The Pope, it turns out, is an urban planner. In a few paragraphs embedded in the middle of his epic environmental encyclical published this week, he managed to tie together affordable housing, mass transit, parking, inequality, architecture, public space and segregation (perhaps no surprising feat given his startling facility in this same document connecting fossil fuels, solar panels, animal rights and recycling).
The way we design communities, he argues — and this is basically the central tenet of urban planning — is vital to the kind of lives people experience within them. And so sprawling, car-dependent places force us to spend our lives unhappily idling in traffic. Expensive and overcrowded places rob residents of the dignity of having a good home. Great public spaces, by contrast, bring us together.
"Given the interrelationship between living space and human behaviour," the Pope writes, "those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance."
In other words: Architects, designers and urban planners have a moral obligation to care about more than what their creations look like. Their decisions determine how the poor live, how communities interact, how cities tax the environment.
Here the Pope is arguing that our communities have been spoiled by all our cars:
The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.
In short: The Pope, formerly and famously a transit rider himself, knows that Metro is constantly overcrowded and breaking down, and that this reality complicates political battles to improve it.
Here he argues for public spaces that bring us together — and decries segregation that does the opposite:
It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. Interventions which affect the urban or rural landscape should take into account how various elements combine to form a whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives. Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a “we” which all of us are working to create.
He calls explicitly for integration, quoting another major paper he wrote in 2013:
At the same time, creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighbourhoods into a welcoming city: “How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!”
In the final document, the Pope does not actually rail against the suburbs (a translation of the leaked version suggested he did). But these brief passages make clear that he is an urbanist.