An Urban Village Vanguard?

January 1, 2008 - Gideon Strauss

I had the privilege on a Sunday evening in the spring of 2006 to be part of a conversation with a group of twentysomethings at First Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario, my home city. The group calls itself Common Ground, and it quickly and easily catapulted high into my list of Favourite Groups.

The walk to the church was one of my best half hours of the year: fresh air at just the right temperature, liquid gold late afternoon sunlight, the fine fabric of the city streets, the shabbychic architecture and landscaping of our neighbourhood, the laughter of children playing street games and of families and friends gathered for food and conversation, the singing of birds, and the anticipation of good work to do.

Part of our conversation was in response to this question: What one thing can you change in your current habits that would make a tiny but significant and enduring positive difference to the people who live in the same apartment building or on the same street as you do? Common Ground members listed all kinds of ideas, some of which they subsequently listed on their website (http://commonground.firsthamilton.ca/wiki/index.php/Responsibility): start a book club (first book: The Birth House by Ami MacKay) with people in my community; pick up litter in and around our apartment building; offer to help babysit for the teenage mom that lives a few apartments down; send in hundreds of tree request forms to the city for free road allowance trees to be planted, even if owners are unaware of the opportunity; learn the names of my neighbours that I meet in the elevator; finally have that barbeque with our neighbours.

First Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton is not my home church, but it is within walking distance of my home in the old city neighbourhood of Kirkendall. Walking to the Common Ground meeting reminded me of a conversation hosted a year and a half earlier by Jonathan Barlow, on his blog (see: http://www.barlowfarms.com/index.html?cm_id=1867108). At the time Mr. Barlow was a student in St. Louis, Missouri. Under the heading “St. Louis Architectural Tragedies,” he wrote a short paragraph that provoked an interesting conversation:

There are some beautiful old churches in the city of St. Louis that are just waiting for some enterprising congregation to renovate and occupy. But they are decaying, folks. Why did their congregations ever leave them? Why are we spreading out? Why waste these beautiful buildings and the crumbling neighbourhoods surrounding them when we could all move in, renovate, and live together in community? How many of us are really moving out into the boondocks for good reasons?

In many places throughout the world, churches have for centuries contributed to the built fabric of human society. While churches have many avenues for cultural activity in service of the common good, I am pleading for renewed attention to the architectural good that churches can do in the cities of North America.

1. WHERE THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH.

The urban psychologist Frank Mills, reflecting on Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, the people perish”) and Joel 2:28 (“Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions”) during the Christmas season of 2004 (see: http://urbanparadoxes.blogspot.com/2004_12_ 01_urbanparadoxes_archive.html), asked three provocative questions:

1. Do the people of our poorer urban neighborhoods lack shared neighborhood vision because their circumstances rob them of the capacity of vision, or have urban social agencies and urban planners bought into this myth, perhaps unconsciously, to justify their agenda?

2. What would happen if urban planners and urban social agencies came together to assist in the creation of shared neighborhood vision and then allowed it to form future direction, both for solving urban issues and creating sustainable urban neighborhoods?

3. Lastly, given that these passages are from the Bible, what is the role of faith communities in creating a vision for urban sustainability? How do we motivate faith communities to assist in the creation of such a vision in their neighborhoods?

I would argue that the primary contribution churches can make to a renewed vision in and for city neighbourhoods is by being themselves. Let the church be the church – and let the reality of church life find expression in the buildings the church inhabits.

A church is a community of faith professing in the public realm that Jesus is Lord. This ancient and controversial assertion of the Christian church (see, for example, Romans 10: 9 and 1 Corinthians 12:3) summarizes a belief that God created the cosmos and is sovereign over it; that God became incarnate in the man Jesus to address the problem of evil in his life, death, and resurrection; and that Jesus has the power for the renewal of all creation – for the time being in a limited sense, but in the long run in a comprehensive sense. Churches express this belief in public by prayer, by proclamation of the teachings of the Bible, by the sacramental celebration of the mysteries of God’s redemptive acts, and by the formation of the character of its members in and through the life of the community of faith. Churches have also from their earliest history provided care for the poor and needy.

The life of the church has a distinctive rhythm. In some church communities that rhythm is daily, in the celebration of the eucharist and prayers at designated hours. In most church communities that rhythm is weekly, centered on the Sunday services of worship. In many church communities that rhythm is also yearly, following liturgical contours anchored in Christmas and Easter.

Throughout the past twenty centuries, the Christian church has expressed its public mission in the buildings it has used and built. Its spaces for prayer, teaching, sacramental celebration and its times of worship and formation express the faith, hope and love that flows from its central profession of the Lordship of Christ. It communicates that faith, hope and love to its neighbours through the buildings themselves – be it the gothic spire signifying the transcendence of God, the monastic hospital offering shelter and respite to pilgrims, the Quaker meeting house signifying the presence of God, or any of the many other built expressions given to the life of the church. We build as we believe; our basic beliefs are built into the very fabric of our cities, towns, and homesteads. This is certainly true also of the buildings of the church.

By being what it is and giving expression to that life in its buildings, the church contributes to the vision of a community. Medieval cathedrals and New England meetinghouses alike offered a built centre to the lives of their communities, by their very centrality celebrating the meaningfulness of human society in the creation and under the restorative care of God. Benedictine monasteries and inner city storefront churches signify the presence and care of God in troubled communities.

To reiterate the claim I am trying to make here, while the church may contribute to shared neighborhood vision in the city in many ways, the first way in which it does so is as a built expression of its character as the church.

2. WONDERFUL PLACES DELIGHT THE IMAGINATION WHILE OFFERING SOCIAL COMFORT.

Architecture is the most social of the arts, as it consciously combines the shaping of places so as to ease inter personal interaction with an attentiveness to the effect of those places on the imagination. It is as everyday an art as cooking food or making clothes, and has as constant an influence on the quality of our lives. The design of places – from a window seat in a family home to a public square in a cosmopolitan centre – is of great importance because of this influence, if nothing else.

As churches inhabit existing buildings or build new ones, they should seek to delight the imagination and offer social comfort to the faith community worshipping in these buildings as well as the other people whose lives are affected by the building. No building affects only those who use it directly. A structure changes the visual landscape within which it nestles; it articulates the public spaces upon which it abuts; it replaces the alternative uses possible in the same space. With such affects come responsibility, and in the case of buildings that responsibility lies at the intersection of the social and the aesthetic.

I recall an early afternoon meal shared with my daughters on a cool late summer’s day some years ago, in Bryant Park next to the building of the main branch of the New York Public Library. As we ate in this former needle park, we watched children ride the carousel, working folk sitting on the green park chairs with their brown paper bag lunches, a fashion shoot taking place in one of the park’s corners, and, suffusing the scene, the dapple of sunlight rippling through the tall, reedy, breeze-blown plane trees. One of my daughters turned to me and said, “This is how I imagine the New Jerusalem.”

That image of the New Jerusalem has been evocative in the civilizations informed by the apocalyptic poetry of the Bible. William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” has been sung by social activists since Charles Parry set it to music for the British movement of suffragettes. That a simple city park set between skyscrapers can call that image forth for a child speaks to the power of architecture.

3. CHURCHES HELP SHAPE ALL KINDS OF PLACES.

“We need Christians and churches everywhere there are people,” writes Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City in a “A New Kind of Urban Christian” (Christianity Today, May 2006). While contemporary North American churches seem particularly strong in suburban communities, they are also present in urban centres and rural areas. Some churches – for example cathedrals and metropolitan mega-churches – have a significant regional influence; other churches have a particularly powerful local influence, such as that of a parish church on its neighbourhood.

The influence of churches is diverse, and includes their influence on the built landscape. A church like the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Los Angeles, is designed intentionally to provide a public space in a city shaped by highways. The Episcopalian Falls Church in Virginia – no less influential a Christian congregation, from a global perspective – combines a response to the modes of transport of colonial America, when its first building was built, with a moderated expression of suburban mega-church architecture. While each of these churches responds to their setting, they also help shape that setting. Our Lady of the Angels provides a visual focus to the frenzy of the Los Angeles highway system. Falls Church architecturally communicates an invitation of calm reliability to harried pundits, bureaucrats and politicians.

4. CHURCHES ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR RE-INHABITING OLD CITIES.

A more expanded version of what I quote Tim Keller as writing above reads as follows: Do I mean that Christians must live in cities? No. We need Christians and churches everywhere there are people! But I have taken up the call of the late James Montgomery Boice, an urban pastor... who knew that evangelical Christians have been particularly unwilling to live in cities.

It is this unwillingness that causes the dismal situation lamented by Jonathan Barlow:

There are some beautiful old churches in the city of St. Louis that are just waiting for some enterprising congregation to renovate and occupy. But they are decaying, folks. Why did their congregations ever leave them? Why are we spreading out? Why waste these beautiful buildings and the crumbling neighbourhoods surrounding them when we could all move in, renovate, and live together in community? How many of us are really moving out into the boondocks for good reasons?

While churches can and should have an influence in every kind of place, in this article I want to plead for churches more consciously striving to be present in North America’s old cities. I live in such a city – Hamilton, Ontario, a former node in the global steel industry, now, like many of the industrial cities in the North American Northeast, struggling to adapt to the changing flows of trade, the further globalization of labour markets, and the resultant loss of its competitiveness as a host city to large steel production plants. I don’t know what Hamilton was like in its heyday – no-one who has read Dickens is surprised that William Blake cursed the “dark satanic mills” of 19th century urban industrial Britain – but a few parts of it today are no less of a wasteland than some of the South African slums in which I’ve walked.

Rather than simply forsaking an old industrial city like Hamilton for the surface prosperity of the new suburbs, I want to plead with the church to invest itself into such a struggling community and be present as a revitalizing force within it. The church must do so primarily by being the church, to reiterate what I have written above, even as it temporarily picks up responsibilities that in livelier communities may have been taken care of by other institutions.

The presence of the church in an old industrial city communicates hope and the promise of the future to its neighbours. And this sense of hopeful neighbourliness should be expressed also in its architectural effect on the neighbourhood. In an old city like Hamilton, hopeful neighbourliness is more likely than not to involve reinhabiting an abandoned or neglected church building, recovering it for use, refreshing its possibilities for imaginative delight and social comfort, making it useful for the life of the church and hospitable to its neighbours.

5. CHURCHES CAN HELP CULTIVATE URBAN VILLAGES.

David Sucher in his book City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc., 2003) tells of a former mayor of Seattle, Norman B. Rice, making the phrase “urban village” a central part of his administration’s planning efforts. Sucher writes,

At first glance the term might seem to be nonsensical and impossible: an oxymoron, the two words contradicting each other. How can you have a place that feels like a village and like a big city at the same time? The village is small, intimate, quiet; one knows the other villagers and may even be related to them. The city is big, busy, diverse, and filled with strangers. Life can be lonely in the big city. […] People want the best of both worlds: the diversity, choice, and independence of the urb and the homeyness and intimacy of the village.

According to Sucher, the measure of a city is to be found in the human comfort it offers. He writes,

Our society makes the problem of city building far too complicated. We confuse it with grandeur and we confuse it with complex public administration. It is neither. The main task is making people comfortable, the same task faced by the host at a party.

According to Allan B. Jacobs in Great Streets (MIT Press, 1993, 2001), great city streets share a number of characteristics:

1. They offer safe, leisurely walking;

2. They offer physical comfort in response to the climate of the city – warmth or sunlight when it is cool, shade and coolness when it is hot, and protection from the wind;

3. They have definition: “They have boundaries, usually walls of some sort or another, that communicate clearly where the edges of the street are, that set the street apart, that keep the eyes on and in the street, that make it a place;

4. They offer a feast for the eyes – trees, architectural features, the movement of light, people moving about;

5. They have a quality of transparency at their edges, at the intersection of the private and public realms – in particular by means of windows and doorways;

6. Their buildings “get along with each other” – “They are not the same but they express respect for one another, most particularly in height and in the way they look”;

7. They are well-maintained – clean, in good repair – with regard to the street surface, furniture and plants, as well as the buildings on the street; and

8. They are imaginatively designed, and constructed with high-quality craft and materials.

Kathleen Madden, writing for the Project for Public Spaces in How to Turn a Place Around: A Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces (2000) suggests the following as the characteristics of a successful public place:

1. A high proportion of people in groups;

2. A higher than average proportion of women (because women – according to Maddern – tend to be more discriminating about the places they use, perhaps because of choosiness about the seating available, perhaps because of their perceptions about the safety of places);

3. The presence of people of different ages over the course of a day;

4. A variety of possible activities rather than a single use for the place; and

5. Public shows of affection – Madden writes that “There is generally more smiling, kissing, embracing, holding and shaking of hands, and so forth in good public places than in those that are problematic.”

At the core of the belief system of the Christian church is the affirmation that the awesome sovereign creator of the universe who asks Job with irony, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?” is at the same time the intimate friend of children, Jesus, who in the accounts of Matthew and Luke tells his followers that not a sparrow that falls to the ground is forgotten before God. Awe and intimacy in our relationship with God can translate into a concern for both the festive and the comforting aspects of city life.

6. URBAN VILLAGE CHURCHES CAN BE ARCHITECTURAL GOOD NEIGHBOURS.

David Sucher writes that

Architects often talk about whether a building ‘talks’ to its neighbors. What they mean is whether a building refers in its own shape and material to the shapes and materials of its neighbors. A lively conversation between buildings means that the buildings relate to each other. The color of one may be picked up and amplified by another or the roofline of another may be mimicked by yet a fourth. A group of musicians will do something similar in their playing. A horn may start with a cluster of notes, and the pattern will be repeated with variations by the other instruments.

Buildings are much like their human users. Conversation between buildings, as among humans, is a poignant sign of neighborliness. It is the height of rudeness – though all too often the expected norm in cities – for neighbors to speak not a word to each other for years on end. Buildings that do not talk to their neighbors are also rude.

In most old city neighbourhoods churches can be good neighbours by reinhabiting existing church buildings, or by building new buildings that respond in a civil way to the surrounding buildings – mimicking rooflines, picking up colours, as Sucher suggests, and finding further ways of not being architecturally rude.

The urban village church should see as part of its architectural vocation the repair of the urban fabric by means of the repair or construction of its own buildings in such a way that the neighbourhood is aesthetically and socially knitted together rather than torn apart. The architecture of the church should serve its neighbourhood. And the ways in which it does so aesthetically are closely connected with the ways in which it does so socially.

7. CHILDREN ON SAFE STREETS ARE A SIGN OF NEIGHBOURHOOD HEALTH.

The Old Testament prophet Zechariah offers a vision of the restoration of God’s purposes for the earth in which “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.”

When people think of relocating to city neighbourhoods, one of the things that worry them is how safe they will be – and often, more intensely, how safe their children will be. Jeff Schmidt, responding to the blog entry by Jonathan Barlow quoted above, writes about relocating to a city neighbourhood: “One of the biggest obstacles for me is concern for the safety of my children.” Mr. Barlow himself asks of life in an old city neigbourhood: “Do you really want to be scared on a daily basis?”

Jane Jacobs famously wrote that healthy neighbourhoods depend on “eyes on the street” – the presence of people who pay attention to what is going on, and who care enough to respond appropriately.

David Sucher, following Jane Jacobs’ lead, writes that safety in the city requires “the creation of spaces where people are present and can observe each other in a form of mutual protection and where they have enough sense of ownership of the street that they will intervene in some way when trouble appears.” Sucher offers many practical suggestions: scattering several tiny police stations throughout the city; putting cops on bikes; making the street an interesting place that attracts people and invites them to linger, by opening up storefronts to the street; allowing – no, encouraging street vendors; placing the entrances of homes so that they are visible from the surrounding homes; opening stairways up so that people can see what is going on in them, thereby making them less creepy – think of the stairwell of a city parking garage. Sucher reflects the feelings of almost all the families I know when he writes

Children are like the canaries in a coal mine: an indicator species of urban health. Children are small and vulnerable and need to be protected. If a city lacks children, it is because parents have assessed the environment and have decided, one family after another over the privacy of the dining room table, to remove to a safer place. But where parents won’t raise children, we might all hesitate to live, for such a place presents an environment uncomfortable, noisy, and dangerous.

Sucher suggests that city design should take into account th0e physical comfort of children – for example, by providing many places where parents can change their children’s diapers, and should take into account the need to play, by providing and encouraging many small playgrounds: in restaurants and throughout shopping districts, and in places where children have to wait, like the connecting places in the transport infrastructure – such as at bus stops or ferry terminals.

Church buildings very often host the children of their own congregation, for church school and other activities, and have the kinds of facilities that can easily be made available for birthday celebrations and other child-oriented events. This is one way in which a church building can easily contribute to its neighbourhood – by offering a public place for neighbourhood children to play, and by providing publicly accessible washrooms – often hard to come by on city streets, and when available often in poor repair.

8. START WITH THE PETUNIAS.

David Sucher argues: “We should choose the simplest and most economical means of solving a problem rather than the most complex and expensive.” In tackling the design problems of the contemporary city, he suggests that we should “Do simple things now.”

Kathleen Madden in How to Turn a Place Around offers a helpful beginning guideline: start with the petunias. She writes that

In creating or changing a public space, small improvements help to garner support along the way to the end result. They indicate visible change and show that someone is in charge. Petunias, which are low cost and easy to plant, have an immediate visible impact. On the other hand, once planted, they must be watered and cared for. Therefore, these flowers give a clear message that someone must be looking after the space.

I have been surprised by how unfriendly church buildings can be, even on some of the better city streets in North America. I recall walking past the windowless façade of a church on a lively street in The Beach neighbourhood of Toronto and thinking that it was the worst stretch of sidewalk on an otherwise fine street. Although it was an older building, the lack of doorways, windows, or articulation of any kind in the long wall, and the absence of flowerboxes or trellised plants, reminded me of the worst kind of brutalist architecture – the dead expanses around concrete block buildings, so common in institutional buildings built from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Most city churches, however, already enliven the streetscape with flowers and trees – a simple start in the church contributing to the cultivation of urban village in old cities. From such a good start, relentless incremental improvements to church buildings and gardens can consistently raise the quality of life in their neighbourhoods.

9. URBAN REVITALIZATION IS SLOW, HARD, SUBTLE WORK.

I once heard John Stackhouse of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, speak in a public lecture of cultural renewal as “slow, hard, subtle work.” This is certainly the case with urban revitalization. City churches in their own life as communities of faith and in their neighbourly efforts to help cultivate urban villages are faced with perplexing practical problems and exhausting emotional demands.

One response to Jonathan Barlow’s “St. Louis Architectural Tragedies,” written under the pseudonym “Pentamom,” offers a solution to the difficulty city churches have in building sturdy congregations: “Parking lots. I think that’s half the answer. Large inner city churches can’t survive on walk-in business nowadays, and without parking lots, they can’t draw enough attendance.”

Joel Garver responds:

Parking lots are good, but the church doesn’t necessarily need one of its own. Tenth PCA (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is in a downtown and has no parking lot and survives just fine. It’s possible in most cities to get some kind of parking permission to park, for instance, on the ‘no parking’ side of a street if there is usually only parking on one side. There are also often other facilities nearby (public parking garages, hospital or public school parking areas) that can be negotiated for space (even for a small fee), especially on Sunday mornings when use is minimal.

Pentamom replies:

I’m trying to imagine herding my family of five kids through the snow and ice over several blocks (especially if I am unfamiliar with the parking provisions) to get to church. Special provisions for parking (e.g. being allowed to park on the wrong side of the street on Sunday mornings) don’t help folks unfamiliar with the area, when all they see is ‘no parking’ signs and nowhere to park. So while it might be comforting to talk about why parking need not be an issue, I think that if you’re actually going to take the step of establishing a church in the middle of the city, it’s wiser to deal with the fact that for a whole lot of people, it is an issue.

Another pseudonymous correspondent, “Bobber,” writes about the neighbourhood lamented by Jonathan Barlow:

My old church did a church plant in that very area. It was incredibly difficult work. Lot’s of very poor and dysfunctional people came to the church. It just overtaxed them tremendously. I think you really have to look at this as just like a mission to another country. It takes lots of training and planning.

Jeff Schmidt responds:

I agree with Bobber, it is hard for us to fully understand the dysfunction of the culture in these areas and its effect on those that live and labor there. Chris, you have a better understanding of this since you worked at the mission. How does one prepare for the daily onslaught of such an environment?

The semi-pseudonymous Chris replies:

Well, I only worked in that neighborhood three years, so I don’t pretend to be an expert, but at the same time, I did learn a few things. Again, you can’t prepare for the daily onslaught, you learn to deal with it, navigate it, minister to folks in the midst of being incarnated there. There are some helpful things to read, some wise advice that you can get from weathered veterans, but the bottom line is most of the learning is on the job training.

While it helps to focus on doing simple things now – planting the petunias – it is important to recognize that simple does not mean easy. The dream of the urban village church, joining with its neighbours in the re-inhabitation and revitalization of an old city neighbourhood, requires more than good will and ingenuity. It requires faith, hope, and love.

10. MONEY IS NOT THE PROBLEM.

In How to Turn a Place Around Kathleen Madden writes that in urban revitalization efforts, “all too often, lack of money is used as an excuse for doing nothing,” but that “when money is an issue, this is generally an indication that the wrong concept is at work, not because the plans are too expensive, but because the public doesn’t feel like the place belongs to them.”

In my conversations with church folk about the possibility of new faith communities re-inhabiting abandoned or neglected city church buildings, the difficulties mentioned focus on the safety of children and the lack of money. Restoring and retrofitting a dilapidated old church building for contemporary use is without a doubt costly; heating and cooling it is far more costly than would be the case for a new building. The architectural flourishes and neighbourly amenities suggested in this article come with a cost. But I think the church can learn from people like Ms. Madden. Based on the experience of the Project for Public Spaces, Ms. Madden suggests that

1. Small-scale, inexpensive improvements can be more effective at drawing people into spaces than major big-bucks projects;

2. Developing the ability to effectively manage a space is more critical to success than a large financial investment;

3. If the community is a partner in the endeavor, people will come forward and naturally draw in others; and

4. When the community’s vision is driving the project, money follows.

The vision of the urban village church, when embedded in the grand vision of the glory of God and the love of neighbour taught in the Christian faith, is worthy of the financial resources of the people of God. When urban village church advocates develop the necessary and demonstrable skills in management, and when churches in old city neighbourhoods recognize the importance of managing their buildings for the aesthetic delight and social comfort of their own faith communities and their neighbours, then the immensely affluent churches of North America should take up support of the vision of a network of churches

Posted in Cities. Linked to Cardus' Social Cities research project.

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Originally Published

date: January 1, 2008
publisher: Cardus