Zoning as Spiritual Practice: From me to we to Thee


zoningGet 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.

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.

Not everyone believes separated-use zoning reflects our highest calling.
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. 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 Robert Putnam’s most-recent 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. This more recent 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.”

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

But not just any code. Transcendence awaits through rules that make manifest our commitment to each other through the forms that 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


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