American Decline

The Protestant Ethic and American Urban Planning

By Aleksey Bashtavenko

Academic Composition

Max Weber’s concept of the Protestant Ethic has had a significant impact on how American cities are planned and developed. This idea promotes the belief that hard work, wealth, and worldly success are signs of God’s favor and salvation. As a result, American cities have embraced a rationalist approach to urban planning, prioritizing efficiency and utilitarian aspects over aesthetics and community well-being.

One of the consequences of this approach is the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly spaces in many American cities. Instead, urban planners have focused on accommodating automobiles, which are seen as symbols of wealth and prosperity. This preference for cars has led to streets becoming deserted and unsafe for pedestrians, as people are encouraged to use their cars instead of walking.

Jane Jacobs, a critic of American urban planning, argues that neglecting sidewalk life has adverse effects on neighborhoods. Residents may resort to moving out, leaving those who can’t afford to move in unsafe environments. Some might retreat to the isolation of their cars, interacting with the city solely as motorists and missing out on the sense of community that comes with walking. Others may choose to live in gated communities, separated from less affluent areas, reinforcing the belief in prosperity as a sign of salvation.

The concept of “separation from the world” is a central tenet of Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism that emerged during the Reformation in the 16th century. Calvinists rejected the idea that salvation could be attained through participation in religious rituals, rites, and sacraments, as advocated by the Catholic Church. Instead, they believed that salvation was entirely predestined by God and that humans had no control over their own fate in this regard. This led to a profound sense of uncertainty and psychological isolation among Calvinists, as they grappled with the question of whether they were among the chosen few destined for salvation.

To cope with this uncertainty, Calvinists adopted a moral duty to assume they were saved. Any suggestion to the contrary was considered a temptation from the devil. As a result, Calvinists sought to distance themselves from those who appeared not to be among the elect, as even the slightest association with such individuals could be seen as a sign of doubt and temptation. This mindset of isolation and asceticism was deeply ingrained in the Calvinist psyche and influenced various aspects of their lives, including their social interactions and community affiliations.

In American cities, the influence of the Protestant Ethic and Calvinism can be observed in the design and layout of urban spaces. The “isolated car lifestyle” that characterizes many American cities represents a manifestation of the segregationist mindset associated with the Protestant Ethic. Americans’ preference for automobiles and the design of cities to accommodate car-centric lifestyles align with the Calvinist value of separation from the world.

Jane Jacobs’ critique of American urban planning highlights the adverse effects of neglecting sidewalk life and community spaces. She argues that this neglect leads to negative consequences, such as unsafe neighborhoods and the emergence of gated communities. However, from the perspective of the Protestant Ethic, this design approach may be seen as consistent with the value of asceticism and separation from the world.

For instance, some residents might choose to move out of certain neighborhoods, leaving behind those who cannot afford to relocate. This self-preservation may be justified by the belief that God has blessed them with prosperity and that they should distance themselves from less fortunate individuals. Similarly, the reliance on cars and the lack of emphasis on pedestrian-friendly spaces may reflect the desire to minimize interactions with others, particularly those perceived as less fortunate.

The concept of “separation from the world” that emerged from Calvinist beliefs has had a profound impact on the psychological mindset of its adherents. This mindset of isolation and asceticism has influenced various aspects of life, including the design and layout of American cities. The preference for an “isolated car lifestyle” and the neglect of pedestrian-friendly spaces may be seen as a reflection of the Protestant Ethic’s values, emphasizing self-preservation and separation from perceived worldly temptations. While Jane Jacobs’ critique highlights the negative consequences of such urban planning, it is essential to recognize the underlying cultural and religious factors that have shaped American cities and society.

Jacobs’ critique suggests that the rationalist urban planning favored by Americans results in unlivable cities. But it seems that this approach aligns with the values of the Protestant Ethic. Americans tend to view the act of creating communal spaces as socialist because it challenges the idea of private property, which is seen as a sign of God’s blessing. They may question why they should help those who were not elected by God for salvation and why resources should be shared with the damned. This perspective makes it challenging to create cities that prioritize community well-being and inclusivity. The belief in prosperity as a sign of divine favor discourages the idea of charity and undermines efforts to create pedestrian-friendly spaces and communal areas. Anything that goes against the idea of private property is seen as going against the will of God.

Despite Jane Jacobs’ critiques of American urban planning, many Americans seem indifferent to the issues of liveability and community cohesion. This indifference can be linked to the profound influence of the Protestant Ethic on the American psyche.

  1. Divine Predestination: The belief in divine predestination, prevalent in some interpretations of the Protestant Ethic, may lead some individuals to perceive their prosperity and privilege as a sign of God’s favor. This sense of preordained success may create a detached view of societal problems, as they believe that the less fortunate are in their positions due to divine will, rather than systemic issues.
  2. Separation from the World: The Protestant Ethic’s emphasis on “separation from the world” may contribute to a mentality that prioritizes individual prosperity and self-preservation over collective community interests. As a result, urban planning decisions may be driven by self-interest, leading to urban environments that prioritize convenience and financial gain over community well-being.

In this context, American urban planning may appear to align with the values of the Protestant Ethic. The emphasis on efficiency and individual prosperity reflects the belief that hard work and wealth are signs of God’s favor. While Jacobs’ critique highlights issues in urban planning, it seems that American cities are, in fact, a reflection of the values ingrained in the Protestant Ethic.

The rationalist model of urban planning in America, contrary to being a failure, has actually provided cities that align with the values ingrained in the Protestant Ethic. The American way of life, influenced by this religious ethos, places a strong emphasis on work and material success while downplaying the importance of pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically appealing cities. According to the Calvinist doctrine of separation from the world and a rejection of worldly affairs, Americans tend to prioritize practicality and efficiency over aesthetics and communal spaces.

In this context, the question arises: What should Americans do with their earnings? The Protestant Ethic suggests that, in addition to earning money through hard work, Americans have a moral duty to save their earnings. Failure to save money is viewed not only as imprudent but also as sinful, as it implies indulging in “animalistic pleasures” and disregarding the call to reject worldly pursuits.

As a result, the idea of sauntering on sidewalks like Europeans and spending money at community-oriented facilities, as advocated by Jane Jacobs, might be considered un-American from the perspective of the Protestant Ethic. Americans are encouraged to prioritize saving their wealth, viewing material prosperity as a sign of God’s favor. This mindset supports the urban planning choices that focus on an “isolated car lifestyle” and may lead to the neglect of pedestrian-friendly spaces and communal areas.

As anti-American as Jacobs’ recommendation may be, it is worth noting that American cities tend to be more dangerous than their European counterparts. This can be attributed to various factors, including income inequality and the approach to urban planning. Empirical evidence has shown a positive correlation between crime rates and income inequality, indicating that higher levels of income disparity can lead to higher crime rates in American cities. Jane Jacobs’ theory of “eye on the street” and the importance of sidewalks in promoting community safety provides another perspective on the issue. According to her theory, well-designed sidewalks and vibrant street life encourage community members to actively monitor public spaces, making them less attractive to potential criminals. This sense of community engagement and surveillance creates a safer environment for residents. Additionally, investing public resources in the maintenance of public spaces and promoting inclusive communities might be perceived by some as a violation of the idea of “separation from the world.” It could be seen as using communal resources to support those who may not be among the elect, challenging the prevailing individualistic mindset.

On the other hand, Max Weber’s quotation of Benjamin Franklin’s words reveals the mindset underpinning the Protestant Ethic which represents the point of view of the urban developers who designed American cities. It is important to note that the Protestant Ethic emphasizes further reinforces the significance of saving money and avoiding spendthrift behavior. Therefore, cities should be designed in a way that empowers people to earn and save money. Creating an inclusive community, lowering crime rates, or maintaining aesthetically pleasing environments is not part of the consideration.

“Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. […] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding-sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”

The rationalist model of urban planning in America aligns with the values associated with the Protestant Ethic. The emphasis on work, material success, and saving money reflects the belief that prosperity is a sign of divine favor. While Jane Jacobs’ critique emphasizes the need for more pedestrian-friendly and communal spaces, this might seem incompatible with the values ingrained in the American way of life influenced by the Protestant Ethic. To create cities that are both functional and inclusive, it is essential to consider how cultural and religious factors shape urban planning decisions and find a balance between practicality and aesthetics while promoting community well-being.

The influence of the Protestant Ethic on American urban planning has led to a rationalist approach that prioritizes efficiency and individual prosperity over community well-being. This perspective makes it challenging to create livable cities that prioritize pedestrian-friendly spaces and communal areas. While Jane Jacobs’ critique suggests shortcomings in American urban planning, it appears that the current approach aligns with the values associated with the Protestant Ethic. To create more inclusive and vibrant cities, it is essential to reconsider the influence of these values and find a balance between individual success and the well-being of the entire community.

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