climate change!)

"Prefurbia" is nicely designed to answer all the questions you have posed for it, but what about the questions you can't pose, because they haven't occurred yet? Do you suppose things in the future won't change? Isn't that a BIG leap of faith?

I agree that there are more than a few ideologues among New Urbanists, but the biggest ideologues I've encountered recently are the defenders of suburbia. New Urbanist principles (including front porches) are pragmatic (like the real 10 Commandments, IMO), not articles of faith (like transubstantiation.)

Nevertheless, we needn't stones at each other.


Only comment worth reading

Out of this entire article and subsequent discussion, the only thing worth reading is Frank Starkey's comment above. The simple fact is that the free-market is not at all free when it comes to development and housing choice, and the main reason people choose the current suburban form is that it is realistically their only "choice".

If the regulations against mixed-use and even moderate densities were removed (along with the huge subsidies for car travel), we'd see the development of a much larger variety of housing and neighbourhood types, from very dense urban places to standard suburban neighbourhoods and (here's the most important part) everything in between. Give developers and people choices, and then let's see what develops.

Land prices matter

Please read my long comment at the bottom of this thread.

I absolutely AGREE with you on this:

".....If the regulations against mixed-use and even moderate densities were removed......"

The VITAL thing is to NOT put "boundaries" and zoning in place that force up land prices. If you force up land prices, you REDUCE the rate at which efficient locations will "densify". Google Alain Bertaud; "Spatial Distribution of Density".

Any metro that keeps its land prices LOW, and allows densification to occur naturally at the most beneficial places, and allows urban land use "churn" and various agglomaration efficiencies (without allowing cumbersome zoning to get in the way); will BURY other metros economically AND by every measure of efficiency. Alain Bertaud's studies explain WHY places like Los Angeles and Vancouver and London and Sydney have "dense sprawl" or "dysfunctional density". There is NO CORRELATION between "density" per se, and economic efficiency. The "Spatial Distribution of Density" is what MATTERS. That is, your density needs to be at its MAXIMUM in the RIGHT places, and at its MINIMUM in the WRONG places.

Metros that force up the price of land as a consequence of urban growth boundaries, end up with a relatively consistent rate of "density everywhere", instead of a SLOPE to the urban density profile. If you have no restriction on the fringe, though, your land prices will remain low regardless of how low interest rates go or how easy credit becomes. However, your "spatial distribution of density" will end up FAR SUPERIOR to those metros who limit their fringe. You will end up with extremely low density at the fringes (which hardly matters), and your "density" will be in the RIGHT places.

It is as simple as this: how many people can afford a typical inner suburb condo in a metro with inflated land prices: condos for $1,000,000? In the "cheap land" metros, the same inner suburb condo might be $200,000. Ultimately, in the latter case, you are going to have a lot more people living that way.

Thanks Frank

You may see that I do borrow some basic elements from New Urbanism, and appreciate your comments.


how sweet

really ... these people do not need to be engaged on an intellectual level Frank.

They are intellectually dishonest and do not need people enabling there ideas.

Interesting Article But Could be Better

I thought Mr. Harrison was hitting on something important here, but then realized that he didn't present any facts and was just substituting one design faith for another. Also, the tone of the article is a little unprofessional and detracts from the content.

It'd be nice to see a more thoughtful and in-depth discussion of this issue.

Actually driving IS evil

Driving could be considered evil because it is the transportation mode that is most likely to impact others - private cars are much more likely to result in accidents than any other mode, and even if you avoid killing or injuring someone with your car, you still impact their health with the pollution from your tailpipe (both through the particulate matter and through the climate change caused by the CO2 emissions).

Since you have a choice to use other means of transport with lower impacts, but you freely choose the means that impacts others most, that could be considered evil.