A few months ago, my 5-year old daughter, Noelle, said “Daddy, I wish all the places we needed to go were close by so that we could walk to them and wouldn’t have to drive the car.” Of course, with my interest in walkable and bikeable cities, I took this opportunity to affirm the beauty of her statement and to reassure her that neighborhoods where most of the things a person needs are within walking distance really do exist.
How important are walkable neighborhoods? How important is urban design to our lives and the lives of future generations? In my city, most would agree that economic growth is important. Many would agree that the erecting of buildings in a good sign that a city is experiencing some vibrancy and new life. However, how often does the question of “How do we grow?” and not just “Are we growing?” enter the equation? Does striving toward creating more walkable neighborhoods produce the kind of growth that makes for a vibrant or beautiful city?
In his book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck states, “Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality.” (Jeff Speck, Walkable City, loc. 37) Speck goes on to say, “Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the American health-care crisis is largely an urban-design crisis, with walkability at the heart of the cure.” (Jeff Speck, Walkable City, loc. 447) He provides not only convincing evidence of how those living in an automobile dependent society experience negative health issues but convincing evidence that walkable neighborhoods are extremely beneficial to our quality of life.
Many who are interested in questions about the built environment understand that one of the obstacles to the ideal neighborhood is the problems associated with urban sprawl. The dispersed city has serious effects on our livelihood in many ways, including quality of social interaction and relationships.
In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery states, “It is impossible to deny that the dispersed [sprawling] city has altered the ways and speeds at which we cross paths with one another. Dispersed communities can squeeze serendipitous encounters out of our lives by pushing everyday destinations beyond the walker’s reach.” (Montgomery, Happy City, loc. 8)
How important are the ways and speeds at which we cross paths? It seems that urban design is not only important to our physical health but also the whole of our lives. Montgomery’s book has to do primarily with the emotional state of humans in relationship to the built environment. He asks these questions: “What are our needs for happiness?” and “How is our emotional well-being transformed through urban design?” Montgomery points his readers to happiness science. Studies and surveys in the area of happiness reveal that collaboration with others and the establishment of relationships of trust are vitally important to one’s happiness. He states, “Our trust in neighbors, police, governments, and even total strangers has a huge influence on happiness—again, much more than income does.” (Montgomery, Happy City, loc. 569) He goes on to state,
“even though the modern cosmopolitan city makes it easier than ever for individuals to retreat from neighbors and strangers, the greatest of human satisfactions lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people. No matter how much we cherish privacy and solitude, strong, positive relationships are the foundation of happiness. The city is ultimately a shared project, like Aristotle’s polis, a place where we can fashion a common good that we simply cannot build alone.” (Montgomery, Happy City, loc. 629)
It seems clear, that for far too long people have sought to create and build alone. This has had negative effects on individuals as well as societies as a whole. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community shined a light on the reality that social connection, networks, and collaboration have all been in decline for decades. This work (published in 2000) showed that Americans are increasingly solitary, have very few people whom they say they can confide in, and have lost ties with neighborhoods and communities. They have increasingly become less trusting of one another and institutions.
In many ways, our quest to build alone has been disruptive to our lives. It’s disruptive because relational connection is not peripheral to being human, it is foundational. The pursuit of community and the nurturing of relational connections to others is essential to what it means to live lives that flourish. To live any other way leads to emptiness, frustration, and bondage. Why? Because at our core we are relational beings.
As I think about how cities are designed and how people are wired, I reminded of the story of the Bible, a story about the renewal of relationships and the renewal of the physical world. Christianity presents us with an overarching story behind our need for human connection. This overarching story reveals a God who is relational in his being and who, in accordance with his character, lovingly pursues his people. He pursues people relationally. The people he pursues are, like you and me, designed for community but prone to live contrary to that design. However, over and over, throughout the Bible, we are presented with a pursuing God who loves community, and says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
But what does a relationship with God have to do with the cities we find ourselves and particular the design of cities? It is evident, throughout the story, that God’s pursuit of people is never removed from place. One of the reasons I have become passionate about cities, have sought to understand the city, and to be involved in the design of cities (at the level that I can with my limit experience), is that I’m convince that the built environment has a significant effect on our relationships and our lives as a whole. At an even more fundamental level, I have sought to understand the city because I’m convinced that God not only loves the places where we live, but he demonstrates that love in the places we live.
Too often what is missing from the religious conversation is a theology of place. What is often missed in conversations about God and people, is place. I’m incredibly encouraged by Leonard Hjalmarson’s book, No Home Like Place. His theology of place has giving me a lot to reflect upon, think about, and digest. This reflection has led me to think more deeply about the basis of the story of the Bible, a story about a God who profoundly demonstrates his love in the world by entering and dwelling in the world. The story of God and his people is a story about belonging. However, our belonging to God and one another happens in the context of place, the place that we dwell and the place that God loves. Hjalmarson states, “God, it seems, is infatuated with place: with the particular and the concrete. The Incarnation demonstrates the extent of this commitment.” (Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place, loc. 348)
What is distinctive about Christianity and part of the reason I love the story of the Bible is that this story is one in which God draws near to us, enters our world, becoming flesh in space and time, in the person of Jesus Christ. Our stories, in relationship with God, happen in the particular. They are not abstract and separated from place.
Furthermore, the Bible is not only the real story of God coming into our world, but it is a real story that invites us in, to be shaped by what is happening in history. Hjalmarson goes on to state, “In our time we have lost our sense of identity because we have lost our sense of place. We have lost our sense of place because we have lost our immersion in the ongoing story of God in history.” (Hjalmarson, No Home Like Place, loc. 1252) The Bible is an account of history that is moving toward a time when God will establish a new earthly city as the place where his people will live in relationship with him forever. Until we experience that future city, we are invited, even now, into the story in order to be shaped by it.
Not only does the Bible present us with the real story of God coming into our world, inviting us in to be shaped by the story, and giving us the hope of a beautifully restored city, but it also invites us in as active participants with God in which we get to be involved in what he is doing to bring about this new city, to bring about renewal. What does this participation look like?
The Bible gives us an account of someone who was a spokesperson for God. His named was Jeremiah. Jeremiah instructs exiles from Jerusalem who are living in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city, the “Shalom” of the city. Jeremiah 29:7 states, “Seek the welfare of the city into which you have been called, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Welfare or shalom means wholeness, prosperity, peace, and justice. Shalom is people flourishing in relationship with God and in relationship to the place in which they dwell. In seeking the welfare of the city, we pray, we imagine, and we work toward the flourishing of human beings. To work toward seeing a city flourish means seeking to see the built environment as a place that fosters human connections and relationship, a place that makes us more human.
I have had the privilege of being involved in some of the discussions about the future of Salt Lake City, about the best ways for Salt Lake City to grow. Many have expressed their desire to see our city thrive primarily economically. I certainly understand the desire to see a place that is economically strong and growing. However, are we seeking the economic welfare of Salt Lake City at the expense of fostering human connections? Do we have the well-being of people at the forefront of our quest to see a great city? What does it mean to think about urban design and how we grow in light of the importance of place and in light of what it means to be human? How might our quest to see more walkable neighborhoods shed light on what it means to be truly human?
I’m not sure that my 5-year-old daughter, Noelle, had the well-being of others in mind when she expressed her desire to live in a walkable neighborhood. I’m almost certain that she hasn’t consciously given a lot of thought to good and bad urban design. However, when I walk her to school, the park, or the store, and I see her interacting with both friends and strangers along the way, offering a friendly greeting, I know that I am seeing something beautiful, something good, something of God, people, and place. In seeing something of God, people, and place in this way, I’m inspired to be more human, to love the city, and to actively participate in the beautiful and unfolding story of God, a story that is going somewhere.