American Suburbia: Impacts on Religious Communities, and the Implications of Modern Urbanism on Religion in America

Iago Casabiell González via Wikimedia Commons

Below is my final project essay for one of my GENEDs at Harvard College. The class was "Religious Pluralism: Case Studies in American Diversity". Though I was not interested in the study of religion before taking this class, I found it to be extremely interesting, and my professor/teaching fellow made the course really great. Though the long paper (27 pages in total) was my most significant final project, requiring me to use Thanksgiving break as a reading period, I fervently enjoyed writing it, and would take the class again in a heartbeat if I could. I am not sure what the policy is regarding publishing one's own works for a class (I do not know whose intellectual property this becomes), but, as with my work "Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as Candidate Particles for Cold Dark Matter", I will defer to my college's handbook if any issues arise. Special thanks to Professor Diana Eck and her excellent teaching staff for making this class one of the best I've ever taken. Please email me via with any concerns, questions, or inquiries. Enjoy!

American Suburbia: Impacts on Religious Communities, and the Implications of Modern Urbanism on Religion in America

For America, the mid-twentieth century was a time of isolation, fear, growth and transformation. With housing shortages, demographic changes, and reformed definitions of the American Dream, the power structure in America shifted from eclectic, dense and community-oriented cities to sprawling and isolated suburbs. At first, these suburbs were places of rigid conformity, but as borders opened to a new wave of immigration, however, well-educated and wealthy immigrants began to move into the suburbs from countries in southern Europe, Asia, and Africa, confronting American suburbs with another aspect of diversity: Religion. In this paper, religious pluralism will be considered within the context of the design of suburbs, and of conflicts between minority religious activities, Christian majorities, and existing suburban policies. This paper will first provide a historical account of modern suburbs. Then, it will consider how suburban design policies on, for example, parking, housing, and transit availability restrict religious minorities and Christian communities alike from establishing themselves in suburbs. Combining the prior two sections against new efforts in urbanist and interfaith spheres, this paper finally will discuss modern urbanism and interfaith efforts that are challenging the religious conformity status quo in suburban America, and the implications of these challenges. These sections will demonstrate that the design of suburbs, while contrived to uphold white, Christian homogeneity, damages both Christian and non-Christian religious communities, and that non-Christian religious communities are disproportionately disadvantaged by suburban design. Furthermore, they will prove that recent challenges to these design elements by modern urbanist groups and interfaith movements alike could reverse the trend of modern suburbanization in America, in favor of dense cities and integrated religious communities. Together, urbanist and interfaith efforts could fundamentally transform the American suburban religious landscape, from one of Christian religious conformity and declining religious sentiment, to kaleidoscopic religious affiliation and revival.


For as long as American cities have existed, so have American suburbs. These suburbs initially formed as early cities sprawled out, or as separate towns that eventually connected with their parent cities as they grew. After World War II, however, a new type of suburbia developed: Motivated by intense economic and population growth, housing shortages, demographic shifts, and contemporary fears, these new suburban developments centered around automobiles, sprawl, low density, zoning, and racial exclusion. Quickly, these mass-produced suburbs became the dream of many lower and middle class Americans, and encapsulated the American dream to many. Many such suburbs, however, explicitly excluded certain racial and ethnic minorities, which, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, extended these explicit and implicit biases to religious minorities.

Motivations for Post World War II Suburban Developments. As World War II ended, young veterans returned home and sought to build a life for themselves. With the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill, which provided free tuition to all those who served for more than 90 days and were honorably discharged, over “2.3 million WWII veterans” (“Tension in a Peacetime Society”) would attend college or university soon after the war ended, dramatically expanding America’s college-educated population and the American middle class. With newfound economic prosperity, many veterans sought to establish families and realize their own American dream. Their first necessity, of course, was housing. Inevitably, with millions of Americans looking to purchase, the United States found itself in its worst housing shortage to-date: Chicago, for example, became so desperate to provide housing that the city “sold 250 old streetcars as possible homes” (Lesh 3). With unprecedented demand for housing and low housing stock, prices skyrocketed, threatening individual security for Americans who had otherwise benefited from the booming economy. Sprawling suburban housing, which was originally small and cheap, provided a cost-effective alternative to increased urban density, and a quick solution to the ensuing housing crisis. 

The baby boom, safety and opportunity, and traditional family roles were also significant motivators for these developments. Between 1945 and 1964, over 76 million children had joined the American population (“Baby Boomers”), making family-oriented developments critical to the American fabric. In addition, urban areas were believed to have opportunities without safety, while rural areas provided security without opportunity. A suburban development, as a result, was envisioned as a medium between the two: It maintained both the opportunity and the low density of both rural and urban areas, without the downsides of either. Suburbs were also envisioned as a place that upheld traditional family roles. Having low prices (such that the wife would not need to work) and modeled as family-oriented communities, suburbs could portray women “in a matriarchal position rather than as a member of the workforce” (Gigantino 3), thereby maintaining family roles once challenged as women joined the workforce during World War II.

After the initial housing shock was resolved, an even more significant development motivated flight to the suburbs: Exclusion. With the Great Migration–a large migration of black Americans from the American South to the North during the twentieth century–bringing influxes of black Americans into cities, white Americans sought their own “white utopia”, segregated from minorities. Thus, when a new wave of suburbanization reached America in the 1950s, “racism was the definitive factor for Caucasians to leave the cities” (Gigantino 3).

Design of Early Suburbs, and Racial, Ethnic and Religious Exclusion. The first modern suburban development was Levittown, New York, a census-designated area just outside of New York City. Designed by infrastructure magnate William Levitt, these developments contained winding blocks of mass-produced small ranches that were cheaper than housing in the city and denser than in rural areas. Almost instantly, these Levittowns became a hit, quickly expanding to New Jersey and Pennsylvania; in the Pennsylvania Levittown alone, “The Levitts built slightly more than 17,300 homes of only six different models” (Dayanim). Based on the Levittown design, new suburbs would pop up in almost every metropolitan area in the United States, and some cities, such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, would effectively discontinue multifamily housing projects in favor of the suburban design.

These suburbs, however, were established to preserve white, middle class, and Christian enclaves. Early suburban developments barred non-whites from purchasing one of their homes, and vigorously consecrated their exclusivity; William Levitt himself, justifying the homogeneity of his Levittowns, decried that America could “solve the housing problem or… the racial problem, but [America] cannot combine the two” (Dayanim). Even when non-white families managed to purchase a home in these developments, they almost instantly faced threats of violence, prosecution, or removal. When the Myers, a black family, moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania, their presence led to violent protests, community tensions, and vulgar threats like “Get [word redacted] Myers outta here, outta here, outta here” (Myers 12). Due to the homogeneity in the housing stock, access to early suburban communities was also restricted to middle and upper-middle class buyers, thereby restricting socioeconomic diversity also. Though later developments were less economically homogeneous, the effects of policies such as redlining, and hostile suburban views towards minorities, largely prevented any integration in early suburbs. 

While racial and economic exclusion still dominated the fabric of early suburbs, de jure religious exclusion did not. The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause ultimately prevented public-facing businesses, as well as zoned communities, from restricting purchases by religious minorities–assuming they were white–so no suburban developments explicitly barred any purchases by them as a result. Yet, due in part to the lack of non-Christian religious diversity in America, such suburbs were largely “devoid of religious adherence outside of Catholic, mainline, or evangelical groups” (Vaughn). Though de jure religious exclusion did not exist in the suburbs at the time, the interplay of race and religion, and new civil rights and immigration legislation, evolved racial exclusion into a veiled one, and one based upon physical designs and legal circumvention.

Post-Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. On October 3rd, 1965, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a new law that “ended an immigration-admissions policy based on race and ethnicity” (Chishti). As a result, millions of highly educated people from outside Europe relocated to the United States with white collar job offers, bringing with them their families, cultures, and religions. With America providing them vast economic opportunity and security, recent immigrants sought an American Dream like the World War II veterans did: Having that same desire to build a family, members of this new wave of immigration began to cultivate their lives in the suburbs. Today, immigrants are among the largest drivers of suburban growth, and in “53 metro areas, the suburbs accounted for more than half of immigrant growth” (Wilson). Considering that “one-in-four ” (“The Religious Affiliation”) authorized immigrants into the United States are affiliated with non-Christian religions, and that immigrants are arriving in large numbers in formerly white suburbs, American suburbs are now more religiously diverse than ever.

This massive relocation of immigrants to the suburbs was not without its conflicts, though. With largely white suburbs having their de jure racial exclusion eliminated by civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s, the movement of largely non-white immigrants to suburbs was virtually unpreventable. With religion having an “interconnected relationship with the legacy of racism” (Bahler), especially in suburbs, now amorphous attacks against the immigrants’ non-whiteness developed into cohesive attacks against their associated religious practices. Christian majorities in suburbs thus found their justification: Under the guises of Christianity and proselytization, they could maintain the racial power structure through religion. With their exclusionary options limited, Christian suburbanites instead began utilizing their built environment to curb the religious expression of non-Christian Americans in their communities.


Though designed under the guise of legal impartiality, suburban designs exist not only to uphold a suburban character; often, policies surrounding congestion, land use and zoning, parking mandates, housing regulations, and walkability, can restrict religious practices on property zoned as housing, streamline efforts against non-Christian religious developments, deteriorate access to religious services for those who do not have access to an automobile, create more legislative hurdles for groups to develop places of worship, and prevent religious development based upon the religious practices themselves. Despite their design for Christian religious conformity, such development patterns often also hinder Christian communities.

Land Use, Zoning and Congestion Management. On March 6th, 2017, the Bayonne, New Jersey, zoning board met for six hours to discuss “an application to convert a warehouse…into a mosque” (Misra). Concerned residents cited that “parking, buffer zones, and noise” (Misra) threatened the primarily residential nature of the neighborhood, but these concerns did not hide their discontent towards Bayonne’s Muslim community. While some maintained that they were primarily concerned with zoning, many also directed their opposition at Islam itself: One detractor cited verses from the Quran in disgust, while another questioned what “they believe”. referencing Bayonne’s Muslim community (Misra). Ultimately, three members of the zoning board voted against the conversion, and Bayonne Muslims had their application rejected.

While zoning was first envisioned as a means to protect “home-owners in residential areas from devaluation by industrial and apartment uses” (Fischel), the policy tool took on a new role as suburban developments became more common. In the 1925 case Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, the Supreme Court decided that governments have the right to zone “by dividing the town or community into areas in which specific uses of land are permitted” (Watsky), thus opening policymakers to the option of “Euclidean zoning”. Euclidean zoning authorizes municipalities to divide geographical areas into particular uses, such as commercial, residential, or industrial uses, and regulate the style of development within each use. Many states have specific policies encouraging municipalities to institute Euclidean zoning laws, such as Massachusetts’ General Law Chapter 40A, which encourages the “separation of land uses” (Watsky) in municipalities. While innocuous at the surface, Euclidean zoning laws have played a significant role in sprawl, single-family housing, and exclusion; by adopting these policies, municipalities could separate geographical areas into commercial and residential spaces, restrict housing in residential areas to single-family, low-density housing alone, and make mixed-use, multifamily, and mixed-income developments illegal to build. Some zoning laws have set minimum sizes for single-family lots, thereby making land and housing more expensive. Others cap the number of multifamily housing developments, thereby “limit[ing] new housing construction, worsen[ing] affordability issues, and increas[ing] the inequality divide in urban areas” (Watsky). Not only do zoning laws make developments difficult to build without legal barriers, but they clear roadblocks for the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) phenomenon: With zoning laws, Daniel Kiefer writes, “It only takes one abutter, who may be totally self-interested” (Kiefer) to derail an entire development. This phenomenon is perhaps more significant for religious institutions: Residents and leaders opposed to a religious group could use laws around land use and congestion, for example, to derail religious developments in their entirety. By opening legal avenues to derail religious developments, zoning laws give the Christian majority an almost unimpeded ability to minimize the power and free exercise of non-Christian groups.

Nevertheless, recent efforts against the use of Euclidean zoning to curb religious developments have been successful. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prohibits illegal discrimination against religious groups through “zoning codes and… land use regulation” (“Civil Rights Division”). Often, religious communities originally denied permits to build used RLUIPA to “persuade municipalities to grant special use permits” (Antos 2), allowing them to avert institutional religious intolerance, and to proceed with their religious developments. These tools have been powerful in limiting religious discrimination through zoning, as evidenced by the case of Bayonne, New Jersey’s Islamic Center, where a RLUIPA suit eventually saw the Bayonne Muslim community’s application accepted.

Parking Mandates. In the case Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Township of Bernards, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge filed an RLUIPA suit alleging that Bernards, New Jersey’s requirement that their mosque have one parking space for every worshiper was a violation of their free exercise. They cited that parking mandates for churches and synagogues were far less restrictive, and only their mosque was required to have one parking space for every worshiper. While attorneys defending Bernards argued that the timing of the mosque’s Friday prayers would require that most attend in their personal car, judges at the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey did not agree. They ruled that the parking mandates were “a land use regulation… that discriminate[d]” (Singer) against the Muslim community based upon an individualized view of Islam. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge ultimately won the suit, and the parking minimums were scaled down.

While RLUIPA, in this case, provided defense for a religious community discriminated against in a suburban area, parking mandates still present a significant hurdle for all religious communities, especially those that are newer or less wealthy. Typical parking mandates in suburbs require that, for every two to six spots for worshippers, there must be at least one parking space. These parking spaces require that the community purchase additional land for development, redevelop land into parking, and even decrease their congregation size in order to accommodate the parking lot. Depending on land prices, “a single parking space can cost over $15,000” (Sterett), which, for nonprofit institutions like religious organizations–especially under-resourced and younger ones–can be a burdensome or even prohibiting cost. Though, under RLUIPA, parking mandates that are disproportionately burdensome to religious institutions are illegal, many municipalities impose “greater parking restrictions on religious assemblies” (Sterett) than on buildings with secular purposes. Given that most religious communities are non-profit and rely on donations, parking mandates have a disproportionate financial impact upon religious institutions in America. Further, because minority religious communities tend to be younger and less established than their Christian counterparts, parking mandates often have an additional disproportionate impact on minority religious communities and their developments.  Given their expense, parking mandates can often be the barrier between the development of a mosque, temple, synagogue, or even a church.

Public Schools, Holidays, and School Curriculum. Even if religious groups can navigate parking minimums, they will eventually be forced to navigate accommodation in public schools. However, a lack of interfaith infrastructure, school policies, and religious intolerance make this navigation an uphill battle. These issues also direct how religion is approached in curricula.

Even in communities with large minority religious populations, few school districts accommodate religious holidays into their academic calendar. Though some suburban districts, such as the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school district, “decided to close school on either Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha” (“School Holidays?”), few have followed in its footsteps. Absences for religious observance are required by law to be excused, but the lack of official accommodation of the holiday forces observers to miss classes or even tests in order to celebrate. As a result, when holidays like Eid-al-Fitr or Diwali come around, religious minorities in most suburbs often are forced to make a choice: Their education, or their religion.

Even outside of school holidays, religious connections to important curriculum are often removed in favor of secularism, reducing the true influence of religion in the development of knowledge, ignoring America’s cultural and religious diversity, and causing conflict over what should be taught in school. This removal of religious connections results in “a distortion of the study of history, literature, and culture” (“Encounter over the Curriculum”), both in Christian and non-Christian contexts. As states, communities and suburbs begin to grapple with addressing the lack of religious connection in their schools, conflict over what is appropriate for schools is also a common result. Some conflicts result from concern about religious establishment, but others are complicated by religious intolerance. For example, when New York’s review of state social studies curriculum yielded the “One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence” report, which argued that future curricula should consider America’s resounding religious diversity, much conflict over the report ensued, as many questioned the value of acknowledging religious diversity in school curriculum. While such conflicts are not isolated to suburbs alone, New York State’s report is a microcosm of suburban America’s grappling with religiosity in public schools: For people that believe American public schools should uphold Christian ideals, and for secularists who want to retain the wall of separation between church and state, teaching about religion–or other religions–is a threat. Successful efforts by groups seeking to uphold Christian or secular values in public schools could curb the ability of minority religious groups to be represented in curriculum.

Nevertheless, there is some government protection for religious minorities in public schools: Title IV of the Civil Rights Act ensures “that all persons regardless of their religion are provided equal educational opportunities” (“Civil Rights Division”). For suburbs with small but growing minority religious populations, though, fulfilling equal educational opportunity is complicated by the lack of infrastructure for religious minorities in public institutions, still low populations of religious minorities in a majority of American suburbs–around 1% of the American suburban population (PRRI)–and existing interfaith strife. As a result, even with federal infrastructure designed to protect religious minorities in public schools, the experiences of non-Christian students in suburban public schools still suffer from the design of the communities in which they live.

Walkability, Car-Dependency, Transit Availability, and Equal Access

High car dependency, poor public transit, and a lack of walkability in modern American suburbs restrict access to religious services for Christians and religious minorities without access to a car, worshipers who practice holidays like the Shabbat, and religious minorities who have mandatory services to attend.

“Walk Score”, the standard metric for urban walkability in the United States, gives the average large city in the United States a “Walk Score of 48”, a score considered to be “car-dependent” (“Most Walkable Cities”). Even worse, modern suburbs are designed to be car-dependent alternatives to cities, and thus score lower than their parent cities. While promoting car dependency provides an element of freedom to some, restricting walkability prohibits mobility to others. The average cost of car ownership in 2022 was $10,746 (“Average Cost of Owning”), a significant price considering 38% of American households qualify as “low income” (Koop); as a result, the cost of car ownership alone can be burdensome or even prohibitive for many American families, many of whom already grapple with increased housing costs that strict zoning laws incentivize. With large minorities of religious families making less than $50,000 (Masci), the cost of car dependency is more than economic. Whereas walking and public transit are cheap and democratic, car ownership is expensive and exclusive, and in suburbs designed to require car ownership, the cost of car ownership can be a prohibiting factor in a family’s ability to attend services and community events, or follow their traditions. It can thus be said that suburban developments require that a family afford to belong to a religious community, regardless of their identity.

In addition, the lack of walkability in suburbs restricts certain religious groups’ abilities to practice their religion without breaking their practice. For example, during the Shabbat, some Jewish groups require that their congregation not arrive by car, because the action of burning “gas as you drive” (“Why Should Jews”) is forbidden on the Shabbat. As a result, most members will arrive at the synagogue on foot. Suburbs that are not walkable often have curb-tight, exposed sidewalks on roads with high speed limits, long distances between residential and religious developments, and hostile crosswalks on wide roads with long queuing times and short crossing periods. Shabbat observers who choose to make the arduous journey to their congregation may have to combat all of these problems while walking in suburban developments, and some may even become victim to violent accidents in the process. The danger that a lack of walkability presents to Shabbat observers, as a result, is profound: At one point, the danger to Jewish pedestrians on the Shabbat became so significant that “the Orthodox Union… sent an email to rabbis across the country offering to send them free reflective belts” (Berger) for use as their congregation walked to and from the synagogue. The danger and impracticability of walking to synagogues in suburban developments thus forces Jewish observers to choose between their safety and their religious belonging. For others in suburban developments, walking to a place of worship may be the only option, thereby leading to similar problems. As a result, the lack of walkability in many modern suburban developments damages the ability of some to practice their religion freely. Given the damage that the suburban design does to religious communities, some movements are seeking designs that are more equitable, healthy, community-oriented, and religiously pluralistic.


The last few decades have seen America’s religious and physical landscape transform; America has become more religiously diverse, and its urban areas have become more suburban. As suburban development patterns began to dominate America’s physical landscape, new urbanist movements have advocated for an equitable return to walkability, transit availability, and community that dominated pre-World War II developments. Similarly, with increased religious diversity and strife in the American public sphere, renewed faith and interfaith groups began to address suburban designs themselves. While urbanist and interfaith movements have different primary objectives, their dual focuses on equity and pluralism make the two movements mutually beneficial. With attention to both movements increasing as America reckons with unsustainable physical designs and inter-religious conflict, the combined effects that both movements will have on the American religious landscape could be profound.

Modern Urbanism Movements. Modern urbanism movements have their roots in “New Urbanism”, a movement founded in 1993 on the belief that contemporary, post-World War II development patterns of sprawl, car dependency and decentralization are unsustainable and pernicious. Instead of contemporary patterns of urban design, New Urbanists sought a reversion to the past: Following in the development pattern that led to streetcar suburbs, main streets, and bustling American cities, New Urbanists advocated for “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts” (“The Movement”). While prevailing wisdom prioritized sprawl and isolation over the establishment of cohesive communities, modern urbanists envision development patterns that embrace pre-World War II urban forms while prioritizing equity, diversity and community. Modern urbanism movements envision (1) dense mixed-use, mixed-income developments that support diverse transportation options, (2) quality public transportation, (3) people-oriented streets that prioritize safety over automobiles, and (4) equitable urban development instead of gentrification or urban renewal. Due to stringent zoning laws, parking mandates, car-oriented development, and prevailing urban wisdom, all such projects are difficult or impossible to build in many localities, leading modern urbanists to advocate for policy changes that make those developments possible.

Modern Urbanist Policy Advocacy. Urbanist policy advocates largely urge governments to abandon zoning laws that segregate, discriminate, open doors to NIMBYism, and inspire sprawl, in favor of policies that incentivize affordable housing, mixed-use and people-oriented development. In addition, urbanists seek to eliminate parking minimums, deregulate the rigid separation of commercial and residential uses, and redesign residential zoning policies in favor of multifamily housing with affordable options. The goal of these policies, according to the urbanism movement Strong Towns, is to incentivize a “pattern of development that is financially strong and resilient”, as well as “livable, and inviting” (“About Strong Towns”). Ultimately, these incentives significantly affect the built and human environment. The deregulation of separate-use zoning laws allows developers alike to build housing that is integrated with shopping and personal needs. The elimination of parking minimums increases room for development. Deregulation of policies prohibiting multifamily housing and small lot sizes allows for land area to be used for denser and more multifamily purposes. And stipulating affordable housing in new development projects forces developers to build with the average American in mind. Therefore, housing becomes cheaper to build and more affordable, non-residential uses become integrated into the broader community, and there are fewer restrictions to prevent, for example, the development of a place of worship, or an existing place of worship’s integration with the surrounding community.

Intersection of Faith Movements, Interfaith Movements and Urbanism. While still in its infancy, the intersection of faith and modern urbanism has begun to take significant hold in religious communities. For example, in the National Catholic Register, writer Jennifer Fulwiler envisions “a movement for people… to live within walking distance of their church”, and argues that “walkable communities could be a big boon… for the whole Church” (Fulwiler). The unrivaled access that walkable communities and nearby churches could provide, as Fulwiler argues, could significantly increase Church membership, the Church’s connections with the broader community, attendance at Sunday prayers, diversity within the Church, and even the Church’s positive relationships with other faith groups.

Advocacy for walkable cities among faith communities extends well beyond Christianity. For example, as Orthodox Jewish groups cannot drive on the Shabbat, the urban form of their community “must be built to accommodate” (Chizhik-Goldschmidt) frequent walking trips. As a result, many Orthodox Jewish enclaves around the United States already incorporate many designs that modern urbanist movements advocate for: Dense housing, diverse housing options, proximity to amenities, and small lot sizes, all of which positively affect walkability. While these urban forms are often thought of at scales of major cities, Orthodox communities have brought these designs to much smaller scales; neighborhoods in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, have integrated walkable designs in just a few square blocks. These neighborhoods underscore that the critical connection between faith communities and modern urbanism is beneficial both for religious communities and Americans more broadly.

Modern urbanism movements have also begun to embrace the idea that religious communities and urbanism are mutually beneficial movements. Strong Towns recognizes that faith and urbanism are mutualistic ideas, writing that urbanist “advocates and faith communities are natural allies” (Pattison). Other urbanists have used faith to advocate for modern urbanist policies; for example, in the Embedded Church Podcast, hosts Eric Jacobsen and Sara Joy Proppe share stories “about reweaving the connections between place, the built environment, and the mission of God” (“The Embedded Church Podcast”). Sara Joy Proppe also started the Proximity Project, a group that helps churches influence the urban fabric of their neighborhoods. 

Perhaps the most significant mutualistic effort between faith and modern urbanism has been the development of a global interfaith and urbanist community, under the philosophy that modern urbanism and interfaith efforts are mutually beneficial. The International Council of Faiths for Urbanism is a global multi-faith organization that focuses on faith-based approaches to urban planning. As they seek to positively influence the development of cities around the world, they ask, “what contribution can faith communities make to create cities where everyone can flourish?” (“International Council”). Though the organization is novel, their focus on interfaith and urbanism puts them in a unique position to address urban policies, especially in America; as members of a religious group instill their faith in that group, religious groups could more effectively appeal the urbanist philosophy to their congregations. With both urbanists and interfaith activists joining together to advocate for sustainable and equitable urban policies, the ramifications for religious groups are profound.

How the Intersection of Faith and Urbanism Affects Religious Community, Belonging, and Pluralism. Though modern urbanist policy proposals have become entrenched in public debate over the design of cities, many policies have so far been ruled out by governments. The ramifications of modern urbanist policy proposals, nevertheless, are significant in the religious context: The relaxation of zoning laws adds another layer of clearance for minority religious communities to build their own places of worship. The elimination of parking mandates significantly decreases construction costs for religious institutions, regardless of the religious group. The elimination of separate-use zoning could make churches, mosques, synagogues and temples the next-door neighbors of residents. People-oriented development and walkability could substantially increase access to religious spaces, for Jews who follow the Shabbat and Muslims who walk to the local mosque alike. These development forms are not only changes to America’s physical landscape, but changes to America’s entire religious landscape; not only could these policies increase the community involvement and intermingling of religious communities, but, by increasing access to broad religious communities, they could even reverse the course of declining religiosity that has characterized the American population over the last four decades.

Even outside of the direct, physical results, modern urbanist policies have profound indirect and social impacts on religious communities, majority and minority. For example, in major American cities, “walkability turned out to be a significant predictor of perceived quality of life” (Jaśkiewicz). Crucially, in another study on the impact of walkable communities on residents’ social welfare, researchers found that the walkable neighborhood of Mueller, Texas, was “welcoming to people of all… religions” (Zhu) because of the close-knit community that the dense, mixed-use development and numerous public spaces provided. As a result, while direct consequences of modern urbanism to religious communities are profound, so are the indirect consequences. Walkable neighborhoods that follow modern urbanist development patterns are both generally more diverse and typically have more social interaction than car-dependent neighborhoods (Conderino). Further, the urban form and diversity of walkable neighborhoods make chance encounters and friendship between people of different demographic groups more tenable than in suburbs, and as a result, these interactions can bring better acceptance of different backgrounds among all members of the community. Together, the factors in modern urbanism and walkable cities create “an environment that encourages more tolerant attitudes among inhabitants” (Carter 1). 

More tolerant attitudes towards religious minorities, which results in part from walkability and an urban form based upon modern urbanist philosophy, would have a cascading effect on religious communities, Christian and non-Christian. For Christian members of the community, acceptance towards others’ religious practices can resolve insecurities with their own faith, and strengthen their connection with their Christian community. Acceptance of non-Christian religious minorities has even more significant ramifications; for example, while relaxed zoning laws already open doors for religious minority communities to establish physical places of worship, broad acceptance of their religious practice clears social hurdles to their developments. And even after these places of worship are built, this acceptance can increase minority religious groups’ influence and integration in their neighborhoods. Both Christian and non-Christian groups, as a result, can be better able to assume the roles that many religious groups traditionally play in their communities: Religious safe havens, welfare organizations, and places of connection.


As addressed in this paper, the design of suburbs, while contrived to uphold white, Christian homogeneity, damages both Christian and non-Christian religious communities; however, non-Christian religious communities are disproportionately disadvantaged by suburban design. Furthermore, recent challenges to these design elements by modern urbanist groups and interfaith movements alike could reverse the trend of modern suburbanization in America, in favor of dense cities and integrated religious communities. Recent initiatives by urbanist and interfaith efforts alike, by reversing the growing ubiquity of middle suburbia–both culturally and physically–in America, could fundamentally transform the American suburban religious landscape, from one of Christian religious conformity and declining religious sentiment, to kaleidoscopic religious affiliation and revival. This paper first considered the motivations and original designs of suburbs. Then, it considered how some suburban policies prevent religious minorities and Christians alike from maintaining strong religious communities in their suburbs. Combining the prior two sections against new efforts in urbanist and interfaith spheres, this paper finally described how modern urbanism and interfaith efforts are challenging the religious conformity status quo in suburban America, and the implications of those challenges. As modern suburbia presents a fundamental contradiction of America’s emphasis on the freedom of religion, the burgeoning popularity of urbanist and interfaith efforts puts America in a crossroads: America can maintain the suburban experiment at the expense of its religious communities, or embrace the modern urbanist design in favor of community, religious and non-religious.


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