Urban design and the Kingdom of God

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David Hall (a doctor and a friend from church, not the disgraced former Oklahoma governor) called my attention to an article about urban design in the latest issue of byFaith, an excellent new magazine published by the Presbyterian Church in America. One of the things I appreciate about the PCA, and the broader realm of Reformed ("Calvinist") evangelical Christianity, is the commitment to applying the Lordship of Christ to every aspect of life, not just the spiritual realm. That's how you end up with blogging PCA missionaries out on the streets of Kiev, helping the Orange Revolution get its message to the English-speaking world.

And it's how you end up with an article by an Atlanta-based architect and urban planner about how we glorify God with the places we build. Christopher Leerssen says that because God made the physical world and made us to dwell in it, the built environment matters to God. He says that how we build cities affects sustainability and our stewardship of the natural environment. Pedestrian-hostile urban design destroys the connections that make a place a community and burdens people for whom driving isn't an option -- the poor, the young, the old, the disabled. Cookie-cutter building practices obliterate the natural uniqueness of a place. Restrictive laws discourage the construction of affordable housing.

David, the friend who tipped me to the article, is part of a group working to start a new PCA congregation in south Tulsa. He observed that neighborhood and home design in that part of town makes it tougher to reach out to people. It's so easy just to zip home, pull into the garage, and isolate yourself.

Why is that? Homes are oriented away from the street. Porches, if they exist, are symbolic and non-functional. If a neighbor were to pass by on the sidewalk, you'd never see him, because you're in the living room in the back of the house. You might go for a walk, but the sidewalk doesn't lead to any place you really need or want to go.

Where are the gathering places? Where do you find people who are open to having a conversation with someone they just met? Leerssen writes:

Perhaps most importantly, modern communities lack venues for outreach and discourse. Recently our church struggled with a decision of where to have an evening outreach to neighbors in the affluent part of our city. Our aim wasnít to go bar-to-bar or stand on the street corners screaming about Jesus, but rather to simply engage skeptics and unbelievers; to discuss everyday issues in order to bring the Gospel into focus. Where would we find them, and that atmosphere?

There arenít many places where this naturally occurs, but a city does provide options. A coffee shop is private. The local bookstore may be the right spot. But the fact is, there are not many venues that comfortably accommodate discourse. In the end, we rented a nearby bread shop one evening a week and invited people to join us. To the Lordís glory there was fruit born out of these efforts. The city does provide options.

Go read the whole thing. And be sure to sample some of the other articles in the current issue:

5 Comments

W. said:

I admit, the discussion of walking-friendly cities and "popsicle tests" is interesting. However, I have a couple of questions.

Michael, you make no bones about the fact you are a Republican. How do you reconcile the fact that GOP economic policies favor a "bigger is better" climate (a la Wal-Mart and Best Buy), thus crowding out the mom-and-pop stores that would make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly?

The GOP also has long espoused a hands-off attitude about economics and government. How do you reconcile this with you advocating such a pro-active transformation of cities?

Are you ready to jump parties? This is not a flip comment, as the current administration hardly seems to be following the Reagan-era mantra of smaller government and less spending. The Bush administration is spending more money than ever and is advocating a change in Social Security that would require transitional costs of trillions of dollars. In other words, the GOP boss is spending money like a drunken Democrat.

Since your ideas for cities would require lots of money to tranform neighborhoods and require strict zoning, are you becoming a Democrat?

Bob said:

Supposing we don't intend to glorify God with the places we build. Supposing we have a secular viewpoint. Is that OK with you? Are you presuming a theocracy?

Bahb said:

"Pedestrian-hostile urban design...burdens people for whom driving isn't an option -- the poor, the young, the old, the disabled."

They are also burdened with prospect of eating Alpo to survive, which your Republican policies favor. Does that bother you at all?

luke said:

someone must have given your blog site address to the moveon.org crowd! the 2 other myrmidon-commentors are just the typical leftist reactionary mantra, so there's really no point in discussing them.

only W made a good point, but W, ALL Republicans have lost their classical liberal roots altogether. I'd prefer it if they drop the whole charade already. but don't expect a good answer...

Michael, how DO you justify the advocation of expansion of government regulations and government size for this particular cause, and at the same time, denounce those same methods when the objectives are different?

the Republican party isn't the party based on the principle of less government. they are turning into the party of using the government to enforce and enact their own breed of morality, society, economy, and anything else they believe is right. but those are personal choices we should make, not choices the government should make for us.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
- C.S. Lewis

david said:

I'm laughing at these comments, Mike, I don't know how you stand it.
I understand that FEAR THE THEOCRACY is the latest buzz-topic, but it doesn't apply here.
I didn't see Mike advocate additional government mandates or programs for community development. He didn't ask that the government spend anything fixing it. If that was your view, you brought it with your own red-colored glasses.
This is a problem of the heart, not of lack of government. People like me buy houses in such communities because we want to be comfortable and safe, not realizing that we are cutting ourselves off from the outside world.
I would like to see private developers in this area leave some corners for retail and restaurants, put in sidewalks, and other things that encourage a better sense of community. But it will only happen if people are seeking community before they buy their home.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 27, 2005 6:38 AM.

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