Friday, June 17, 2011

Do Judaism and New Urbanism have anything to say to each other?


Photo credit: Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem via Wikimedia Commons (ערן)
  I believe the answer to the above question is linked to the issue of whether Judaism and environmentalism -- a movement to which New Urbanism is related though not identical -- have anything to say to each other.

I'm an observant Jew. I generally favor environmentalist initiatives, e.g. recycling. But I tend not to be terribly interested in Jewish apologetics for environmentalism.

I guess that's because I view environmentalism as a common-sense enterprise.

This is not to suggest that there are areas of life where Judaism doesn't apply, or that Jewish sources should not be brought to bear on common-sense issues. An observant person might be willing to brush off the health risks of smoking, but can hardly ignore, without some religious qualms, a psak instructing him to quit.

I also recognize that looking to Jewish sources for environmental insights can be a fascinating intellectual exercise for those so inclined. There's plenty of eco-Jewish material on the Internet, and not all of it is cliche-ridden. One blog that is interesting (though not recently updated) is Judaism and Environment in the Talmud.

These acknowlegements aside, the idea of seeking out specifically Jewish justifications for water conservation, energy efficiency, etc., strikes me as redundant. In a way I find it demeaning to Judaism -- a kind of subjugation of the religion to political correctness. And, for me personally at least, the "Judaization" of common-sense issues isn't a terribly compelling endeavor.

Just as I regard environmentalism as a kind of "no-brainer" proposition, so do I look upon New Urbanism as a common-sense framework for ensuring that our built environment is pleasant, stimulating, and safe. I wouldn't normally consider it necessary to embed my personal affinity for this movement in a halakhic framework, any more than I would feel I had to ask my rabbi about the necessity of good oral hygiene.

However, it has occurred to me lately that perhaps a Jewish-Urbanism niche ought to be created, within the framework of Jewish environmentalism. That if Jewish sources could be enlisted on behalf of New Urbanist tenets, a little more interest might be generated within the Jewish blogosphere than my rantings to date have managed to do.

If you Google "Judaism and [new] urbanism" you get a few items that are worthwhile, though primarily of sociological interest -- and with an American orientation. Notably, Michael Lewyn, a law school professor with expertise in urban planning who blogs at Planetizen, points out here and here that the urbanist focus on walkability should be music to Orthodox Jewish ears, as it dovetails with, among other things, the need to get to shul by foot on Shabbat.

This issue of car-oriented sprawl conflicting with Orthodox Shabbat observance is an interesting one -- but it seems to me a primarily American issue, and not one around which religious Israelis are likely to rally. I wouldn't expect that a lack of pedestrian access to minyanim is a common problem in Israel. The urbanism/sprawl dichotomy expresses itself here in other ways that are probably more challenging to frame in specifically Jewish terms.

The problem, as I see it, is an overall lack of "urbanist consciousness" among observant Israeli Jews, leading to a failure to demand street- and community-friendly features from the planning authorities and real estate developers who build for this public. Building setbacks? Mixed-use zoning? Snout houses? Folks are too busy caring for and educating their large (ken yirbu) families to relate to these issues. In the newer, peripheral neighborhood of Jerusalem where I reside, people are happy just to have secured for themselves apartments of reasonable size in which to raise their kids; they couldn't care less what their buildings look like from the outside, whether or not the neighborhood has a discernible "center," whether their street is automobile-oriented or pedestrian-friendly.

Would some erudite drashos tying New Urbanism to halakhic principles regarding the public domain spark an interest among the religiously observant? Possibly.

Unfortunately, I won't be the one to take up this challenge, having come to Jewish observance rather too late in life to acquire the erudition necessary for such an enterprise.

All that I am capable of doing -- to the extent that I am indeed capable of furthering any agenda with this blog -- is to take a common-sense approach to my surroundings, here in the Holy City: what looks good/bad, what feels welcoming/alienating, what is safe/unsafe. Yet, limited as this approach is, I can't help feeling that at some level it ought to be sufficient -- even from a Jewish perspective.

Common sense enjoins Jews to care about how Eretz Israel -- the land given to us by G-d -- is built up and developed. All the more so regarding Jerusalem. I'm not sure one needs halachic justification for one's distress when a visual hijacking occurs -- when chunks of Jerusalem's landscape are sold to the highest bidder.

Common sense also enjoins Jewish parents to be concerned when residential projects are constructed in such a way as to create a sense of desertion at street level, and to leave the street -- and the children who use it -- essentially unsupervised.

To conclude: I feel fairly confident that Judaism and New Urbanism have something to say to each other at the esoteric level -- high up on the Jewish bookshelf. At the same time, I think they probably have much to say to each other at the level of common sense.

Photo credit: Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem via Wikimedia Commons (ערן)

1 comment:

Monarch at Ridge Hill said...

We are happy to see that you understand the necessity for New Urbanism as a lifestyle choice. NU is extremely practical and can help alleviate a lot of dependence on natural resources. Your idea of including religious communities in NU is great--subcultures of all types should be involved in the community as much as possible.