Presence and Proclamation (Part 2): Presence and Place
In his book Rethinking A Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, Eran Ben-Joseph, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT, shares a vision of the future of parking lots. He believes they are ripe for transformation, and can be recreated and revamped to become instrumental in reshaping public spaces and for use by pedestrians.
It is no surprise that parking lots and the cars they service raise strong feelings and opinions about their use, importance, and impact on our society. For some, they are the ultimate symbol of a car-based culture that is destroying our world. For others, they provide a vital apparatus, crucial for maintaining economic vitality. Regardless of which view one concurs with, the space used for parking, whether occupied or not, provides a perfect stage for articulation of any view. Like streets and civic plazas, parking lots are spaces that allow for commentary and expression.
Ben-Joseph walks the reader through the development of the parking lot as well as creative ways to revamp and use them beyond seas of endless concrete. It is a call to a creative reclamation of space, a call to redefine the presence of pedestrians in relation to cars.
Several years I attended a lecture and presentation at Portland State University by Denver Igarta. As a transportation planner for the City of Portland, he received a grant to explore bicycling and street life in four different European cities (Munich, Rotterdam, Malmö, and Copenhagen). I was thoroughly intrigued by what Igarta (who I now call my friend) had to share, especially his conclusions. His whirlwind trip across Europe impacted him so much that he is now applying the principles he observed and learned there in his job here in Portland.
Most notable is this concept of “complete streets.” As a follower of Jesus, Igarta’s desire for better planning transcends simply aesthetics; there’s a spiritual component as well that has been influenced by the Kingdom of God. The concept behind complete streets is to make residential streets more livable. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition website, here is how the term is utilized: “Complete Streets are streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street. Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work. They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from train stations.”
One of the roles of street usage that Igarta promoted was the “sojourn function.” In other words, streets are more than routes to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, they are for people to “stay, linger, abide ...” Interestingly, an article on BikePortland’s website from a few years ago offers a new twist on this sojourn function. Restaurants are reclaiming out-front parking spots and turning them into outdoor seating called “street seats.” “Directly in front of their location on SE Division at 31st, Wafu has installed a large wooden deck with three tables and seats for 18 customers in a space of about two on-street auto parking spots. According to head chef Trent Pierce, they finished constructing the deck on Saturday and opened it for business for the evening dinner crowd last night. ‘It's awesome,’ said Pierce, ‘It was packed out there last night.’”
This notion of place, a return to becoming more rooted and established, with a heightened sense of localism, is certainly not a conversation exclusive to the church world as we have just seen. In fact, as with many pertinent conversations we often arrive late. Not “late” in the sense that we turned an apathetic or disinterested ear, but because I believe we continue to have an underdeveloped theology of place, a theology of the built environment, and a theology of the city. While it is obvious that the world has indeed truly become urban, we’re still struggling to make sense of this phenomenon.
“It is both interesting and disconcerting to reflect on the relatively minor attention paid by theologians to the study of ‘space’ or ‘sense of place’ and its role in the expression of our humanity–the search for identity and meaning–and to the mission of the church, particularly when compared with the effort invested by scholars in the social sciences,” says William McAlpine, Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta, in his book Sacred Space for the Missional Church. He goes on, “If the intent of the Western church was to extend the redemptive message of the gospel to humanity in a holistic manner, attention must be given to the pivotal role place plays in the human experience, particularly human spirituality. To excuse our apparent lack of intentional concern for ‘places’ and ‘sense of place’ on the grounds that such endeavors are less than spiritual is demonstrative more of a postmodern version of Gnosticism rather than a commitment to biblical truth.”
As noted earlier, while we as followers of Jesus have been zealous about “populating heaven,” it is the whole “rest of our lives” on earth that we were not too sure to do with, especially when it comes to the supposed sacred/secular dichotomy which in reality does not exist. Os Guinness states, “If all a believer does grows out of faith and is done for the glory of God, then all dualistic distinctions are demolished. There is no higher/lower, sacred/secular, perfect/permitted, contemplative/active or first class/second class. Calling is the premise of Christian existence itself. Calling means that everyone, everywhere, and in everything fulfills his or her (secondary) calling in response to God’s (primary) calling.”
As wave after wave of change sweep across the urban landscape, we are forced to continue to theologize since what confronts us does not always fit into the nice, tidy boxes of modern systematic theological tomes. As individuals and businesses across the nation, poignantly so in cities like Portland, recapture localism and a heightened sense of place, this forces those of us in the church to construct and reconstruct a theological framework. We are simply trying to fit the pieces together with what we know while identifying new or unchartered territory to explore.
This all ties into the concept of place and presence. In the city (and rural communities alike) there has never been a better time than now to embody the presence of the gospel. Not only do we proclaim the gospel, but we also live it out in our homes, in the streets, in the cafes, at the pubs, and so on. The first step towards presence is simply to listen.
How might this posture influence the ways we’re involved in our communities? To slow down … be present … listen. This will inform where our communities hurt, what the needs are, and then how we can leverage our startups to seek the betterment of our communities. When we think about place and space, how people live in and experience our neighborhoods it gives us insight into how to better love and serve. We move from observation to theologizing to demonstration. This informs how we are present, share good news, and live out good news through our startups whether businesses, non-profits, or churches.
Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid
Ben-Joseph, Rethinking A Lot, 117.
Smart Growth America, “What are Complete Streets?”
Igarta, “Livable Streets.”
McAlpine, Sacred Space for the Missional Church, 107.
Guinness, The Call, 34.
Note: this series was adapted from the book Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting by Sean Benesh.