Authentic Urbanism and the Neighborhood Church

by Craig S. Lewis, appearing in Volume 18

“Law 119. For the temple of the principal church, parish, or monastery, there shall be assigned specific lots; the first after the streets and plazas have been laid out, and these shall be a complete block so as to avoid having other buildings nearby, unless it were for practical or ornamental reasons.”

—The Laws of the Indies, 1573, by order of King Philip II of Spain

From our earliest beginnings as a country, we have always reserved the most important and prominent spaces for our civic buildings. The Laws of the Indies, as the first specific set of rules governing the settlement of a new town in the new world by Spanish colonists, decreed that three things must happen before any other: the identification of the highest and best location for the main plaza, the establishment of streets that were to radiate out from the plaza in ordinal directions, and the reservation of the first lots for the establishment of churches (specifically, the Catholic church). Numerous towns in the southeast and southwest United States were established according to these principles including Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM, Fernandina, FL, and Tucson, AZ.

This high regard for the primacy of public spaces and civic buildings continued throughout much of the early years in American urban development. The New England town square was the Puritan’s form of Spanish plaza and was often flanked by a Protestant church. Cathedrals continued to be constructed in prime locations in views of the waterfronts to greet arriving visitors, or on hilltops so as to be seen by the entire village or city. In urban neighborhoods throughout the country, churches were constructed to serve the various ethnic immigrant populations that would settle in a particular area, becoming a spiritual, social, and—through parochial schools—educational anchor. Together with parks or plazas, churches formed the essential public realm of many a neighborhood throughout the county.

The church’s slide from architectural preeminence in neighborhoods and in cities occurred over a long period. Rather than a single cause, it is more likely that a series of gradual shifts—primarily demographic and economic—slowly amassed to conspire against what was once the norm. These shifts impacted the construction of other public buildings as well.

The Chapel at Seaside, Florida. Photo by Josh Martin

The last consideration of the importance of the public realm came during the “City Beautiful” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and the parallel “Garden City” movement occurring in Great Britain). Advocates sought to clean up many of the country’s larger cities through the imposition of beautiful landscapes and monuments. While important as a design philosophy, its moral and social goals lacked the spiritual dimension. As a result, few churches were incorporated into plans, finally ceding their long-standing role as important neighborhood anchors to more humanist structures such as museums, libraries, and government buildings.

After the end of World War II, the explosion of the suburban development pattern and its focus on efficiency and privacy rang the final death knell. Public space and public buildings were no longer a component of development patterns and competed for land left over from private development. Because our suburbs, as the predominate development pattern across the United States (and exported worldwide) have sprawled in this low-density, auto-dependent landform, our civic facilities have been forced to build further away and bigger as a means to attract more students, parishioners, or congregants.

The overall decline in church attendance, coupled with the massive suburban migration that nearly emptied many urban neighborhoods, has left many sacred buildings today with declining or non-existent populations. Older urban areas like Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Saint Louis have seen urban churches closing down at an alarming rate. Historically Catholic Saint Louis maintains a list of 111 parishes closed in recent history, and Buffalo has closed 77 parish churches and schools since 2005.1

Yet while churches are closing in some locations, they continue to grow in others. But unlike their urban, in-town counterparts, these campuses must accommodate exceptionally large facilities, classroom and office buildings, and occasionally a school. Perhaps, most important, these large sites must accommodate the fact that every single person that attends Mass will arrive by automobile, a fact that ensures that a large percentage of every capital dollar must be relegated to the construction of a parking lot rather than on the architecture of its buildings or the ministries that they provide.

New Urbanism and the Neighborhood Church

In October, 1993, approximately 170 designers and developers gathered in Alexandria, VA to discuss the travails of “the placelessness of the modern suburbs, the decline of central cities, the growing separation in communities by race and income, the challenges of raising children in an economy that requires two incomes for every family, and the environmental damage brought on by development that requires us to depend on the automobile for all daily activities.”2 Under the leadership of Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Daniel Solomon—all architects—the Congress for the New Urbanism was formed and has quickly risen to the preeminent organization for addressing the “confluence of community, economics, and environment in our cities.”3

At its heart, New Urbanism is a movement about reclaiming the public realm–our streets, our parks, and our public buildings–and ordering the remainder of the land to complement these critical amenities. However, it is important to note that New Urbanism recognizes “that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive framework.”4

The New Town at Saint Charles, Missouri. Photo by Josh Martin

New urbanists have long asserted the need to reserve prominent locations within new neighborhoods for the erection of various civic buildings—town halls, fire stations, school, museums, and churches. The challenge until now has been for many to figure out a means by which the vertical infrastructure of the civic building can once again be integrated into the neighborhood after more than a half-century of moving away from it. Will congregations sacrifice the expansive greenfield campus with generous parking lots for a more urban location? And perhaps more importantly, can the re-insertion of the neighborhood church be more than a programmatic alternative to the community clubhouse and truly fulfill the spiritual needs of the neighborhood’s residents?

The chapel in the New Town at Saint Charles, Missouri. Photo by Josh Martin

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Seaside, FL, the traditional neighborhood often considered the epicenter for the New Urbanist movement, reserved a location for a chapel in its earliest plans. While the neighborhood grew up around this site since 1981, it wasn’t until October 20, 2001 that the Seaside Interfaith Chapel was dedicated. Envisioned by developers Robert and Daryl Davis to be “a place for all faiths to worship,” the 50 foot tall, traditionally-designed structure with its 68 foot tall bell tower anchors the northern terminus of Seaside’s central green. The multi-function building has been a home to a wide variety of activities including weddings, lectures, and faith-based services. For a number of years it was used extensively by an evangelical Christian congregation, although they have since moved on to another slightly larger location about a mile away. During the time that congregation was in residence, “the chapel was as alive as it has ever been,” according to Robert Davis. Since that time, the chapel has been shared by a few feeder churches from Birmingham, Atlanta, and elsewhere during the summer months to serve their congregants who vacation in the resort community.

The New Town at Saint Charles in Saint Charles, MO, a suburb of Saint Louis, similarly constructed a chapel to serve as their neighborhood’s centerpiece. Presently, the highly prominent classical structure is the mission of a nearby Lutheran congregation, and shares time with a heavily booked wedding schedule. It is the wedding business that funds the operations and maintenance of the building. The rest of the week, the building sits largely vacant and devoid of life.

As Eric Jacobson, a Presbyterian pastor and the author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, noted in an article in New Urban News in April/May 2005, “When economies of scale allow and the developer is interested in including a religious building as an amenity, a multi-faith structure is often less than optimal. A generic religious building doesn’t enliven the space nearly as much as one in which a flesh-and-blood congregation makes a significant investment.”5 The experiences of the New Town Chapel and Saint Charles Christian Church certainly bear out his statement.

Since early experiments in multi-purpose chapels underperformed the original intentions to help authenticate “community,” a number of developers have now begun to reserve spaces for the purpose-built church by a specific faith community.

Forging a New Congregation

In the I’On neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, SC, developer Vince Graham long hoped to find a congregation to build within the celebrated new urbanist village. After an article in the local paper that noted that the neighborhood had a civic site reserved, members of the Orthodox Church in America approached Vince with a proposal to build a new home for their parish. Enamored with the rich architectural heritage that the Orthodox faith carries with it through each of their buildings, the proposal was quickly accepted.

Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Photos by Josh Martin

The land was donated to Holy Ascension Orthodox Church and in May, 2008, the 3,500 square foot, Byzantine structure was dedicated. Interestingly, the parish took up residence in the neighborhood long before the church’s dedication by maintaining a Christian bookstore, Ascension Books, in an adjacent storefront. It was through this early presence in the neighborhood that the parish built a connection with many of the neighbors and merchants. Those “friends of the parish” helped to build the church literally through such tasks as driving the nails into the floor. And the neighborhood continues to support the church through its attendance at various social and cultural gatherings held at the church. Father John Parker, the parish’s first and current pastor, believes that their unique and formal liturgy is as immediately attractive to the general population as a non-denominational format would be. “But,” he adds, “we feel that we are able to evangelize every day through the art and iconography of the building as they walk, bike, and drive by. In this manner we are able to serve their specific needs of an Orthodox faith if they are so inclined but we view our mission simply to invite people to be in the orbit of the church.”

Designed by Andrew Gould, the $1.3 million Holy Ascension Church has become a true neighborhood landmark replete with the onion-domes in the orthodox tradition and, according to Father John Parker, “a perfect orientation of the structure to the east.” The latter of these is a designer’s challenge when given a lot not much larger than a postage stamp in an urban neighborhood. In addition, the size of the lot precluded many of the suburban amenities that are commonplace with most churches, including large parking lots. On-street parking and parking in the nearby town center lots accommodate parishioners’ cars. 

Today, everyone who comes into the church, whether as a guest, a patron of the many events that are hosted there, or for The Divine Liturgy, has two reactions upon entering the small building–“wow” and “wow.” While they are not a fast growing parish, Father John rests his faith in God in more subtle ways: “We hope that our building will be a beacon to those who might not otherwise come in for the liturgy… I believe that beauty will save the world.”

Finding a New Home

Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Covington, GA found new life amidst the front porches and tree-lined streets of their traditional neighborhoods.

In Covington, the local Episcopal church was already looking to relocate from their current in-town location to a new site that could better accommodate their long-term needs. When they learned that a site had been reserved by the developers of Clark’s Grove approximately one mile from the church’s present location, they knew that it was their destiny. Interestingly, there was no civic site available in the second phase of the neighborhood, but because they were still early in the process, the developers tweaked the lots to create a site that accommodated the needs of the church. Today the $2.6 million, 240 seat church and separate administration building sit prominently on the third tallest hill in town.

Unlike Holy Ascension, they have a small parking lot, but they still rely heavily on on-street parking to satisfy their needs. It’s a bit ironic since the primary reason for their initial decision to relocate was the absence of parking. “It’s a different mindset than the suburban megachurch,” observes its rector, Father Tim Graham. “We are much more connected because we are right here in the neighborhood.” A number of parishioners walk to the church today—in fact more than when they were located downtown—and they hope that as the 300 home neighborhood builds out over its over 90 acres that many more will be attracted to the church. Father Tim believes that many people across the country “are longing to know their neighbors. The neighborhood church can offer not only a place to worship but also a social network as well.”

Also unlike the very high-priced homes in I’On, which is relatively isolated from its neighbors, Clark’s Grove is a piece of the larger neighborhood. Frank Turner, who leads the development team, is quick to point out that “not too far from the upper middle class homes of Clark’s Grove are some of the poorest people in the entire country.” Accordingly to Father Tim, “the location in the middle of this diverse neighborhood affords the church the responsibility to reach out to everyone.”

And finally in Davidson, NC an infill neighborhood is home to Saint Alban’s Church, within walking distance of the downtown and Davidson College. What started as a land swap to better orient an entrance became a fabulous partnership between the local church and the developer to create a very prominent landmark. When Doug Boone began planning his “new neighborhood in old Davidson” (he intentionally didn’t name the neighborhood), he and his design team were able to negotiate a mutually beneficial land swap that would increase the church’s property from two acres to seven, and place them at the termination of the main entrance to the neighborhood. From this point on, as the then-rector of the parish, Gary Steber notes, “it was all providential.”

St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. Photo by Josh Martin

The then-150 person congregation was able to construct the 300 seat, $1.8 million church and bell tower and dedicate it on October 21, 2001; coincidentally a day after the dedication of the Seaside Interfaith Chapel. “Since that time,” says current rector Father David Buck, “the parish has grown to more than 500 regular attendees over two services and more than 1,000 people connected to the church.” Its current location is a fulfillment of the original members’ desire to be seen throughout the community. Formerly worshipping in a house located deep in a neighborhood not too far from their present location, Saint Alban’s is very much a center of activity for the entire community. Today they host a robust schedule of music that is open to the community, which included a recent concert by noted pianist, George Winston. They are also beginning a community garden as a way to further reach out to the surrounding neighborhood and host the neighborhood association meetings. And finally, in a measure that harkens back to the multi-faith chapels noted earlier, they provide use of their facility to Temple Beth Shalom of Lake Norman on a regular basis until its congregation can build a permanent home of their own.

The Canary in the Coalmine

Efforts to restore the neighborhood church are still more the exception than the norm. New churches in traditional, walkable neighborhoods are few in number compared to the total number of new church buildings. But in some very important ways, these early experiments are the canaries in the coalmine, indicating that the trend may be successful and sustainable. While housing, jobs, and shopping have long since returned, churches have heretofore been much more cautious.

What New Urbanism presents to the church is an opportunity. Very simply, it is an opportunity to override the pattern of auto-dependent, sprawling campuses in the greenfields in favor of returning to the neighborhoods, and once again become important social and spiritual anchors. In doing so, the neighborhood church provides visual beauty, physical prominence, and the restoration of authentic urbanism alongside a physical return of the sacred and the spiritual to our daily lives. Most importantly, the neighborhood church can begin to once again fulfill its role in proclaiming the word of God within walking distance of our front porch.