Zoning as Spiritual Practice: From me to we to Thee

Get right with God. Fix your zoning.

That’s not something you hear regularly from the pulpit, maybe. But it’s gospel nonetheless. Here’s why:

If there’s one common thread woven through the world’s most enduring religions, it’s the call to connectivity: Self to others to everything.

Not everyone gives separated-use zoning a positive review.

Buddhism coaxes an awakening to at-oneness. You’re “saved” in Christianity when you open your heart to a deity who bridges the chasm between humanity and the divine through the intervention of a son born among humans. Everybody has a version of the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Which is religion’s counter to the law of the jungle: Trust blood and tribe. Fight or flee the rest.

Getting to trust — especially trust in strangers — may be theology’s greatest contribution to the evolution of our species. Given a few million years of being threatened by organisms that don’t look or act exactly the way we do, trusting people outside family and the pack we run with requires an act of faith.

Two things got me thinking in this vein lately. One is the current mood of the American electorate — angry, frustrated, distrustful. It feels like devolution, a rejection of the lessons of cooperation that make for community. And when I say “community,” I’m thinking of physical ones like neighborhoods and virtual ones like the communities of interest that lead to fruitful collaborations that, in turn, make us more secure or more prosperous or, sometimes, just happier. One metric of happiness, I believe, is the number of people you believe you can trust. And right now an awful lot of us have narrowed our circles of trust to the space around us we’re convinced we can control.

We should have seen this coming with the enshrinement of private space in the houses and neighborhoods we’ve built and the cars we drive. We’re like kids building pretend forts, gathering up all our favorite toys and stuffing them in space we imagine we can protect from threats we imagine await us. At least when we were kids, the adults eventually came into the room, made us take apart the forts of blankets and chairs, and insisted we join the rest of the family.

Loathe thy neighbor: Safe at home in America.

The other thing that nudged me was the publication last week of Robert Putnam’s new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam, you’ll remember, is the Bowling Alone guy. That 2001 book, hinting at the decline of community in American life and backing the argument with sociological surveys and analyses, started crossover conversations about “social capital” and the components of successful communities among planners, designers, sociologists, and many general readers. The new book explores the positive and not-so-positive impulses towards community linked to various degrees of religiosity. People who identify themselves as religious may be more intolerant of others’ beliefs – just as many non-believers suspect – but they’re also more likely than people who aren’t religious to give money to strangers, help people outside their own households, and be more civically engaged.

And we’re not just talking about those on the conservative end of the political spectrum. “In fact,” says Putnam, “across all surveys we have explored, holding religiosity constant (by looking only at regular churchgoers, for example, or only non-churchgoers), liberals are never less generous than conservatives and are, by some measures, better neighbors than conservatives.”

Bottom line: There’s evidently something to this “Love thy neighbor” business.

So if a religious perspective promotes neighborliness and community, regardless of the religious tradition — as Putnam argues — then maybe, given the current toxic environment, we need a religious reawakening. A come-to-Jesus moment, so to speak. Here’s the alter call:

Turn to any page you like in the Smart Growth hymnal. And let’s lift our voices. We know it’s asking too much too quickly to make the Big Connection from our personal space all the way to the universe. So let’s start small. Like the streets outside our houses, the ones that connect us to where we work and play and visit friends.

What if we make our profession of faith an investment of trust in folks in our neighborhoods and maybe a few blocks beyond? What if we act as if we owe them the chance to age comfortably in the communities in which they now live? How ‘bout if we think about lifting the mandate that everybody over 18 has to own a car to live an engaged life in our community? What about an option for kids to walk safely to school? Are we willing, brothers and sisters, to guarantee those opportunities for all by setting standards we all must abide by? (You know, like a covenant.)

If we are ready to take that step, my friends, the path towards righteousness awaits us. And here’s the sacred text: The zoning code.

And not just any code. It’s a set of rules that make manifest our profession of faith through the form in which we shape our community. A form-based code.

Can I get an amen?

(For those of you who need a secularized version of this message, please consult the words of Geoff Dyer here.)

–Ben Brown


Filed under Development, Legal, Planning and Design, Public Policy

13 responses to “Zoning as Spiritual Practice: From me to we to Thee

  1. Samantha Beaumont

    Amen, brother.

  2. Uncle Able

    Amene kaikaina.

  3. Brandon Rypien

    I agree, there is a disconnect between neighbors. It’s impossible to create a neighborhood when you don’t know your neighbors. It’s impossible to create a sense of community “family” when you have no public space “living room” to spend time together.

  4. Amen & God BLESS America!
    Thanks Ben!

  5. E. Maria Roth

    I’m definitely with you on all of that & love how energetically you said it all


  6. Troy


    This is good practical theology – possibly even “tactical theology”. Because of who God is and in-turn who we are, we should be taking actions on a cultural level to “bless” people.


  7. I love this post! However, I can’t help being curious about what a “spiritual zoning code” would look like in practical terms! Can you elaborate? You mention walking safely to school and minimizing the use of cars, but how could a zoning code achieve that? Aren’t things like this influenced by social and cultural as well as legal factors?

  8. Thanks for the chance to push the metaphor a bit.

    It’s not so much that a zoning code itself spiritual. It’s that our codes of behavior — including zoning codes that shape relationships between our public and private realms — reflect our spiritual orientation. The more we privilege connectivity over isolation, community over private turf, the closer we approach what have always been key tenets of spiritual practice in a variety of religious traditions. It’s no accident that adherents of these traditions spend a lot of time organizing themselves into communities of believers and shaping the physical spaces in which they worship, designing their way towards the divine.

  9. Thanks, Ben Brown! That makes sense. It’s really interesting how the way we design our physical spaces effects our relationships!

  10. Pingback: Life as I’d Like It To Be | PlaceShakers and NewsMakers

  11. Oaktownjen

    I just looked at a posting from social psychologist Haidt and then this article on the spirituality of zoning. Haidt asks us to look at our blind spots. I wonder whether we planners are blinded by our moral code that community is better than isolation. Doesn’t it seem like there are people who prefer isolation? If so, how do we engage them in the effort to zone for community?

  12. Hi, Oaktowjen. I’d suggest the community message is very similar to the physical planning message. That is, if you prefer isolation, then zoning that mandates a blanket of single family and strip development proliferating across the countryside essentially robs you of that solitude to some degree. Which means it’s in your interests to support zoning policy that fosters more tightly-knit communities. Because if some areas are more tightly-knit, that allows for other areas to be less so: undeveloped or lightly developed.

    Thus, zoning for community benefits everyone. Even those who want to exist outside of such environments.

  13. Ben Brown

    For most folks, community works better than isolation. Even those who prefer small towns or the rural countryside to city neighborhoods are drawn to settlement patterns that balance their needs for both privacy and for associations with others. Conventional zoning too often proscribes approaches based on a single model, usually the suburban model that separates uses and requires private automobiles to link residences with workplaces, schools, shopping and entertainment. Many of us advocate a form-based zoning model that allows for ranges of development intensities, mixed-use alternatives and relationships between private and public spaces depending upon where they fall in the regional landscape. If someone prefers car-dependent privacy in the far ‘burbs or farmhouse living on vast stretches of ag land or forests, then the zoning should allow for that choice. I’m not aware of many places where the choice of car-dependent isolation is not already available. But I know of plenty of places where building compact, walkable, mixed-use alternatives is illegal. Which I argue is an affront to our spiritual well-being.

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