Building a Better City

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All over the world Christians are engaged in city building whether intentionally or not or even whether they realize it or not. The scale on which this is taking place includes refurbishing or retrofitting an aging church building; rebuilding a church campus or building a new one from scratch; building or adapting a central city apartment complex for affordable housing; building schools, orphanages, or hospitals in developing countries; and tearing down a condemned structure and replacing it with a mixed-use building that houses retail, market rate condos, and space for a church to meet. Most would not envision themselves as “building the city of God” or anything grandiose like that. However, in their construction, adaptation, retrofitting, or refurbishing they are in some ways either doing so along the lines of a Kingdom meta-narrative or simply not thinking through the impact that design can have in furthering or hindering the gospel.

“Building a Better City” begins a series of articles that delves into this idea of building the city of God, but more or less on the smaller scale of development or redevelopment projects, retrofits, adaptive reuse, and the like. Keep in mind that I am not a developer, architect, realtor, or planner. My intention is to think through with you some of the underlying values that are essential in these kinds of projects. In other words, whether you’re a leader in a church, a church planter, on a local church committee or team overseeing a construction or redevelopment project, or a Christian living in the city thinking through ways to make positive change in your neighborhood, I want to set forth some values. I want to ask, if you were part of this elusive “city of God” what would it look like? What form or shape would it take? Would it be noticeably different?

In their book American Urban Form authors Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore trace the development of the urban form of American cities beginning in the 17th century. They point out the shaping force that urban form has. They write, “This book is about patterns, the physical patterns or ‘urban form’ that we can observe in American big cities past and present. It is also about the social, political, economic, and other human patterns that these physical patterns share and are themselves shaped by in turn.”

Conversely, the political, economic, and social culture of the city (or neighborhood) also impacts urban form. What that means is that the church, based on the prevalent reality of the Kingdom meta-narrative, can impact urban form which in turn shapes and influences the neighborhood, town, and city. Keep in mind that I am not suggesting this as a green light for the church to strong-arm its way into political inner circles and then using its presence to force “religion” down peoples’ throats. Instead, it’s more like the subtle mustard-seed nature of the Kingdom of God: seeking to plant these Kingdom seeds into the landscape of the city. This is where we live out the gospel and when possible talk about the gospel and how it is a motivating factor for our involvement in the city.

So what would it look like to sow these Kingdom seeds into our towns and cities through urban form? What traits, characteristics, or attributes need to be at hand that would shape and influence our projects? Again, these could range from multi-million dollar mixed-use redevelopment projects to next-to-nothing guerrilla or tactical urbanism projects in the neighborhood. If we begin thinking through our values and motives then it should shape what our projects will look like.

I believe that there are six immediate values that should guide our involvement in shaping the city’s built environment. The goal should be to think through each value and ensure that they are factored into each project regardless or how large or small they might be. I will list them here first before going into more detail in the following articles in this series: justice, inclusivity, accessibility, community, enhancing the local neighborhood, and economic development.

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Written by Sean Benesh

Director of Intrepid