Arts & Culture & Public Square

Reenvisioning Cities for the Sake of Biblical Flourishing

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As Christians seek to impact the world around them with the redemptive force of the gospel, we often struggle with the best means to do so, especially when the world around seems hostile to the core ideas of our faith. There’s no better example of that tension than ancient Israel. In light of the exile of God’s people to a distant and hostile land, Jeremiah records God’s command:

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:7).

What does this look like in today’s cities? More specifically, what do cities look like that reflect this sense of shalom or flourishing?

Cities Reenvisioned for People’s Sake

For many of us, cities bring to mind tall buildings with reflective windows, large stretches of sidewalk, and carefully zoned blocks that separate industry from commercial activities from residential areas. Often when we think of cities we think of widely disparate economic conditions in residential areas, with “bad” areas of town and low incomes compared with “good” areas of the city with their contrasting high incomes. Or, in another vision of metropolitan life, many people associate cities with the glitz and glamour of culture, especially beautiful art museums, frequent access to live music, and theater performances.

These images of cities tend to be impersonal and technological. But is a city merely the sum of its buildings, zoning ordinances, and cultural offerings?

In her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs offers a different perspective on the nature of cities. While city planners and tourists often focus on the technical nature of cities, Jacobs—a longtime resident of both New York City and Toronto—describes the humanity of cities while explaining why impersonal approaches to city planning often result in long-term failure of the best intentions of planning boards.

Though Jacobs was an activist and writer, not an anthropologist, she recognizes the interpersonal dynamics that are necessary to make cities safe and healthy. For example, cities put people near to one another, which means that the real need for privacy is significant. At the same time, when privacy becomes an absolute priority, it results in isolation that makes people permanent strangers to their next-door neighbors.

Jacobs wrestles with the competing needs for personal interaction and privacy. Through her years of observation, she concludes that traditional cities, with their sidewalks and mixed-use neighborhoods, often result in a balance of casual acquaintance, slowly built trust, and sufficient privacy. She notes that building and neighborhood designs that require either intimate community or absolute isolation often result in the latter. This is why housing projects—which typically concentrate people from one economic level—often fail to build cohesive communities. The risks of intimate community can seem too great, which leads people to isolate themselves.

The safest neighborhoods, by Jacobs’s observations, are those whose streets have regular use at all hours of the day. This requires cities not to rigorously segregate their residential, commercial, industrial, and cultural facilities. When public spaces like sidewalks are peopled throughout the day, they are safer, because even anonymous citizens will step in when an open crime is taking place. When parks are surrounded by mixed-use buildings, they have a regular flow of traffic throughout the hours of the day—business people and grocery customers during the day, residents and dating couples at night. This means such parks do not get abandoned to drug deals, gangs, and lurking predators.

To get this sort of safety in public spaces, however, people must accept the incongruity of office buildings next to apartment complexes of varying ages and next to theaters and small businesses. This requires planning committees and city councils to give up their SimCity-esque visions for aesthetically-perfect, theoretically-satisfying zoning laws. The message that Jacobs offers is that organic development of neighborhoods is much healthier for humans than technocratic plans. In short, seeking the good of the city requires enhancing the humanity of neighborhoods.

Flourishing Cities for the Sake of the Gospel

In his analysis of Jacobs’s vision for the city, longtime New York City resident and recently retired pastor Tim Keller writes,

Faithful churches do not exegete their neighborhoods simply to target people groups, although evangelistic outreach is one of the goals. They are looking for ways to strengthen the health of their neighborhoods, making them safer and more humane places for people to live. This is a way to seek the welfare of the city, in the spirit of Jeremiah 29.

Keller finds the principles offered by Jacobs directly applicable to his ongoing work to serve the people of his city for the sake of the gospel.

While The Death and Life of Great American Cities is somewhat dated, having been originally published in 1961, its place as a classic volume in the Modern Library series is warranted. Jacobs writes well in clear, engaging language that invites readers into her vision of a more humane metropolis. More significantly, Jane Jacobs calls on visionary, well-meaning people seeking the good of their cities to emphasize that cities exist for the people, not the people for the cities.

Editor’s note: Read more about the biblical call to “seek the welfare of the city” in How Then Should We Work?

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