New Urban Model Becomes Article of Faith

Times Staff Writer

Some churches pursue social activism by caring for the homeless; some have gotten involved in international issues, such as protesting genocide in Sudan; and others have adopted environmentalism, with recycling and community gardens.

Now some are embracing a gospel of urban planning known as New Urbanism.

That movement, led by architects, builders and urban planners, seeks to retool or build village-like neighborhoods in urban settings, where people can walk to shops, schools, jobs and churches. In new development, they make sure that porches, not garages, grace the fronts of homes and that every neighborhood has some public space.

New Urbanism is seen as an antidote to anonymous suburban sprawl and the social and spiritual alienation that auto-dominated life can trigger.


A case in point is Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, a Romanesque Revival house of worship with a classic Italian bell tower that has been a landmark in the Northern California city’s downtown more than a century.

The church began looking to build a satellite campus to accommodate the quadrupling of the congregation in the last two decades to more than 1,000, according to Tom Hayes, an elder on the church’s building committee. The early idea was a modern building surrounding by acres of parking.

But then the church was contacted by New Urban Builders, a developer with plans for a $750-million, 250-acre mixed-use community of 1,500 houses, apartments, businesses, schools and a baseball field about three miles south of downtown Chico.

The firm invited the congregation to construct its second church on two acres in a similar style as its original building and to occupy a central spot in the new neighborhood, called Meriam Park.


The new church would be built right next to the sidewalks and would not have its own parking lot; New Urbanists view big lots as eyesores and boring wastes of space. Instead, it would share nearby public parking facilities with businesses.

The satellite campus for Bidwell Presbyterian is estimated to cost more than $7 million. With groundbreaking expected next year, church officials hope to have the first phase completed by 2008.

Forgoing a parking lot allows for buildings besides the fellowship hall originally planned: classrooms and offices, a courtyard, a sanctuary and an outdoor arcade where congregants can chat after worship, said John Anderson, one of the developers of Meriam Park. The multipurpose fellowship hall will be open to the community for other civic and cultural events.

“They approached us and said, ‘We really want to have a church in the town center of this development,’ ” recalled the Rev. Greg Cootsona, one of four full-time pastors at the church and head of the building committee. “ ‘We think your church, because of the historic relationship with the city, would be exactly the kind of church we’d like to have in it. We’d love it if you could develop an iconic structure that would grasp people’s attention visually and could connect as a civic as well as a religious component in this development.’ ”

Cootsona, an environmentalist who rides to church on a bicycle (he used to roller-blade to work in Manhattan), was interested.

Soon, he and other church leaders were reading theologian Eric O. Jacobsen’s book “Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith,” which makes a strong case for churches to get involved in cities’ welfare with both welcoming architecture and outreach programs.

“Christians can applaud the fact that New Urbanists are advocating a return to human scale in the built environment,” Jacobsen, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, told a recent gathering of the Congress of New Urbanists in Pasadena. “In seeing the human being as the crown of God’s creation ... [Christians] have a strong foundation for respecting human scale.”

Jacobsen recently left a pastorate in Missoula, Mont., to complete his doctorate in theology and built environment at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He says churches have contributed to the deterioration of cities by building warehouse-like edifices in the suburbs with huge parking lots. Those mega-churches are too isolated to connect with people’s “ordinary lives,” he said.


“I’ll be the first to admit that Christians in this country have failed to live up to the standard set by their own Scriptures,” said Jacobsen, an adjunct professor of theology and culture at Fuller. “Rather than taking the Bible seriously, we have allowed the American idols of individualism, conspicuous consumption and privatism to influence our approach to church building as well as our impulses toward the urban landscape.”

In contrast, a church that is “embedded in the neighborhood with doors that come right up to the sidewalk” reflects Christ’s approach to ministry. He cited All Saints Episcopal Church and Pasadena Presbyterian Church in downtown Pasadena and Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles as positive examples.

“Jesus Christ literally ‘tabernacled,’ or pitched his tent among us,” he said. “He did not remain distant and wait for people to come to him but sought out the hurting to touch them with his love,” he said.

But New Urbanism also has generated some skepticism. Some observers question whether such planning ignores the more pressing issues of affordable housing, jobs and poverty.

“The jury is out,” said theologian Glenn Smith, professor of urban theology at McGill University in Montreal. New Urbanism is essentially a white, elitist movement, he said.

David Frenchak, president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, says he likes New Urbanism but worries that it could have unintended consequences, such as dislocation of the poor from their neighborhoods by newcomers willing to pay higher prices.

But in Chico, church leaders hope that their satellite campus will be a hub of the new neighborhood and a place to which many residents will walk. They also said they would make sure that the new project did not take anything away from their original church and its role in a vibrant downtown Chico.

Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame who also holds a degree from the Harvard Divinity School, is a consultant for Meriam Park’s planned baseball park.


Bess says churches designed with New Urbanism in mind both help “the church’s evangelical mission on behalf of the City of God and contribute to the civilizing function of the City of Man.”