Urban Hinterlands (5/10): The Cost of Livability


If cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco continue to see their costs of living skyrocket, the brands of their cities may be helped but their general populations will be hurt. As a result, I believe the “lesser” cities will then be on the receiving end. In other words, young migratory cultural creatives will eventually find other cities that are not quite so cool ... and expensive. Cities like Tucson or El Paso or Albuquerque are incredibly affordable and may soon become the new places to be.

Now before you think Portland will stop being Portland and people will leave in droves, turning Portland into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, not so fast. Desirable cities like Portland will always be desirable, but especially for younger generations and cash-strapped start-ups, they may just not be suitable nor livable.

That then begs the question: What is livable?

If you’re starting up a new company (or church) and you don’t have a lot of money, why would you want to be in a city where you have to pay exorbitant home and office rental prices? For some businesses it does make sense to cluster with others in the same industry. If you’re into bikes—making bicycles, components, and accessories—then it certainly makes sense to live in Portland. But at what point will enough be enough and cash-strapped start-ups begin clustering in other more affordable cities?

When many of us scratch and claw our way to livable cities, in the end our efforts make these desirable cities unlivable. We got all that we wanted. Then we flipped the price tag over and ... gasp.

But this Urban Hinterlands series is not simply about what is or is not livable and the cost to live in such a place. This is about church planting in seemingly unlivable places. Again, those could be the “lesser-tiered” cities or even neighborhoods within the “cool” cities. While church planters are bumping up against one another in the central city, a ten-minute drive, bike ride, or bus ride east, and the whole scenario changes. Drastically.

From urban cool to a true urban hinterland that is neither trendy urban nor suburban safe. In Portland, 82nd is the dividing line. Everything east rapidly becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse, lower income, and affordable (i.e., less “livable”). Everything west, toward downtown, becomes whiter, more affluent, and expensive (i.e., more “livable”). West of 82nd and in the central city is where the vast majority of new church plants are here. East of 82nd are very few church planters.

So why is livability the determining factor for where most of the new churches are being planted? In our call to follow the countercultural nature of the gospel, shouldn’t it be the exact opposite? I have acknowledged my own double-mindedness in this area. My desire is that all who proclaim the gospel would be mindful of this cultural tendency so we may fight against it.

No doubt, what is deemed livable comes at a cost. However, it is more than the cost of what it takes a church planter to live in these kinds of places and plant a church, it comes at even a greater cost of those places––the urban hinterlands––that are continually neglected and left off the radar of many church planters, denominations, and church planting organizations. I see on a weekly basis how these same people and church planting entities continue to target exceptional cities (i.e., livable) to plant new churches. In North America that means San Francisco, Chicago, Raleigh. Internationally it means Dubai, London, Zurich. But where does that leave places like Bakersfield, California, or Nairobi, Kenya?

This conversation needs to be coupled with digging into population migration trends. We frequently hear that “more than 50 percent of the earth’s population now lives in the city.” For many that means there should be a greater emphasis on cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo. However, where these new city dwellers live is something we are not paying close enough attention to.

The world’s population of 3.3 billion is unevenly distributed among urban settlements of different sizes. 52 percent of the world’s urban population resides in cities and towns of less than 500,000 people ... Despite the attention they command, megacities––cities with over 10 million people––are home to only 9 percent of the world’s urban population.

In the United States the trend is similar. “A greater proportion of the urban population resides in agglomerations of less than 5 million people, with small-sized cities of less than 500,000 accounting for 37 percent of the urban population.” That means the vast majority of Americans live in what I am calling the urban hinterlands. They live in Globe, Arizona, and Socorro, New Mexico, and Medford, Oregon, and Marshalltown, Iowa. And yet most current church planting strategies seem to bypass any notion of these urban hinterlands––where the majority of Americans live––and go straight to large, affluent, expensive, and “livable” cities.


This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.