10 Ways to Exegete Your City

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Many of us have been mystified by the observational prowess of Sherlock Holmes. We all have our favorite actors who played this legendary character whether Robert Downey Jr. in the movies or Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC television series or others. What captivates us about Sherlock Holmes? It is his innate ability to deduce and unpack so much meaning by simply observing.

At the beginning of every semester I tell students in my urban studies classes that studying and understanding cities is “first of all a visual sport” as urban historian Sam Bass Warner notes in American Urban Form. Whether we’re talking about the Pre-Columbian city of Cahokia (east of present day St. Louis) or walking along the heavily gentrified neighborhood abutting North Williams Avenue in Portland we learn to apply our Sherlock Holmes powers of observation. You see, everything around us is communicating a value system. We simply need to pause, take a mental note, and discern not only what values are being communicated but what they mean.

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Throughout the semester we’ll map different neighborhoods as well as station ourselves at various intersections counting not only how many people we see on bicycles or pedestrians, but other things like ethnicity, gender, if they’re wearing bicycle helmets or not, and so on. We then debrief the data. What does this mean? What does it communicate about this neighborhood?

In their book Planning to Stay, Morrish and Brown note, “Physical features are the tangible resources that expresses a neighborhood identity, influence its values, and shape its social and economic structures.” In other words, neighborhoods are not neutral in their communication of values, what one observes reveals much.

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Listed below are 10 easy ways for you to begin exegeting your city (or town or neighborhood). I will list them in the form of questions to ask.

  1. What value system does the built environment communicate? Are the buildings old? New? Deteriorating? Mixed-use? Set back from the road? Do the buildings cater towards a specific demographic, socio-economic grouping, or ethnicity?

  2. How does the built environment shape the way people live in the neighborhood? Cities are the containers that influence the life and culture of the people and shape the urban experience.

  3. How old are the buildings? When was the neighborhood built? One can learn learn to discern communities built before the car, during the streetcar era, or with cars in mind.

  4. Walk into a few of the stores and businesses. Who are they marketing their products to? For example, what does the presence of a Whole Foods communicate when it is placed in a gentrifying neighborhood where before it was classified as a “food desert?”

  5. Who do you see out walking? What is the observable demographic breakdown? If you were to return in the evening is it the same or different? This is often more helpful than formal demographic reports.

  6. How are people getting around? On foot? Cars? Bicycles? Public transit? This could reveal the innate walkability of a neighborhood or its car-dependency.

  7. Where do people cluster together? What draws them there? Can you identify a natural gathering place whether a park, plaza, business, or street?

  8. What drew people to this neighborhood? This moves beyond simply observing, but is discovered through conversations with home owners, business owners, and renters. Often times people move into neighborhoods based up cultural affinity, shared values, and even political affiliation.

  9. Where do you observe hope? Conversely, where do you observe brokenness? How are those revealed in urban form? Like a fever is a symptom of an internal illness, what we see can reveal what is both helpful or hurting in a community. This could be a new community center in a low-income neighborhood or burned-out and neglected building that attracts criminal activity.

  10. Where does the church need to get involved? This could range from a tactical urbanism intervention project, a church opening up their parking lot to host food carts, planting an urban garden to provide fresh vegetable for the neighborhood, advocating safe routes to school so children can bike and walk safely, and many more.

The point of these questions is to (a) learn to be even more observant of your neighborhood, and (b) to ultimately spur you into some kind of action. The rest is up to you.

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For further reading, you can pick up my books Exegeting the City: What You Need to Know About Church Planting in the City Today (ULP, 2015) or Blueprints for a Just City: The Role of the Church in Urban Planning and Shaping the City’s Built Environment (ULP, 2015). Another short but excellent tool is Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City (MIT Press, 2011) by Anne Mikoleit and Moritz Pürckhauer

This article originally appeared on the Visioneering Studios website on February 10, 2017.

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Written by Sean Benesh

Director of Intrepid