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Godly Town Planning

Sunday, 24 March 2024  | Zachary Pavlou


Our highest goals

One of the ways we can glorify God is by doing our day jobs to the best standard we can - and to make sure we are orienting our work towards the Good.

In my practice as a town planner, I am constantly faced with the challenge of doing my job well, and trying to orient my work to creating places, neighbourhoods, towns and cities that will help people to live better, healthier, holier lives.

Our cities are a reflection of our values as a society - and our society a reflection of our cities.

This has historically meant that the institutions we place the most value in have stood well above the other institutions on the skyline. In any mediaeval village, the tallest, most prominent, most beautiful places were the cathedrals, churches and chapels.

These places filled the highest spot in our minds and our towns. No matter where you were, if you looked up from the street you could see a glorious spire that reminded you of where you came from, your values, your mission, your worth, your salvation and where you’re going.

As democracy and classical liberalism made waves throughout the West, a new class of political buildings rose to stand toe-to-toe with the religious. Courts, parliaments, halls and the like became more visibly prominent in our towns and cities. Rarely would they compete in height with the religious buildings of old, but they were large, stone, imposing buildings that commanded respect.

Then, the collective, unparalleled trauma of the conflicts and diseases of the 20th century wreaked havoc on our societies and changed the world forever. The spiritual crisis and technological revolution that resulted didn’t just change our day-to-day lives, it changed our skylines.

Today, our tallest and most imposing institutions are monuments to our new deity - money. These glass and steel monstrosities belong to financial institutions, banks and management consultants, and whenever we look up now, that is what we see. While nobody (I hope) would willingly admit to worshipping money, our skylines demonstrate the opposite.

Outside of our financial institution-dominated central business districts, the places we live have become increasingly disconnected and illegible. We spend our time indoors, alone and isolated. If we see people at all, often we only see our closest few friends and family members. When we go out, we do so through the garage and travel directly to our destination to again engage in solitary and isolated activities - long hours at work, a short session at the gym trying not to make eye contact, a long walk with our headphones on. Our streets are unwelcoming and our public spaces have been stifled.

What would a modern, Christian city look like?

While we might personally adore the mediaeval cities we visit Europe for, I’d be naive to recommend recreating these places exactly - as if by recreating them we would inspire a new spiritual wave that would mirror that of the time. For good or ill, we have modern technology, habits, medicine, information and challenges, and recreating these places identically would feel more like the Truman show than reality. That being said, there are some beautiful places around the world that are taking the very best of classical architectural principles and adapting them to modern contexts - such as Poundbury in the United Kingdom, Le Plessis-Robinson in France, Cayala in Guatemala, Seaside in Florida and so on.

But if we don’t quite have the means to build a new town from scratch, perhaps we can start to orient our existing cities in such a way as to foster the sort of modern society we want to live in as Christians.

What would that look like?

If we started from the Fruits of the Spirit St Paul described in his letter to the Galatians, this city would be a place of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

It is hard to practise love in cities that disconnect us from our neighbours with either inhumane high rises or sprawling neighbourhoods that barely have footpaths - let alone inviting parks, libraries, town squares and halls with regular fares, fetes and festivals.

It is hard to be joyful when our buildings are designed to be visually oppressive and our monuments are intentionally insulting and subversive – forcing modernist and often unpopular artistic styles into our public spaces.

It is hard to be peaceful, patient, kind and good when we are forced to spend hours and hours each week in frustrating traffic away from our families instead of spending precious, loving, generous time with them.

Faithfulness, gentleness and self-control remain, of course, up to us.

I see the modern Christian city as one that gives us connection laterally with each other, and connection vertically with the Spirit. This city’s primary goal should to break down the false barriers we’ve put up between ourselves that have disintegrated our necessary communities.

What should we do?

But while our cities are materially made up of the physical buildings we see and inhabit, they are also socially made up of the relationships and programming that goes on in our homes, streets and neighbourhoods. A beautiful, winding, cobblestone laneway might evoke romantic imagery in our minds, but for that to become manifest it requires generous, outgoing, kind inhabitants to fill it with that romance and to throw festivals on feast days.

And so, a more Christian town or city probably starts with more Christian homes. You can take two approaches to this:

1.     Make parishioners out of your neighbours.

2.     Make neighbours out of your parishioners.

Option 1 means seeking opportunities to invite the people around you to learn about and engage with your faith by:

-       Opening your doors to your neighbours.

-       Hosting them for dinner, expecting nothing in return.

-       Convincing a few people to clean up the local creek with you.

-       Making your yard, street and neighbourhood as beautiful as you can.

-       Finding a job closer to home so you don’t have to drive so far each day.

-       Living your life with such joy and illumination that people around you feel compelled to learn more.

Option 2 means one single tactic of:

-       Getting all your friends from church together and convincing them to rent or buy houses right next to each other and living deliberate Christian lives together.

There are - believe it or not - places around the world effectively attempting Option 2. Outlined in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Christians are beginning to coalesce to form ‘intentional communities’ centred on shared faith and values. Steubenville in Ohio is becoming a hot spot for Catholics, Bethlehem in Pennsylvania is becoming a hot spot for Eastern Orthodox, and so on.

In an increasingly hostile world, I fully understand the desire to pursue Option 2, though I can’t help but feel it’s not what we are called to do. We have explicitly been asked to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” and I think that starts in the homes, streets and neighbourhoods we already live in.

Cities are a fusion of the material – architecture - and the social – us, their inhabitants. These two parts exist in a bidirectional relationship where architecture can uplift or diminish the spirit of inhabitants, and inhabitants reflect this and influence the architecture. The Christian city cannot fully become manifest without that beautiful uplifting architecture, and it takes an uplifted people to create and maintain it.


Zachary Pavlou is a writer, town planner, and amateur jazz pianist based out of Melbourne, Australia. He is particularly interested in how we can bring wisdom from the past into the 21st century. Zachary writes about cities, faith, and the Spirit of the Age weekly on his Substack at https://zlives.substack.com/.


Image credits

Two brown tables outside by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash.

Aerial view of city buildings during daytime by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash.

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