Building a Better City: Justice


Justice. This is the overarching theme that informs and influences the rest of the values that will be covered in this “Building a Better City” series. I want to note its importance and place in how we think through ways to be involved in neighborhoods, districts, small towns, and cities today. Fortunately, God’s common grace is powerfully at work in our communities today. It’s a topic I read about on a daily basis from such outlets as City Lab, Strong Towns, New Geography, and so many more. Having spent all of 2013 assisting an urban sustainability pilot project working with cities across the country, I can testify that the topic of justice or equity in the built environment was one of the most frequently discussed topics. Professors, urban planners, developers, and other city leaders all talked about it.

So how do churches and Christians weave this topic of justice into their individual roles in shaping the urban form and ultimately the culture and identity of their neighborhoods? If you’re a church with any kind of facilities what can you do? How can you leverage any resources for the betterment of your community whether a neighborhood in a city or small town?

Several years ago I came across an article with the catchy title of “Evangelical Urbanism: A Review of the Downtown Project’s Las Vegas Revival.” While this project lately had fallen on hard times the vision of the unofficial “Mayor of Downtown Las Vegas” nailed the appeal of creating an enticing built environment experience. Even though he mixed up the uses of the words “evangelical” with “evangelism” the point is still well taken: “It’s something I want to call ‘evangelical urbanism’—where a particular type of resident is working hard to build a brand-new, very specific urban culture to lure additional, similar residents. The Downtown Project is working hard both to recruit new followers and to convert local nonbelievers. It’s exciting, energizing, and, I believe, totally earnest in its goals to make the city a better place for all.”

I dig that: creating such a vibrant and inviting place where others want to go to live and work as well as play. What if the church, the true brokers of all things involving evangelism, took on that motif when thinking through altering and improving their immediate neighborhoods which includes the built environment? On top of that, what about creating zones or districts of inclusivity (the next value we’ll look at) where the value of justice means that everyone has access to this area regardless of ethnicity or whether they’re rich or poor? That kind of justice, God’s justice, is the overarching value and influence for how we approach the city and building or rebuilding (more like partnering with) lower income or struggling communities.

One of the highlights for me the past couple of years was teaching a grad school course on community development. Students lived in a variety of environments from the US to major urban centers in Rwanda and Kenya. We spent a significant portion of the class making the connections between urban form, justice, and the gospel. I heard repeatedly how students were seeing their cities anew with this perspective which gives them another way to jump in and engage. You see, many of the struggles that the vulnerable in their cities are up against is evidenced in the built environment and how it continues to oppress and marginalize people.

What if enacting justice meant engaging in the built environment of the city whether that be affordable housing, better access to jobs via advocating for BRT (bus rapid transit) systems, starting a non-profit dedicated to helping people secure bicycles to use for commuting to jobs, or all of the way down to tactical urbanism interventions that makes their neighborhoods more livable? You see, there are numerous ways to see justice demonstrated in urban form in our communities.

Yesterday morning in my Religion 320 class we talked about seeing the sacredness in the ordinary. I shared about how cities, particularly the built environment, can communicate or reveal some base level of a value system or culture. Through observation we can detect and deduce what a city or town values. Our role then is to discern and begin interpreting. As an example, we looked at photos ranging from glistening high-rise residential towers in Hong Kong to Latin American informal settlements (i.e. slums). There are innumerable ways to seek to live out and embrace justice in your neighborhood or town. The point of this article and series is that along with our efforts to advocate for foster care, affordable housing, anti-trafficking measures, and the like we also pay attention to how our city’s built environment is helpful or harmful, freeing or restricting.

Whether we’re talking about your local church, business, or non-profit you’re launching you can be involved in small-scale incremental improvements that affect and influence the character, culture, and identity of your neighborhood.

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Written by Sean Benesh

Director of Intrepid