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.
 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.
 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
 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. 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. 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
advocates decry the urban sprawl outside the gates of our national
parks and wilderness areas.
Concerned citizens decry the replacement of main streets and public
squares with privately owned, enclosed shopping
malls. 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.
Social scientists have documented the social costs of suburban
sprawl, central city decline, and segregation of regions along
lines of race and income.
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
 Urban scholar Anthony Downs has described the dominant vision
for U.S. cities as one of "low-density sprawl." 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.
 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
 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
 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. 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. 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
 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.
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. 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.
 Community is at the heart of shalom. As Christians we
must continually struggle to resist the individualistic pull of our
culture. 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. 
Justice and Love for Our Neighbors
 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). 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
 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. 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:
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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. 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.
By accepting limits and designating some lands off limits for urban
growth, both environmental and social goals can be met.
 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
 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.
 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.
© October 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 10
 Kunstler, James Howard. 1993. The
Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made
Landscape (New York: Simon and Schuster), 10.
 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
 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).
 Howe, Jim, Ec McMahon, and Luther
Propst. 1997. Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press).
 Sorkin, Michael, ed. 1992.
Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of
Public Space (New York: Hill and Wang).
 McKenzie, Evan. 1996. Privatopia:
Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private
Government (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
 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
 Downs, Anthony. 1994. New Visions
for Metropolitan America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings
 Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1983. Until
Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing
 Winter, Bruce W. 1994. Seek the
Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens. (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co).
 Brueggemann, Walter. 1977. The
Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
 Wright, Christopher. 1981. An Eye
for an Eye: The Relevance of Old Testament Social Ethics. (Downers
Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press).
 Bellah, Robert N., et al. 1984.
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
 Gunton, Colin. 1993. The One, the
Three and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 177.
 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.
 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).
 Nash, Roderick. 1982. Wilderness
and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 3rd
 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).
 Sadowski, Dennis. 1997. Bishop
Pilla Calls for New Thinking on Development (Cleveland, OH: Roman
Catholic Archdiocese of Cleveland).