Land-Use Planning and the Quest for Shalom

[1] Thoreau once quipped, “what is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Middle- and upper-income North Americans enjoy larger private dwellings and more spacious lots than their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world. Yet, increasingly we are coming to question the health of our communities and our planet. Ask someone living near the developing edge of an urban area and they can probably tell you sad stories of fields and forests that have been bulldozed and replaced with cookie-cutter subdivisions. Ask an inner-city church engaged in social ministry and you are likely to hear of immense challenges in helping people become self-sufficient as jobs, opportunities, and role models disappear from the inner-city. And in city and suburb alike, most everyone complains about growing traffic congestion, rising property taxes, degraded landscapes, and struggling school systems. We regularly voice these complaints but rarely do we see that they are directly connected to the way our cities and regions are planned and built.

[2] Most of us don’t bother to take a role in shaping our own community until an unwanted land use such as a highway or halfway house is proposed for our neighborhood. Fortunately, getting involved in urban planning is something everyone can do. Getting involved is as simple as attending public hearings, writing a letter to public officials, or volunteering to serve on a local planning board. At some point we may have to learn the sometimes tedious details of state and federal regulations, zoning codes, annexation procedures, and sewer financing, but if we can see beyond the details and our own backyard issues, we will recognize that land-use planning is a critical task. It is critical because it gives shape to the places where we live and offers an important avenue for Christians to promote justice, community, and the stewardship of creation. This essay argues for the importance of ethical engagement with land-use planning and suggests that Christian theology offers important resources to guide that engagement. I describe the broad biblical vision of shalom that I believe should guide our work and conclude with some suggestions as to how this vision might be translated into the practice of land-use planning.

Why Planning?

[3] To plan is to guide the future shape of a community by deciding what can be built where, what land if any will be protected from development, and where infrastructure investments, civic spaces, and parks will be located. Land-use planning is necessary because land has a strong social dimension. Despite our strong emphasis on private property rights, we must acknowledge that our use of our own land is dependent on connections to broader societal systems such as utilities and roads. Further, what we do on our privately held land has spillover effects on our neighbors, especially in densely settled urban areas. Cities are centers of human interaction and require intensive planning to coordinate their complex and interconnected functions. In one sense, land-use planning is about being a good neighbor, about paying attention to spillover effects, and about tending to the public realm.

[4] We have not always done a good job of attending to the public realm or to the health of our communities and our planet. Recent criticisms of contemporary urban trends abound. Social critics such as James Howard Kunstler have tried to open our eyes to see the brutal ugliness of commercial strips lined with cartoon architecture, billboards, and glowing signs. Kunstler mourns the loss of local history and sense of place and its replacement with a formulaic landscape of chain stores and “jive plastic commuter tract home wastelands” designed for the needs of cars rather than people.[1] Transportation experts point out the inevitability of traffic congestion in suburbs built exclusively for automobiles, concluding that a city cannot build its way out of highway congestion.[2] Environmentalists bemoan the destructiveness of current patterns of urban sprawl as the rates of land consumption and vehicle travel (and the concomitant energy use and air pollution) grow much faster than the population.[3] Wilderness advocates decry the urban sprawl outside the gates of our national parks and wilderness areas.[4] Concerned citizens decry the replacement of main streets and public squares with privately owned, enclosed shopping malls.[5] Planners have sounded the alarm at the growing rates of private, gated communities that represent the secession of the successful from their ties to wider society.[6] Social scientists have documented the social costs of suburban sprawl, central city decline, and segregation of regions along lines of race and income.[7] Whether or not these diverse critics are right, they have rightly raised ethical questions about the built environment and should provoke us to consider how we ought to plan and build our neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Before we engage the process of land-use planning, however, we must understand the dominant ideals that have shaped urban development in the U.S. since the end of World War II.

The Dominant Vision for North American Cities

[5] Urban scholar Anthony Downs has described the dominant vision for U.S. cities as one of “low-density sprawl.”[8] This vision focuses its attention first and foremost on the private realm of detached, single-family houses set on spacious lots. In the twentieth century, this vision was wedded to a modernist mode of land-use planning that sought to spread out the city and segregate its various functions so that there was a place for everything and everything remained in its place. Thus, office parks line the beltways, and schools, shopping centers, multiple-family and single-family housing each has its own place. The most desirable sites are reserved for expensive single-family houses and low-income housing is relegated to the least desirable sites (preferably in another municipality). In this amorphous, spread-out, and segregated urban form that dominates U.S. metropolitan regions, the car has risen to prominence, fulfilling the critical role of linking all the elements together.

[6] The next element in this dominant vision for U.S. cities has been an emphasis on local control and small government. This has resulted in the proliferation of local government units around U.S. cities. For example, in metropolitan Chicago, there are over 1,200 units of local government. Another key element in this dominant vision is a strong preference for an environment free from signs of poverty and lower-status persons. This particular preference is often unspoken but is a strong component in urban politics and residential location decisions, and manifests itself in the dominant residential strategy of upward social mobility through outward geographic mobility and virulent protests against the construction of apartments or lower-priced houses in single-family neighborhoods.

[7] The vision that has guided land-use planning in the U.S. since World War II has given many Americans good housing and safe, comfortable neighborhoods. Substitute the spacious lawn for the biblical fig tree and vineyard and it is easy to imagine that the American suburb is the fulfillment of the biblical promise found in Micah 4:4. Unfortunately, there are negative consequences of this vision. In our quest to give everyone some green space of his or her own, we have consumed vast quantities of land and paved over many wonders of God’s creation. In building sprawling, spatially segregated communities we have become totally dependent on our automobiles, consuming more energy and producing more pollution than our counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world. Kids no longer walk to school and many of us must consume a gallon of gasoline to pick up a gallon of milk. In our continual push to open up new suburban frontiers, resources have been drained away from existing, built-up centers and the poor are trapped in core areas with declining opportunities. In sum, we have fallen short of the biblical vision of shalom and need to be reminded of the power of that vision.

Biblical Foundations for Land-Use Planning

[8] The biblical concept that should animate our engagement with land-use planning is that of shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff describes shalom as an “ethical community” embodying right, harmonious relationships with God, neighbors, and creation.[9] The prophet Jeremiah’s words describe the communal aspects of shalom: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘…seek the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers (shalom), you too will prosper (shalom)'” (29:4,7). Despite their longing for home in Jerusalem, the exiles were commanded to create an ethical community in Babylon. They were to seek shalom in the shared environment of the human city. For some Christians, involvement in the affairs of the earthly city can create a tension with their longing for the heavenly city. The early church resolved the tension between the earthly city and the heavenly city using the formulation given by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. Recognizing that the earthly city was not their home in an eschatological sense, they nonetheless sought the welfare of others in their city.[10] They were not a withdrawn community like other minority religious groups, but actively engaged in the civic life of the polis. Early Christians acted as benefactors to their cities and sought to bring credit to the gospel by leading exemplary lives in the public realm. The earthly city will never fully achieve shalom, but we are nonetheless called to seek the common good, to promote the welfare of our city, and to build communities that embody right and harmonious relationships between God, persons, and the non-human creation.

[9] From a biblical perspective, land ownership, control, and use occupy a pivotal role in the quest for shalom. Land is a central motif in biblical theology and the biblical faith can be expressed as the pursuit of a promised land, a place of belonging, community, and rootedness.[11] In the Old Testament, human-land relationships form a central portion of the ethical teaching and serve as a litmus test for theological and social relationships.[12] Land represented economic opportunity and upon reaching the Promised Land, the initial distribution of land among the tribes was designed to ensure access and opportunity for all. Land ultimately belonged to God and humans were entrusted with the responsibility of stewardship. The inevitable tendencies towards over-exploitation of the land and social inequality were also acknowledged but were checked by laws such as the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee as found in the book of Leviticus (Ch. 25).


[10] Community is at the heart of shalom. As Christians we must continually struggle to resist the individualistic pull of our culture.[13] The Scriptures affirm the dignity of the individual but also teach that we are incomplete as lone individuals and can only achieve full personhood through giving of ourselves in relationships with others. We were made for community and relationships because we were made in the image of a relational God who, as the doctrine of the Trinity teaches, is three persons in community. [14]

Justice and Love for Our Neighbors

[11] The call to justice in defending the cause of the needy and most vulnerable members of society is also at the heart of shalom. Justice is an essential characteristic of God, and is demonstrated in God’s special concern for the cause of the poor and oppressed. Throughout the Scriptures, we are taught that God “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry” (Ps. 146:7).[15] As the redeemed people of God, we are to emulate God’s character and God’s desire to work justice for the needy and oppressed. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan we are instructed that to love one’s neighbor means crossing entrenched religious and ethnic boundaries. Jesus’ parable challenges us to redefine our concept of “neighbor” to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Stewardship of Creation

[12] Right, harmonious relationships with the non-human creation is also at the heart of shalom. The creation account in Genesis forms the basis for a biblical understanding of the proper human relationship to the earth. Significantly, humans are described as being created by God “from the dust of the earth” and being placed in the garden to “serve” and “keep” the garden. The thrust of the creation account is that humans are part of nature yet given an unique role of exercising a form of dominion marked by servanthood and stewardship.[16] The redemption that is in Christ extends healing into our fractured relationships with creation so that they are marked by care and service. Community, justice, and stewardship of the earth are aspects of shalom that must be held in creative tension as we engage in land-use planning. Land-use planning that only considers environmental quality can produce landscapes that exclude the poor and actually worsen the position of the more vulnerable members of society. Schemes that promise to deliver jobs and other economic benefits for the poor may undermine their goals by damaging the environment.

Practical Suggestions for Planning:

[13] In the following paragraphs I suggest ways that the biblical vision of shalom might be translated into land-use planning. I suggest an emphasis on the architecture of community, balanced and inclusive communities, sensitivity to place, acceptance of limits, and crossing of political boundaries.

[14] Architecture of community: Creating an architecture of community should at the center of our efforts because we are relational beings who need each other to be whole. We should demand urban design that facilitates social interaction and fosters civic engagement. In addition to private dwellings, we need public spaces for gatherings, sidewalks where we can bump into our neighbors, parks where kids can play together, and comfortable public-private interfaces such as the traditional front porch. One of the major trends in urban planning is rewriting zoning codes and rethinking urban design in a return to pre-World War II designs that emphasized social interaction and the public realm. The Kentlands community in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Seaside, Florida are well-known examples of recently constructed, traditional neighborhood designs that emphasize social interaction and the public realm.

[15] Balanced and Inclusive Communities: Shalom involves just relationships and special concern for the needy and less powerful. Thus, we need to build communities that are welcoming and inclusive. Too often zoning and subdivision regulations are exclusionary, functioning to protect privilege and keep out lower-status individuals. Zoning rules can keep out lower-status individuals by zoning exclusively for single-family housing or by setting unreasonable minimum lot sizes. By contrast, we should promote inclusive zoning guidelines that set minimum requirements for the percentage of affordable housing units. Balanced communities have housing options for all ages and incomes, and a variety of transportation facilities for the pedestrian, bicyclist, transit-user, and even skateboarder.

[16] Sensitivity to Place: Shalom means harmonious relationships between people and their place. Thus, land-use planning should be marked by sensitivity to the character of a place, its history, geography, and ecology. The landscape contains lessons that we are wise to heed-lessons about the flow of water across the land, lessons about stable and unstable slopes, and lessons about the sustainability of certain ways of dwelling and making a living from the land. To be good stewards of the earth we must come to know our place and its inner workings. As members of a wider human community that stretches back in time, we also must be sensitive to the human history of our place and be respectful of its cultural landscape.

[17] Acceptance of Limits: To be good stewards of God’s good earth we must allow the proper flourishing of a spectrum of landscapes ranging from wild to rural to urban. To make possible this diversity of landscapes, we must learn to live within limits. The desire to have it all-an urban income and access to urban culture while living a rural lifestyle in a wilderness setting could, when made available to all, mean the end of both rural and wild landscapes. The greatest threat to wilderness is not the dense city but the sprawling suburban landscape.[17] When the city remains a city, there is space left for rural and wild landscapes. Where growth limits have been set and followed, as in Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland, Oregon, the cities have flourished and rural and wild areas also have been preserved. Growth boundaries also have the effect of redirecting growth to older areas that would otherwise undergo disinvestment and decline.[18] By accepting limits and designating some lands off limits for urban growth, both environmental and social goals can be met.

[18] Crossing of political boundaries: Too often political boundaries reinforce privilege, are means of evading responsibility, and/or do not match the scale of the issue at hand. Too often municipal boundaries fall along racial and socio-economic fault lines and serve to divide rather than unite people in service of the common good. Local government is good but sometimes we need to think outside the boxes imposed by municipal boundaries. Environmental processes tend to function at unique scales, such as watersheds or airsheds, and environmental problems are best addressed at these scales rather than along municipal boundary lines. Urban problems such as transportation, affordable housing, school desegregation, and open space preservation rarely are solvable by a single municipal government. Instead, they require regional solutions because transportation systems, labor markets, and housing markets are regional in nature. Unfortunately, most metropolitan areas lack a regional government to address regional issues. Where there is no political structure to offer a regional perspective, the church has a special role to play because its members are drawn from rural areas, suburbs, and the inner-city. For example, in Cleveland the Catholic archdiocese noticed connections between urban sprawl and inner-city decline and has become an articulate voice for regional perspectives on land-use planning.[19]


[19] Regardless of where we live, there are local planning decisions that need to be shaped by the biblical vision of shalom. There is no single formula for shalom, but rather continual struggle towards more harmonious relationships between neighbors, human and non-human.

[20] Land-use planning is a critical avenue for Christians to promote justice, community, and the stewardship of creation. By balancing the goals of community, justice, and environmental stewardship, we can counter the individualism, inequity, and carelessness that so readily degrade our communities and work towards the biblical vision of shalom.

[1] Kunstler, James Howard. 1993. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon and Schuster), 10.

[2] Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. 2000. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (New York: North Point Press), 88-94.

[3] Cf. Benfield, F. Kaid. 1999. Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric (New York: Nature Resources Defense Council); Diamond, Henry L. and Patrick F. Noonan. Land Use in America: The Report of the Sustainable Use of Land Project (Washington, D.C.: Island Press); and Gillham, Oliver. 2002. The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate (Washington, D.C.: Island Press).

[4] Howe, Jim, Ec McMahon, and Luther Propst. 1997. Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities (Washington, D.C.: Island Press).

[5] Sorkin, Michael, ed. 1992. Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (New York: Hill and Wang).

[6] McKenzie, Evan. 1996. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

[7] Cf. Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press); Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf); Rusk, David. 1993. Cities without Suburbs (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press); and Orfield, Myron. 1997. MetroPolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution).

[8] Downs, Anthony. 1994. New Visions for Metropolitan America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institutition), 3.

[9] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1983. Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 69.

[10] Winter, Bruce W. 1994. Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co).

[11] Brueggemann, Walter. 1977. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).

[12] Wright, Christopher. 1981. An Eye for an Eye: The Relevance of Old Testament Social Ethics. (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press).

[13] Bellah, Robert N., et al. 1984. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

[14] Gunton, Colin. 1993. The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 177.

[15] Cf. Psalm 9:8-9, 10:12-18, 12:5, Luke 4:18-19, Mt 25: 31-46, Jeremiah 21:11-12, 22:13-17; Isaiah 11:1-5, and Amos 2:6-7.

[16] Cf. Wilkinson, Loren. 1991. Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.); and Bouma-Prediger, Steven. 2001. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).

[17] Nash, Roderick. 1982. Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 3rd Edition), 379-388.

[18] Greenbelt Alliance. 1997. Bound for Success: A Citizen’s Guide to Urban Growth Boundaries for More Livable Communities and Open Space Protection in California (San Francisco: Greenbelt Alliance).

[19] Sadowski, Dennis. 1997. Bishop Pilla Calls for New Thinking on Development (Cleveland, OH: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cleveland).