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

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For those not in-tune with what has been happening, the faith based planning article was intended to bring attention to using certain design elements and/or density goals as an end-all means to an end. Those failthful see only one solution to planning, and unfortunately, government funding is often tied to those goals only. In other words, there is no room for any other opinion, design, or density. Without being open to alternatives that leaves only one method as the end-all to all forms of design and neighborhod building. Certainly all types of planning are valid, but only when applied to the particular situation. As far as my CNU opinion, LEED-ND, is derived from the relationship with CNU and LEED, which in turn is demanded by many government contracts, which leads to my case in point which is essentially forcing one solution to build cities (at least from government's perspective).

I am also no fan of the suburbs - this is why we developed new methods, technologies and educational material. If the suburbs are to be built and grow, what is wrong with fixing the problems and making new suburban neighborhoods wonderful places with lower economic and environmental impacts?

As far as mixed-use, suburbs, etc, all one has to do is visit the web site and go to comparisons and you will see the before and afters of some subdivisions to be sure, but mostly you will see mixed-use developments of varying densities - including midrise, or the example of CND style mixed use to Prefurbia mixed use:

From the comments given - it proves the point that the respondents all have a certain faith in their way being "the" way with no room for others "faiths". Yes, I have a certain "faith" in our planning methods and theory - no doubt about it, but I'd never force it through legislation, political influence, funding, etc, but more by choice.

I hope this clarifies the intent of the article.

Finally, is this Mr. J Hoff the very same activist Johnny "Northside" Hoff? Just curious.

Mr. Harrison

You still refuse to engage in a fact based argument!

This shows your faith over fact!

This is not "Northside" and I am not an activist ... I am simply and easily proving that you do not know what you are talking about.

You have NO facts to back up your claims.

BTW a lot of planners think that LEED is a racket ... and most recognize that CNU has flaws ... but at least they are making strides to understand what makes PLACES ... not just SPACES.

You probably cannot comprehend this Mr. Harrison.

And for those who don't drive?

What happens if/when you can't drive? The elderly, disabled and children have little choice in such environments. For example, we live in a dense neighborhood two subway stops from downtown Frankfurt. In our five story building, there are two families, two elderly women, and a young couple. The benefits of such density and diversity are incalculable, from having someone to help take out the trash or shoveling the sidewalk, to coffee break/playtime get-togethers and BBQs. And not only can I walk my son to his day care, but on the way home we can stop at a playground that attracts dozens of kids from the whole neighborhood in the afternoons. If we had to play in the safe and secure back yard, he would get bored in 2 minutes. In the future, he will be able to walk to school, which is also just down the street. On our 5 minute walk to go shopping, we have an inspiring view of an historic Lutheran church tower. This was our choice, and I think there will be more demand for such places in the future. Finally, regarding the walkability of suburbs in the USA, I would like to relate a common story from my friends, neighbors, classmates and professors here in Germany (who have visited the states): when they went for a stroll visiting friends or family in the suburbs, they were either stopped by the police, or asked if they needed a ride somewhere (I'm going to guess out of the neighborhood). Sidewalks do not make a suburb walkable, people do.

Got faith, Mr. Harrison?

You also don't appear to have much faith in the intelligence of your readers, Mr. Harrison. Instead of any real argument, you spout this ridiculous rant about faith. If you would read a little yourself (books, articles, etc), you might find some faith in facts, nearly all of which reveal the truth you try to hide with this business-as-usual nonsense.

Importance of land use planning

Mr. Harrison spends many bits swiping at CNU straw men rather than addressing the bulk of what I perceive as the new orthodoxy of land use planning: the importance of density and mix. To the extent that he does address this issue, I think his piece is seriously flawed. He makes the common implication that a move toward more dense communities must be the result of planning impositions, rather than the result of relaxing existing prohibitions on dense development. There is much solid argument detailing the pernicious effects of existing density prohibitions and making a strong case that this sort of planning imposition is much more common than the specter that Harrison attacks. See, e.g., the work of Jonathan Levine.

Finally, I find Mr. Harrison's faith schtick to be more than a little ironic, given that his entire piece rests heavily on an article of his own faith: that global warming is either not a real problem or that its solution will come automatically.

The concept of "faith-based"

The concept of "faith-based" gets at the heart of the idealism on the part of many in the planning community. Never question what APA preaches; for all will be good.

I have a planning book from the early 1970s that goes on and on about how the new trend for urban shopping malls (e.g. Portland's Lloyd Center) are the key to revitalizing our cities. They are now the punchline of planning jokes.

The big front porch that is never used and the hokey architecture of modern "new urbanist" neighborhoods will be what we look back at and laugh at in 30 years.

Wow - the failthful answers!

The comments are what I expected. People have a choice - to live in an auto-centric suburb or live in dense cities. Given the response it would seem that people have no choice - they certainly do!

Hey Maryland

"Maryland's incentive-based approach has been less controversial, but the study also suggests it's been less effective."

That is not a condemnation on smart-growth ... it's a condemnation on weak regulation.

You people really need to learn that you are WRONG!


I presented no faith based argument, as you did! I reported facts from a variety of studies and you have NO counter argument. You, your designs and ideas are amateur at best.

Your lack of intellectual honesty exposes your veil of integrity.

Throw a few facts up there ... I tear em down.