The Theology of Sustainability Practice

How Cities Create Hope
  • Peter NewmanEmail author
Living reference work entry

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Reflecting on a lifetime of sustainability practice as an academic, politician, public servant, and community activist, I have drawn on how theology has provided the roots of engagement in tackling the issues of change. Understanding the role of cities in theological history enables us to see how the global and local, the personal and the political, are linked in the journey we need to take towards sustainability. Key themes will be how nature and cities are intertwined, the role of prophets, the competing visions of a future city that have guided urban planners for centuries, and the role of activism and good work as a source of hope in creating the city of the future.


Theology Sustainability Bible Hope Cities Prophets Romanticism Activism 


I have just completed a book called “Never Again: Reflections on Environmental Responsibility After Roe 8” (Gaynor et al. 2017). It is an edited collection of reflections from 30 academics involved in a local action that stopped a freeway as part of a state election where the issue had become the main moral choice. It was a deeply divisive issue with huge media coverage of demonstrators versus police, of bulldozers versus cherished local bush. The newly elected government has since stopped the freeway, put the money into an extended public transport system, and converted the road reserve into an iconic green corridor. The previous government had begun to bulldoze the highly significant bush and wetlands so it could “show greenies strength” – how a government could stand up to environmental activists and win votes. Such values damage the soul of the city. They had to be stopped and were stopped.

The new book does not discuss the theology of such a political choice, but it certainly was a theological issue. It was a deeply spiritual choice made by thousands of people to demonstrate and for 176 to be arrested. It has had its impact directly on the soul of my city, and its future is very different now we have dealt with that issue at such a fundamental level.

My theology was shaped 40 years ago and this freeway was one of the first issues that attracted my activism back then. It was a very long-term struggle, as are most deeper issues in our cities .

Political activism needs to be based on theology in my view and this chapter is how I came to understand what it was that shaped my ideas and motivations.

How Nature and Cities Are Intertwined: A Theological Perspective

In the 1970s, as I was studying environmental science I began to read the work of Jaques Ellul , a French sociology professor who wrote 58 books and over 1000 articles in two different styles that he said were in a constant “dialectic.” One style was secular sociology and the other was theology. He was also an activist having been a member of the French resistance in the Second World War (awarded a Yad Vashem medal for saving the lives of Jews) and was an elected local government councilor in Bordeaux.

Ellul wrote the Technological Society (his most well-known work) where he showed how pervasive the belief in a technological solution or technique had become in all areas of life and thinking (Ellul 1964). The partner theological book was called The Meaning of the City (Ellul 1970) which showed the theological base for understanding cities, humanities’ greatest achievement, and our central problem to helping us solve the sustainability issues of our time at a deeper spiritual level.

Ellul went through the Bible from start to finish showing how cities are understood. The Old Testament views of nature and cities give us a foundation for sustainability, and as these books serve Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, it is possible to see how a large proportion of humanity are at least theoretically influenced (I am not an expert on other religions but I know enough to have seen similar approaches to environmental care and sustainability, see UNEP (2016).).

The Genesis perspective shows a world that has been created over epochs of time (not just literal “days”) with an unformed chaos then becoming a place for nature and finally humans. It is declared to be “good” with humans living in the garden provided by nature and given a role “to tend and care for it.” But humans choose to pursue the “knowledge of good evil” when given a choice and were expelled from the garden. Ellul and others see this as the choice to create settlements around agriculture and technology rather than the millennia of time that humans had been hunter-gatherers depending totally upon nature and an innocence that is still reflected in many traditional tribal groups. However, virtually all hunter-gatherers have made and continue to make the choice to live in cities or settlements of some kind rather than moving with the flows of nature as we did over deep time.

The choice to pursue a less nature-immersed life and build cities is soon seen to lead to disasters symbolized by the Tower of Babel in Genesis where the inability to communicate properly leads to violence and disaster. From here on, the history of cities emerges as a rise and fall based on the soul of the city and the ability or inability of urban citizens to respond to their prophets .

The Role of Prophets

“And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said ‘The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence.’”

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence

In the middle and last volumes of the Old Testament, there are many stories of how fragile is the civilization created within cities. Archeologists and ancient history academics can piece together why cities collapse. Megiddo, in Israel (a city after which the word Armageddon was developed), is a large archeological site where the remains of 22 cities have been located one on top of the other. The work of Jared Diamond (2005) called “Collapse ” shows that the fundamental cause is that the people in a city choose not to change, they do not respond to the prophets of their time. This is a spiritual issue for cities. Thus, it is possible to see that spirituality seeps into all of life especially our cities which are the human creation that can be arrogant or humble about how we create our future; they can choose a future that can face up to the evils of corruption, inequality, frivolity, and destruction of nature or they can let it destroy them.

The Old Testament prophets first of all called this out publicly; they did not idly stand by: “Don’t listen to those who say all is well, who give us smooth words and seductive visions” (Isaiah 30 10) but accepted there was a problem and that it was caused by the “arrogance of ruthless men” (Isaiah 13″). But they went beyond blaming individuals; they talked about it being something to do with the “soul of the city.” They called this a choice between “Zion ” and “Babylon ”, two city types that represented the choices of life or death, the city of hope or the city of fear and despair. Any city could be seen as making this choice at particular times in their history. The soul of the city was linked to a range of social injustices and to how the city impacted on the natural environment. Jeremiah said “your wrong doing has upset nature’s  order.” Why? What wrong doing? Because they do not “grant justice to the poor” (Jer 5 25–28) and because as Isaiah said:

Though in their pride and arrogance they say,

The bricks are fallen but we will build in hewn stone,

The sycamores are hacked down,

But we will use cedars instead. Isaiah 9:10.

Technological pride and belief in the absolute ability of the market to replace any resource was not apparently invented by us moderns after all. So, in the end judgement falls on such arrogance and the evidence of such happening is in the history books. Ephesus , the last large modern western city to collapse and be abandoned (around 1000 AD), is said to have collapsed from overcutting its forests which silted up the river and made it no longer a navigable port. The greatest city in ancient times was Babylon. Isaiah, writing in the eighth century BC predicted that the towering city of Babylon would collapse as it did in 140 BC from over-exploiting of its forests which diverted the Euphrates River and destroyed their agricultural base. Isaiah dreamed of the day when this would happen to Babylon:

The whole world has rest and is at peace it breaks into cries of joy,

the pines themselves and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you:

Since you have been laid low they say no man comes up to fell us. (Is 10 18, 19).

The Competing Visions of the Future

The city, as seen in this theological perspective, was not seen as fundamentally wrong; people were told not to “leave Babylon” until it was about to collapse. They needed to try and make it work. It was only wrong if it did not make the necessary changes shown by its prophets.

Cities will always involve a choice to avoid this collapse – first morally and then in its economy and social fabric. People will choose in cities to create more and more knowledge and more and more complex societies with more and more opportunity, but they will always be under the possibility of collapse depending on the soul of the city (Newman 2007).

We should accept that cities have a future, but they need to constantly be reclaiming their future, choosing the direction that enables them to be inclusive, productive, and sustainable. If they are not doing this then they need to adapt or else they open themselves to the possibilities of collapsing. This tension between futures for a city is the way that our western spiritual traditions saw the future. Such competing visions can continue to inform us.

The last book in the Bible pitches two scenarios of the future being two city-types which stand in tension, as throughout history. Once again one is called Zion, the City of God, and the other is called Babylon, the City of Man. Zion is not paradise, a remade perfect nature, it is a city that is built by human science and craftsmanship; it is pictured as a city of jewels or diamonds – which appear to be human-made achievements. Diamonds are scientifically discovered, crafted with great skill, and valued for generations as a symbol of hope. This city of diamonds is also a city in harmony with nature; a tree of life and a river of life flow through the city.

The other city, Babylon (not the historical city of Babylon but any city that does what it did and collapsed) is a city full of frivolous consumption, repression of people, and degradation of nature. There are no diamonds here, just fear and despair. This city is under judgement and it will collapse.

We do dream of more rural utopian pasts and try to help make them continue, but history tells us that the process is one way towards more cities. Cities provide opportunities, but they also are fragile. History, like that told by Jared Diamond, shows that the cities we create from our knowledge can collapse or can adapt and thrive. This theological perspective shows that we can even create a legacy of human diamonds, if we make the right choices in our cities and do the daily work needed to make it happen.

Cities were first built about 13,000 years ago. This occurred after the ice age though variations in climate did impact so when the world became colder and drier again, many of the first Middle Eastern settlements did collapse as their ecological base was ruined. These societies then spread west and east from the Fertile Crescent, and as the climate warmed, created the settlements and agricultural areas in Europe and Asia that we now know. At the same time, great cities were being built in Africa and South America, and even in North America there is evidence of large settlements pre-1492, as people created new economies of commerce and trade.

Although cities have collapsed on every continent as they depleted their soils or were unable to manage their settlements or were destroyed by invaders, they did not go back to the “garden” (the mystical Garden of Eden where humans first lived) and become hunter gatherers again. The broad sweep of history shows that cities tend to be rebuilt and have endured and grown, and the place of nature has changed in that journey. But they are still very fragile.

In more recent times the world watched in amazement as the city of New Orleans collapsed due to an extreme climate event. The way that all civilizing constraints disappeared so quickly as people tried desperately to find food and safety shocked us all. History though suggests that we should not be shocked – the potential is there in any city. However, we do then tend to rebuild such cities and sometimes try to learn from the lessons.

Does this mean that sustainability is somehow impossible, that nature will always struggle to have a place with human civilization? No, but first let me demonstrate that there are pitfalls.

Isn’t Rural Life Better for us?

There have been attempts in the past to ruralize cities. Pol Pot and Mao were two recent leaders who believed in a rural-oriented revolution that would replace our cities. There is some attraction to most of us, perhaps a memory of our distant past, but history shows that such rural idealization of cities does not last and does little for rural production which soon collapses under the weight of incompetent urban peasants. In both China and Cambodia massive loss of life followed. Cities rapidly rebuild after such experiments. Phnom Penh and Beijing are not lacking in people after their failed attempts to empty them.

The idea that resource vulnerability and climate change will disperse our cities into rural settlements or even rural suburbs, with only those surviving being those who can farm a small block is a vision sometimes promulgated by the Permaculture movement (Mollison and Holmgren 1978). Permaculture is a set of design rules that help make cities more sustainable that are all eminently sensible and helpful. But sometimes it develops into an anti-urban ideology that tries to say cities cannot work and should be abandoned in favor of small rural villages that are self-sufficient in food.

This is not likely to be a realistic or helpful scenario. We are going to have come to terms with a new kind of agriculture and a new kind of city, but we are not likely to reverse 13,000 years of urban history. Nor would we want to as all the evidence suggests that such small rural holdings and garden suburbs on the fringes of our cities are the least sustainable parts of our cities, especially in transport, and do nothing much for regional productivity (Newman and Kenworthy 1999, 2015). There is a growing sense that rural settlements and peri-urban areas could perhaps be the best place for these ideas to be practiced but there is little hope for a uniform dismissal of the urban area as a place to live and work with shared economic opportunities not available outside cities.

The reason we rebuild and adapt cities is that our choices for returning to nature are very limited and, to most people, are not acceptable. Not only do we not want to become totally dependent on foraging or hunting for our food, we mostly do not want the responsibility for food production at all. The attraction of doing other things, which are only possible if we are freed from food production, drives us to cities. Thus, history has also shown multiple failures of rural utopian visions which are set up to ensure that people create their own food rather than being in cities or towns dependent on food. History is dotted with these experiments but those that succeed are usually either very short-lived or are heavily dependent on an urban area nearby. Locked out of Eden, we seem destined to be more and more urban.

So, do we just put up with cities knowing that it would be much better for us if we lived away from them? This is largely the issue of Romanticism and how we deal with the problems in cities.

Romanticism or Activism

There is a difference between Romanticism and a healthy view of cities and their potential. Romanticism sees nature as the source of all truth and beauty and the artifices of human beings only spoil this. The Romantic poets came out of the early industrial revolution; they saw Babylon being built there. Coleridge and Wordsworth fled the cities and wrote about the purifying effect of nature. The city was seen as deeply alienating with no possibility of being reformed.

Others at that time focused on what could be done about the cities. The famous song now sung at soccer games in the UK “Jerusalem” is based on William Blake’s 1808 poem. He says:

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Blake could instead just see Babylon and was part of a movement trying to reform the cities of England. The original poem by Blake is prefaced by a quotation from the Bible: “Would to God that all the Lords people were prophets.” (Numbers 11: 29). So, Blake’s famous hymn says:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green and pleasant Land.

Commentators on Blake such as Christopher Rowland, Oxford Professor of Theology, suggest that: “The words of the poem stress the importance of people taking responsibility for change and building a better society ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’” (Rowland 2007). UK’s cities today are much cleaner, indeed green and pleasant, than during the industrial revolution centuries. The UK is one of the leaders in the transition to renewable energy which is remaking the future world for cities everywhere. The last coal fired power station in the UK will close within a decade (Newman et al. 2017).

The alternative to a Romantic view of cities is thus a prophetic or activists view. Part of this is to ensure that cities respect nature and have nature as part of their everyday living and working environments. We call this today “biophilic urbanism,” and it is not anti-urban but is anti-artificiality and the arrogance that asserts we do not need nature (Beatley 2011; Newman et al. 2017). Bringing nature into cities is not Romanticism, it is being practical and creative about human life as well as the world of nature that now lives in close partnership with us.

A pioneering woman in Western Australia, Georgiana Molloy, came out from the UK in 1829. She followed the Romantic poets of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District before sailing half way around the world to start a new life in a strange land. She brought their Romantic ideas with her to Western Australia and set up a campsite where she mostly had contact with local aboriginal people. She learned much from them and discovered the astonishing biodiversity of South Western Australia. She became a brilliant botanist but died at 37 without proper health care and the benefits of city life and said she was “utterly wretched” at the end despite towns nearby offering the potential for health services that may have saved her (Barry 2016). Is it not possible to have the best of urbanism with the best of nature?

The Sustainable City

The work I have been doing as an academic and an activist come together around the concept of sustainability and cities. The book that Jeff Kenworthy and I produced in 1999 introduced the concept of sustainability into the academic and activist agenda of cities (Newman and Kenworthy 1999). It is a good agenda to enable us to look at how cities are faring in the complex world of surviving into the longer-term future, of choosing a future of hope rather than a future of fear and despair.

How the sustainable city agenda helps to shape our choices for the future can be framed in different ways. Bruntland’s definition of sustainable development emphasized ensuring we did not shut off the options of future generations. Others discuss integrated economic, social, and environmental thinking. In our approach, we emphasize the metabolism of cities and how it can be integrated with the human livability of cities. We defined sustainability in cities as how cities face up to reducing their input of resources and output of wastes while improving their livability (the social and economic opportunities for individuals and communities).

We collected data on cities from around the world and highlighted where they needed to change, especially in the highly car-dependent cities of America and Australia. But most of all (in terms of bringing about change), we told the stories of those cities that had done good things to improve their sustainability. We shared the diamonds of hope (Newman and Kenworthy 1999, 2015; Newman and Jennings 2008; Matan and Newman 2016; Newman et al. 2017).

Since then we have expanded the concept to understand how cities have three kinds of cities within their spatial urban area: walking cities, transit cities, and automobile cities – and these have very different sustainability outcomes built into their fabrics (Newman et al. 2016; Thomson and Newman 2016, 2017). More recently we have shown that sustainability is now happening much faster even while the need, especially climate change, is also growing faster (Green and Newman 2017; Newman et al. 2017). We have therefore begun pushing for an even more demanding concept: the Regenerative City (Newman et al. 2017). This means that cities should not just be reducing their resource consumption and waste but actually they need to be regenerating the atmosphere and the city’s bioregional environment as well as creating better opportunities for people. As the stakes of not changing grow, the need for cities to regenerate their impacts is now becoming the real agenda for long-time survival.

Is this possible? I don’t know but I remain hopeful. Hope is getting harder but its still hope. Why? Because the past 40 years has shown that when I am hopeful with what I write and what I do in politics, what I say in the media about the campaigns that matter, I believe that the diamonds of hope begin to be discovered, polished, and turned into legacies that are going to last for generations.

The rebuilding of suburbia is one of the great challenges of our time. Their advertized rural bliss is increasingly looking like the failed experiments of other rural utopias as they dissolve into long commutes and diminished services. As car-dependent transport impacts rise, the vulnerability of car-dependent suburbs will increase until they really will begin to collapse. Unless of course, we begin a massive process of rebuilding cities in the suburbs around new rail and bus lines, and redeveloping closer to centers (Newman and Kenworthy 2015).

This is our urban agenda. These ideas are in all the plans for most cities and there are many examples where it is working. But it will take so much more before our cities have truly adapted to this challenge. The wonders of science and all the best of human ingenuity and creativity will be needed to make our cities work, to come to grips with removing fossil fuels, adapting to climate change and responding to the needs of the Sustainable Development Goals . This is the focus of many commentators on sustainable development from a theological perspective including academics such as Vogt (2010) and the Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ of Pope Francis on care for our common home (Pope Francis 2015). The opportunities of renewable energy combined with smart systems and battery storage are providing great hope that our cities can create this clean energy future (Green and Newman 2017), but the political power of the fossil fuel industry and the conservatism of professional practice will be a serious challenge.

The role of urban activists in catalyzing this change, providing the diamonds of hope that build the city, will be very important as communities must face these issues with confidence but not hubris. Ours is a tradition of making cities work for thousands of years, so we should not lose hope now.

The Role of Activism as a Source of Hope in Creating the City of the Future

The image of hope set out in the theological traditions outlined above is that we need to creatively accept that cities are our historical and spiritual home, and we need to work on them. They are subject to all of human frailty and can collapse if we casually accept a tradition of inability to change. The diamonds or jewels that make the city of the future are the legacies of winning the detailed battles of everyday work pushed by the need to be better, to be more creative, more positive, and more helpful. Activists are needed to help show that agenda and help to demonstrate it.

There is a film that sets out in a wonderful story of hope how New York was saved from several freeways and modernist high-rise housing projects that were designed to “clean the slate” in the old fabric of the city. The film is Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016). It is the story of how Jane Jacobs took on the top-down, elitist and corrupt processes of the slum clearance and highway engineer Robert Moses. The loss of Greenwich Village and many other highly vibrant and sustainable areas of the city were saved by a series of women led by the young journalist Jane Jacobs. The diamonds of hope can be seen very easily now and the inspiration for other cities is considerable.

A similar story can be told about Jan Gehl, a Danish urban designer who has worked in over 50 cities across the globe showing them what was wrong with their old central cities and making them walkable again; the stories are all different but they show a professional who is an activist, a prophet of our time, who did not pull back from telling cities what they needed to do to reclaim their cities from the automobile (Matan and Newman 2016).

Cities have a soul; they are a combination of the historical values won by generations before and by those who now set the priorities and practices today. The soul of a city is created daily by the activities of government, business, and civil society. If a city loses its way and then begins to deny its soul, it can collapse. If a city, however, is confronted by a set of issues that reveal its soul is being compromised and it fights these tendencies and wins, the diamonds of hope are built into a new and more spiritually strong city.

This is what I believe I saw in the Roe 8 issue in my own city in the last year and perhaps a range of other issues over the past 40 or so years that I have struggled with. I see similar victories happening in other cities and write about them so others can gain some hope in their struggles. I see other cities that just deny they have issues and begin the slow but inexorable decline and collapse that is historically quite possible.


There does seem to be evidence that human society is becoming more and more urban, while at the same time our cities seem to be more and more precarious. But this tension is not new. Our urban civilization has always been a mixture of both trends. The ancients could see this and certainly the prophets in the Bible suggest this. Cities became the dwelling place of humanity, but their potential to collapse could never be forgotten. The prophets saw their role as reminding people of this possibility, even about the problem of resources running out and how the environment of cities could never just be assumed. However, the theology described here is not based on despair and fear of the future, it is based on hope. For everyone the possibility is to create a diamond of hope that can contribute to the city which has long-term significance. Such is the basis of sustainability practice.

Reflection Questions: Through this pedagogical feature, the chapter will invite the readers/participants to reflect on their experience of engaged sustainability transpired by the case study and in terms of the concept(s) presented in the chapter.
  1. 1.

    What can you say about the “soul” of your city? What are the features that characterize its approach to the future? Is it a city of fear and despair or a city of hope?

  2. 2.

    Examine an issue in which you have been engaged personally. Can you see a diamond of hope that you helped create? How have you communicated its significance to the next generation of activists?

  3. 3.

    How important is it to call out the issues of your city and seek responses to a prophetic voice?

  4. 4.

    Can the world manage if it becomes even more urban in the future?



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute, School of Design and Built EnvironmentCurtin UniversityPerthAustralia

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