Sidewalks in the Kingdom Book Cover

This is a book review that I wrote for New Urban Living Magazine. The review was originally published in the January/February 2005 issue.

Through his recent book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom:  New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Eric Jacobsen introduces the New Urbanism movement to members of the Christian faith.  Through logical and concise arguments, he succeeds at explaining the precise connections between the movement and the faith.  By doing so, he is attempting to establish a renewed interest in restoring existing urban centers and slowing sprawl.  He is certain that Christians will begin to consider the city, as less of a problem or a ministry need, but as a better way of life.  He is also confident that they will realize that by choosing a more urban lifestyle, they are choosing the unique and wonderful opportunity to minister through everyday moments just as Jesus did.  On the other hand, by choosing to encourage and perpetuate the suburban model, they may be, according to Jacobsen, “worshiping false gods in the name of American values.” (p21) and removing themselves from important interactions and ministering opportunities.

Jacobsen claims that the basic American values of independence, individuality, and freedom, have gone to the extreme.  America’s misguided attempts at advancing these values have lead us to the failure and broken promises of sprawl.  This is a fascinating argument, and it is a great springboard into a tour of the six distinct markers of successful urban life.  Personal antidotes, textural illustrations, and Biblical references are used to support each marker.

He also alleges that the launch of the suburban failure was propagated by government through such federal acts as the National Housing Act, which created policies that encouraged new homes in new neighborhoods instead of renewal for older homes in older neighborhoods.  This act also permitted building ‘the projects’ as a solution for public housing.  Another government endeavor was the establishment of the Federal Highway Act which poured money into building roads rather than public transportation systems.  Additionally, we read that government, on a local level, has all but destroyed the positive aspects of zoning.  It has become a harmful agent because it segregates each possible use into its own compartment in the city, single-use zoning, thereby prohibiting important opportunities for integration or interaction.

Unlike the authors of most books supporting the movement, Jacobsen is not an urban designer, architect, or sociologist.  He is a pastor, and he has greatly enjoyed his everyday life largely due to his geographical location and his city’s active and established urban community.  He is able to effectively articulate this pleasure and explain how it guided him to embrace the New Urban movement.

Additionally, unlike most other New Urbanism books, this one is written for a more general audience, one composed of atypical New Urbanite readers.  It does not detail and set forth design guidelines, and it is not a reference book.  Furthermore, most recent New Urban publications have showcased new “green-field” communities.  Jacobsen is not challenging his readers to go build a new city.  He is simply asking Christians to look at what existed before World War II and realize the benefits that we traded for large yards and gated cul-de-sacs.  He is confident we will aim to reestablish the vital urban cores again.

This is an enormously significant work, because, according to the author, the church, by and large, has been reluctant to take a stance on the issue of urban sprawl and town planning.  The relationship between faith and location has yet to be accepted by most Christians.  Jacobsen explains  “… to most Christians, the idea of urban planning seems as relevant to faith as the current additions to the American Kennel Association’s list of approved dog breeds – interesting to some, but certainly not vital to faith” (p14).  Perhaps the relationship is unclear to most Christians because they have not been shown or they do not yet understand the correlation between certain Biblical values and principles of New Urbanism, at both an individual level and for the church body.  Understanding and appreciating this relationship will be important.

I was surprised to find a book about my passion for New Urbanism from the perspective of my faith, but what Jacobsen discusses in Sidewalks in the Kingdom is just plain common sense.  His perspective is refreshing and practical.  Though he tackles a complex and, until now, unlikely subject matter, he delivers it to his audience with clarity.  With straightforward language lacking the New Urbanism academic lingo, Jacobsen employs concise arguments and explanations which are sprinkled with poignant quotes from Scripture and other ground-breaking New Urban writers.  All of this is neatly tied together in a package under 200 pages.  I look forward to recommending this book to many readers outside of the profession.  I think that if the church were to embrace the ideals that Jacobsen is promoting, we would begin to see a radically different landscape.  Sidewalks in the Kingdom is a practical and refined work touting New Urbanism with Christian faith and their potential combined impact.

Author: Tory Parish