Faith and Urbanism

Written By: Bradford R. Houston

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’”  – John Ruskin


How do we create lasting value and a sense of permanence or timelessness in our designs. This to me is the ultimate sustainability. I believe we must look to the past, learn from it, and ultimately build on the best that has been done.  We should resist trends, and innovation for its own sake, and seek to study and understand the very best time tested examples in order to understand the long-term ramifications of our choices.

Picture223 years ago, prior to ever hearing the words new urbanism, neo-traditionalism, TND or Urban Village Movement, I looked around me and knew there was something wrong with the way we planned communities.  About this time I moved to England as a young college intern, and while living in a beautiful neighborhood in London’s West End, I discovered a quality of life that I had not experienced before. Based on this experience, I submitted a research proposal to the University of Cambridge, Department of Land Economy, to study the communities of London’s West End.  The purpose of my research was to attempt to understand how they had been created and perhaps even more importantly, how to create places like them once again.  In keeping with the principle of examining some of the best that has been done, I turned to the Grosvenor Estate, of the Duke of Westminster.  

You may be familiar with the Grosvenor Estate, Picture3which includes some of London’s most beautiful and desirable neighborhoods, including Mayfair and Belgravia. In the process of my research, I became familiar with the concept of hereditary land-ownership and came to appreciate the long-term interest this system cultivates.

The great wealth and high social position of these aristocratic families meant that their interest in the development of their properties generally extended far beyond the purpose of short term profits. Most of these families would approach development decisions without the constant preoccupation of immediate financial returns, and instead focus their attention on enhancing the long-range value of their estates.

Today, as it was then, greater harmony between the self-interest of the landowner and the interest of the community is attained when the landowner, striving to protect the long-term capital investment of his property, works to preserve and enhance the desirability of the estate overall.  Getting things right is more important than short-term profits.  Immense financial returns have proven this approach to be a wise one. In the case of the Grosvenor Family, careful estate management and their personal desire to see the improvements of their properties have been rewarded by the vast accumulation of personal wealth, which allows the estate office to continue to make decisions based primarily on the good of the community.

Of all the things I learned from my experience with the Grosvenor Estate, I would like to share with you what I feel is the single most important, as summarized in the final paragraph of my dissertation:

 “Though the estate today is a commercial enterprise, the Duke of Westminster is first and foremost an historic landowner. If we can learn anything from the aristocratic land developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the unique ownership system which not only created them, but has served to preserve them for us today, it must include the essential principle of stewardship for our land, assuming a responsibility for what we as stewards will pass on to subsequent generations.”

 Gerald Grosvenor, the current Duke of Westminster, shared this very personal insight with me on how he viewed his role:


“I don’t own this land. I am the steward of this land for a season. It is my responsibility to protect it and pass it on to future generations, in a condition of at least equal value as I received it, or hopefully much improved.”

This beautiful vision for creating community incorporates on all of the principles of traditional urbanism.  The daily needs of its residents are met within walking distance of their homes. There is a mix of housing types and income levels throughout the community.  While Mayfair and Belgravia are two of the world’s wealthiest communities, it would surprise most people to know that the Grosvenor estate provides Peabody (or affordable) Housing throughout their developments.


The Estate also provides housing for many of the caretakers. When these employees are too old to continue to work, the estate continues to provide housing for them in the community where they have lived all their lives.  When I talked with His Grace, he stated that these individuals are the very heart of his communities.

They provide the much needed daily activity that supports local stores.  Without them the corner shops would close, demand would drop, and property values would fall. His Grace knows that it is the right thing to do, but he also demonstrates a keen understanding of how these principles contribute to the the long-term desirability of his communities.Picture6

Failure to understand the far reaching consequences of creating communities where people can’t walk and everyone is of a particular income level has already lead to  devastating consequences.

Several years ago I came across a book after I heard the authors being interviewed on the Today Show. In the Two-Income Trap, Harvard Law Professor, Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia explore the question of

“Why today’s two-income family earns 75% more than its single-income counterpart a generation ago, but actually have less to spend.”

And “Why the average-middle-class family can no longer buy a home unless both parents work. I was fascinated by the answer because it confirmed what I had discovered several years earlier.

“The Second Car” which the authors mentioned specifically:

“Once an unheard of luxury within the middle class, the ‘Second Car’ has become a necessity.”

This is just one of the many devastating effects of failing to follow time-tested traditional planning practices. For those who want to understand these issues more I suggest reading Suburban Nation.

In contrast to the principle of stewardship, I present the following story from Hugh Nibley’s book Approaching Zion.  He states:


 “I spent my mission among the fields of Europe, which had been under the plow for literally thousands of years and were still yielding their abundance.  After my mission I visited a glorious redwood grove near Santa Cruz, California.  Only there was no grove there; the two-thousand-year-old trees were all gone; not one of them left standing. My own grandfather had converted them all into cash. Grandfather took something priceless and irreplaceable and gave in return a few miles of railroad ties. In those days, we enjoyed a feeling of immense prosperity through the simple device of using up in twenty or thirty years those reserves of nature’s treasury that were meant to last for a thousand years. There’s no permanency in economy that takes a hundred from nature and gives back one. There’s no survival value in such an operation, which is certainly the business of systematic and organized looting—the very opposite of making a fair exchange with the earth. Above all, it ignores the ancient doctrine of man’s obligation to “quicken” the earth that bears for him. The old Jewish teaching is that Adam had a right only to that portion of the earth that he “quickened,” on which he labored with the sweat of his brow. Let us not confuse the ethic of work with the ethic of plunder.[1]


 I would like to conclude with another key element which I feel is essential to creating communities of lasting value but is rarely discussed – in fact I think it is purposely avoided – and that is the principle of beauty.  Beauty it is an essential part of the dialogue on timelessness.   How do we insure timelessness in our architectural designs?  We follow the same process, we look to the past and study that which has successfully withstood the test of time.  The principle of beauty was very much a part of early Mormon settlements. In a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1832 He taught that Zion’s virtue and beauty go hand in hand – “For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness.

Carma de Jong Anderson tells us that when Joseph Smith and the early Mormons arrived in Commerce, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1839 they found a half dozen families living there and as many as 30 vacant log cabins abandoned by homesteaders. An unhealthy bog harbored a malarial fever usually followed by pneumonia and often by death.  But Joseph Smith envisioned possibilities so resplendent that he renamed this spot on a bend in the Mississippi River Nauvoo – a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful” or “beautiful place.”

 “The Saints bought four acres on a glorious rise of land for their temple—the focal point of their spiritual vision. They immediately set to work digging drainage ditches to divert water from the flats, and soon the stagnant pools of malarial water began to disappear.  In the first year after the Saints began arriving in Nauvoo, 250 houses were built.  By the next year 1,200 structures had been built. By 1845 Nauvoo had 11,000 citizens, rivaling the population of Chicago. Some people referred to Nauvoo as “the great city in the wilderness.”’ [2]


I have sat on a hill in Nauvoo overlooking this bend in the Mississippi River just as the sun was setting. There I reflected on the truly magnificent achievements of a people united by faith, and marveled at what they had created.  Joseph Smith’s choice of the name Nauvoo, or “beautiful place” reflected the fundamental belief that they were to create more than a place to live, they would carve out a beautiful city for the cultivation of the human spirit. If we fail to understand this principle—we fail to understand a key element of these places.

Let us build on the best of all our traditions by carefully studying those communities that have successfully withstood the test of time.  Let us build upon that which has worked, attempt to understand that which did not, and continue to build upon the very best that has been done so our work will be of lasting value.  Let it be such work as our descendants will thanks us for, and say, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’


[1] Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989, p. 10-11

[2] Carma de Jong Anderson, “In Beauty and Holiness: The Cultural Arts in Nauvoo,” Ensign, Sept. 2002.

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