Houston is growing. Fast. Whether you live in the suburbs or “inside the loop,” you know that Houston’s construction business is booming. If you live or work in the Central Business District, it may seem like every street is under construction. But some people are not happy with the way the city is growing. Some neighborhoods, once quiet enclaves near the city’s center, are now inundated with townhome and mid-rise apartment construction. Many residents have complained. Some have even filed lawsuits to halt the construction of “unsightly” projects in their nice neighborhoods.
In one notable instance, residents of a River Oaks neighborhood filed a lawsuit to enjoin the construction of the “Ashby High-Rise” project, a high-rise residential tower in Houston’s prestigious River Oaks neighborhood. The residents sought to halt construction of the building, claiming that it was the “wrong project at the wrong site.” They claimed it would increase vehicle traffic and obstruct the nice views of the downtown skyline that the residents enjoyed. Unable to reach an agreement, the parties went to court in December and tried the case. The jury agreed with the residents and awarded them $1.7 million in damages—if the project were completed.
This verdict comes at an interesting time in Houston’s development. The city, which lacks a comprehensive zoning ordinance, is famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for its hodgepodge, mishmash communities. Poverty lies within feet of great wealth. Businesses and residences share fences. And people are moving here in droves. Naturally, this presents an opportunity for conflicting interests. As Houston continues to grow, the city will need to find a way to appease the demand for development with the desire of residents to keep their distinctive aesthetic. It will not be easy. It will be, and already is, a legal conundrum of the highest order.
Aside from jury verdicts and the legal system, the Ashby high-rise trial (on the heels of which other lawsuits followed) shines light on part of the human condition. The neighbors in that case, many of whom enjoy the benefits of a rapidly more dense urban core, said that they didn’t want such development in their backyard, even though the site was not on their property. They pit the property rights of the developer against the vocal opinions of a powerful few. It was a showdown of power versus property. This problem, however, isn’t limited to the River Oaks neighborhood. We all—in some way or another—suffer from a classic case of NIMBY (“Not in my backyard!”) syndrome. We want all the benefits without any of the sacrifice.
But how should Christians think about these things? Does the Christian worldview inform the way we build cities? Should it? These questions, while abstract in nature, have real, earthly consequences—especially in a city without comprehensive zoning ordinances. We must be discerning of our true motivations when we consider the development of the city and how it impacts us—both as individuals and as a community. I believe there are two major themes at work when we think about cities and development from a Christian perspective. Let me first explain the two themes and then I will connect the dots.
First things first. When you consider the Bible, the concept of land is a central theme. So is the idea of property. God brought Israel into the “Promised Land” (e.g., Gen. 12:7, 17:8; Deut. 6:10-12). And once He did that, He set forth rules for people to live by—rules meant to help the land and people prosper. The book of Deuteronomy paints this glorious picture through economic policies, property rights, and a comprehensive legal system, all intended for the flourishing of Israelite society as a whole (Deut. 8:5-10; 32:46-47).
Second, the greatest two commandments—love God and love your neighbor—are the sum of the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:40). And how do we love God? We obey all that He has commanded us. How do we love our neighbor? By obeying what God has commanded us regarding our neighbor. One of those commands is “you shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). What your neighbor has is his; you shouldn’t take it away from him. In fact, your neighbor’s property is so sacred that you should not even think about stealing it (“you shall not covet”) (Ex. 20:17). It would be an offense to God and unloving to your neighbor. But God has also given us the blessing of property, whether it be land, houses, businesses, or other material blessings (Deut. 8:18). In His generosity towards us, He has commanded us to be generous with our own property (Ps. 37:21). So this is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves: we are respectful of their property, and we are generous with our own property (Acts 5:4).
Now we have these two important themes: the centrality of land and property, and a command to love our neighbor by respecting his property and being generous with our own. In this way, we can freely bless our neighbor with the land and property that God has so graciously given to us. But what does this have to do with cities?
Because the Bible places a special emphasis on land and property, it is only natural that cities also play an important role in the life of the Church—both now and forever. In the Old Testament, cities served as economic and spiritual hubs for the Kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem, especially, saw its fair share of international trade and commerce, but it also served as the location for the presence of God (2 Chron. 5:14). In a similar way (or, in a much greater way), the New Jerusalem will be a physical city, with set boundaries and dimensions (Rev. 21:15-17). The Nations will gather there to worship in the real presence of God (Rev. 19:24). Thus the dwelling place of God, for all eternity, will be with His people in His city. So let’s not dismiss city growth as a mere nuisance to our quiet lives. Instead, let’s use the land and property God has blessed us with to be a blessing to our city. Let us see the growth and expansion of our city as an opportunity for the growth and expansion of Christ’s Kingdom on earth as well. As our neighbors get closer, our opportunities for gospel transformation will also get closer. With the growth of the city, we should not retreat into our safe enclaves. Instead, we should venture out and be a part of the growth, for God’s glory and our good.
Remember that as the developers continue their townhome building, we are also building something as well. We are either helping build Christ’s Kingdom, or we are building our own little kingdoms. Our kingdoms will not last, but the Kingdom of God will stand forever. And as more people move close to us, let us pray that we will show them what the true Kingdom will be like. Spoiler alert: it’s a city.
Kyle Bryant is an attorney (and urban design enthusiast) with Bryant Law in Houston, Texas. His practice focuses on civil litigation and family law issues. He is also an active member at Sojourn Heights Church in The Heights neighborhood of Houston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org