Planning God into our towns and cities

Published 24 March 2014  |  

Ebbsfleet in Kent is soon to be the place to live. A mere 17 minutes from London by train, it is to be the site of Britain's newest garden city, providing an additional desperately needed 15,000 homes in the already desperately overcrowded South East of England. Perhaps the revitalisation of the garden city concept is the panacea the country needs to deal with the housing shortage (an estimated 2.5 million homes over the next decade).

The garden city idea is not new. Ebenezer Howard, a Christian Scientist and utopian socialist, first suggested this alternative to Britain's overcrowded, dirty and unhealthy Victorian cities, in 1898. His idea was to have a series of completely new circular conurbations of 6,000 acres – each having about 32,000 people. They would be clean, ordered and low density. They would have commerce, industry, fruit farms and hospitals. However it is what Howard proposed they should not have that struck my eye. According to this visionary, his dream cities would be free of alcohol and religion.

The first garden city was Letchworth, quickly followed by Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire. Letchworth was famously described by George Orwell as a magnet for "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England"! (In 1909 it also became the first place to have a roundabout). As a town planning experiment at first it seemed to work and was imitated all over the world from the US and South America to Australia, India and Japan.

But the dream died. The proximity of the train line meant that property remained too expensive for a true social mix. These well ordered, planned and regulated cities were really a disaster for human beings. They were followed after the Second World War by the New Towns, places such as Crawley and Harlow. I lived for a few years in one such New Town, Livingston (in between Edinburgh and Glasgow). I, like many others, found it to be a soulless and depressing place. The kind of town that looked great on paper and in design, but actually living there was a different experience. I sometimes wonder if the architects, town planners and politicians had to live in their own creations, whether their policies might not change!

What is the problem? I am sure that there are lots of secondary issues that we could point to but I suspect the main one is that in leaving out God (as well as alcohol) and seeking to build a utopia on earth, the planners also ended up leaving out something else – humanity. Human beings are not robotic characters on a gigantic computer game. We don't behave in the way that the planners plan. They inevitably fail to factor in our foibles and our follies. They create a dream. An illusion. Which they do not normally have to live in. John Betjeman in his poem Huxley Hall described garden cities as 'hygienic hell'.

The Bible has a lot to teach us here. Humanity begins in a garden and ends in a city. The whole story of the Bible (and of humanity) is encapsulated between the ruin from the Garden of Eden and the redemption reached in the heavenly city. In the period in between we are never going to be able to return to the paradise garden, nor are we going to build our own utopian heavenly city – whatever names we give our housing estates! We have to be more realistic. In today's world cities require social mix, people living together, law and order, care and compassion, employment, politics, commerce, hospitals, entertainment, education, art and music, community organisations and churches.

I recently heard of a housing developer who insisted that in any large housing development he wanted a church, because it added to the value of the houses. It is interesting that in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds each city required a place of worship at its centre. In the UK you cannot be classed as a city without a cathedral. The fact is that human beings are spiritual beings. To refuse to recognise that, dehumanises us and results in the kind of godless, soulless and lifeless places that some of our urban sprawl towns have become.

The Christian church has a unique contribution to offer here. We don't believe that 'religion' in and of itself is per se good. We recognise that religion without Christ can do a great deal of harm. Neither do we want the Church to have political power, or to run our cities and countries. We give to Caesar what is Caesar's. But as worshipping and serving communities we can bring life, peace and healing to people who desperately need them.

My own city of Dundee would be infinitely poorer without the presence and contribution of the churches. For example if the churches were to withdraw all their youth and children's work tomorrow, there would be an enormous hole to fill. To say nothing of the food banks, community centres, elderly clubs and the sheer value that Christianity places on every human, being expressed in a hundred different ways.

Perhaps the government and planners would do well to consider that as well as a railway station, each community needs a church?

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