Bexley Hall Professor Jason Fout and his family are intentional about where they live and how they interact with their environment. He walks to work at Bexley Hall, his wife bicycles or takes the bus to work, and often they bicycle their two young children to school. They try to buy and eat local products, they compost, recycle, and try to be good neighbors and good stewards of the earth.
He models the sort of sustainable lifestyle that he also teaches about in classes on the New Urbanism. The Congress for the New Urbanism describes this movement as promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions. Others have described New Urbanism's goal as the development of a built environment that supports human flourishing.
"It's a movement in urban planning and design that began in the 1980s," Fout said. "It has become much more widely based...politicians, people who study urban settings, architects, community activists. And this is something the church can buy into and get behind."
Fout is an assistant professor of Anglican theology at Bexley Hall. He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, a master of divinity and a master of theological studies from Seabury Western Theological Seminary, and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He joined the Bexley faculty in 2009, where he taught a class in New Urbanism in January 2011 and will offer it again in the spring of 2013.
"The emphasis in the New Urbanism movement is on livable, sustainable, mixed use and mixed income developments," he said. "Particularly since World War II, our development has been almost none of those. In the last 10 years or so New Urbanism has become more intentional in embracing environmentally sustainable design, but when you have a movement that emphasizes walking, bicycling or other modes of transportation instead of focusing on taking the car, it is intrinsically green."
Fout isn't anti-automobile; his family owns one. But he thinks the world would be a better place if we were less reliant on cars.
"New Urbanism looks at what happened before," he said. "The idea of traditionally-designed towns was you could live in a neighborhood, maybe work there, or else get to work on a bus, trolley, train or car. You could walk to the library, the market, or a local coffee shop. Very often, historically, the coffee shop would have taken a very different form: the neighborhood pub.
"These were places where people could socialize," Fout said "and the church was part of that. The church was intended to be part of the neighborhood and not a destination. The way we have built our cities and suburbs since World War II, the church is no longer a part of the fabric of everyday life; it is now a destination. The car, as we usually encounter it, is very privatizing because we usually drive alone."
Too many communities are divided into single-use segments, Fout said, with residential areas separate from retail areas, jobs, schools and recreation, as well as church. In most cases, walking isn’t even an option.
"The way we develop things now is more like pods. Instead of walkable distances, we now have one pod of residential, maybe a suburban cul-de-sac; it is distinctly single use. Then there will be another part of town that is strictly retail, then another section of town is an industrial park or office buildings. Then you may have to drop the kids at their school, and then go to work in another pod.
"Places need to be thoughtfully designed. It is not a matter of being completely negative about the suburbs as such, but New Urbanism suggests that the way most suburbs have been designed aren't helpful."
While it is clear that churches are part of the urban fabric and can act as spiritual and social anchors, what role can parishes play in the New Urbanism?
"I should say up front that I'm still working on my intuitions on this," Fout said, but he offered some ideas.
"A church building is an important part of the visible urban landscape in itself," Fout said. "Its value goes beyond even just the congregation’s use of it. The church building is not just a utilitarian meeting place, but a symbolically important structure. Parishes should consider this as they make decisions about their structures."
Churches thinking about moving out to the suburbs should reconsider, Fout said.
"In the last 30 years, it has been very popular for churches to move from downtown to someplace on a highway off-ramp, surrounded by parking," Fout said. "It becomes a destination that requires a car. By moving out, you lose a sense of sacred space that is in some proximity to where the rest of our lives unfold. We should take seriously the ways in which a church is an integral part of the neighborhood, and to recognize that if we leave, the neighborhood loses something, too."
Another way churches can become involved in the New Urbanism is, as people become more environmentally responsible, members of congregations can become more aware of city planning issues and engaged with municipal conversations on changes that have an impact on their neighborhoods. "So if a town wants to take out the trees and widen the streets to allow for faster car movement, congregations can speak out because that makes it more dangerous for pedestrians," Fout said. "Studies have shown that as you make a faster thoroughfare, you lose your retail business, you lose your tax base, and that makes it a less desirable place to live."
As another good interface for the church and New Urbanism, leaders in the congregation can be advocates for smart growth. "Growth in itself is not necessarily a problem, but you have to be smart instead of willy-nilly about new projects," Fout said. And when churches build a new facility, instead of building a huge parking lot, they may want to create a community by developing part of the property as mixed use, including residential and retail buildings.
"It would have to be a partnership with private investors," Fout said. "It would be for-profit, but it could still be a way of showing how it could be done, if the church was involved in planning the community."
Fout is hoping to increase congregations' awareness of the issue when he speaks at Conference 2012 of The Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes on "The New Urbanism: A Brief Primer for Church Leaders."
In addition to allowing Fout to live a sustainable lifestyle, Bexley has been a good fit for him, Fout said, because the seminary is academically serious and also deeply committed to ministry and spiritual life.
"I love being in a place where I can be a scholar and a priest," Fout said. "There is no anti-intellectual bias, and there is also a sharp-eyed view towards practical applications.
"I love my job. The worst day here is better than the best day at a job I'm not called to or excited about."
In Spring 2012, Fout is teaching three courses: Christ and Atonement; Church, Society and the Secular; and Political Theology. Find more information in the course catalog