Building a Better Broadway
Building a Better Broadway

Building a Better Broadway

Can we design a city for contentment?

December 3 rd 2018
Appears in Winter 2018

I visit the Saint Paul farmers’ market nearly every weekend in the summer. Located in the heart of “Lowertown,” the market sits between historic red brick buildings and a shiny new baseball stadium. Lowertown is Saint Paul’s hipster mecca (to the extent that Saint Paul can tout a population of hipsters). And like a child of the hipster generation, I bike to the market and I buy local produce. From an outside perspective and looking plainly through the lens of minimalism, one could say that my practices are relatively congruent with the general tenets of a minimalist lifestyle. Produce less waste. Buy less, and even better, buy local. Buy better quality. While I do not consciously aspire to be a minimalist, I consider these attributes as noble endeavours; but there is more to my cherished ritual. A couple blocks from the farmers’ market is Mears Park. Each week I purposely park my bike in a place that requires me to walk through this city park. And after completing my shopping I sit in the park. Observing. Meditating. Praying. Mears Park has become my personal spacious place. This part of my ritual raises far deeper questions for me.

The concept of a spacious place is one that has often piqued my imagination as an urban planner, a real estate developer, and a Christian, particularly because the phrase “spacious place (or land)” appears in ten passages throughout the Old Testament. It is most commonly used in relationship to the deliverance of a community or an individual. In Exodus, God rescues the Israelites from the Egyptians and brings them into “a good and spacious land” (3:8 NIV; all further biblical quotations are from this translation). In 2 Samuel 22:20 and Psalm 18:19 the exact same phrasing shows up: “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” Both are in reference to David’s escape from the fickle and deadly hands of Saul. In light of these contexts, a spacious place is good and desirable, which has led me to ponder what exactly constitutes a spacious place and how I rightly consider it. Is it truly a large physical space? Or is it metaphorical? If it is a place of rescue and repose, should I seek to plan cities and design buildings with such places in mind? If so, what shape do those take?

In a spacious place our capacity for contentedness is bolstered.

My conclusions are still in formation, but this is where I have come thus far in my journey of deciphering the biblical notion of a spacious place. A spacious place that rescues is not literally an expansive physical space. In fact, urban designers and planners are increasingly recognizing that we thrive far better in neighbourhoods and cities built on the human scale. This means places are designed for walkability, sensory engagement with our environment, and social connection, all of which require short distances between places, people, and activities. Conversely, large spaces that necessitate driving effectively disconnect us from our physical surroundings. Driving does not allow you to hear birds or street life, to smell flowers or grilling hamburgers, nor do you cross paths with a homeless person or a neighbour on a walk with the dog. Small spaces encourage us to be more fully human and empathize with the world around us, which is how God directs us in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

A spacious place that provides deliverance is not entirely figurative. The biblical narratives in which these references appear suggest that a spacious place is one that is free of oppression, intrusion, and anxiety. In other words, it is a place of rest. A place where we are able to be contented. Webster’s Dictionary defines “contented” as “feeling or showing satisfaction with one's possessions, status, or situation.” This, also, is what God calls us to in Matthew 6:25: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (NIV). In a spacious place our capacity for contentedness is bolstered. We can be more fully attuned with who we are and the ways in which we choose to navigate the world around us. However, in order to do so, a spacious place must be imbued with particular physical qualities that enable us to content ourselves. At this nexus is where the emergent questions of my summer ritual intersect, where a biblical framework for minimalism and city design converge.

The Humble City

To expound on this convergence, I return to my spacious place in Mears Park. There are three features that contribute to my delight in this public space, and each one highlights the value of contentedness that I believe should be fundamental to a biblical engagement with city design and its corresponding symbiosis with minimalism. First, Mears Park, on the spectrum of flashy public spaces, is relatively small and humble. You can easily see and walk from one end to the other. There are no physical obstacles. Nothing overtly demands or requires your attention. What is there is a small winding urban stream speckled with playful stepping stones and flanked by community flower gardens tended to by local residents. A small stage sits along one edge, and seat walls and benches are strategically located in restful pockets throughout the park. By its minimal scale and simplicity of design, Mears Park effectively offers capacious and safe space for observation and exploration. In this place, I am particularly taken in by the nuances of activity I can espy. Jan Gehl, a leading urban designer, makes the case in Cities for People that in “small spaces, we can see buildings, details, and the people around us at close range. There is much to assimilate, buildings and activities abound and we experience them with great intensity. We perceive the scene as warm, personal, and welcoming.” The stepping stones, winding paths, and empty stage in Mears Park summon this welcome and curiosity.

In this space, less becomes more because the character of the space is shaped by curiosity rather than consumption. Curiosity, at its root, is the stimulating discovery of otherness. It is not spectacle. It is not frivolity. It is the self-directed inquiry by which we become more acutely aware of that which is outside ourselves. We are taken in by mystery, which, oddly enough, enables us to better grasp who we are as we encounter and contend with that which we presently are not. Through this active participation in the world around us, our finitude is pronounced, and we are empowered to navigate and create in response to our recognized limitations. In his pursuit of defining the good city, Charles Montgomery notes, “It [the city] can steal our autonomy or give us the freedom to thrive. It can offer a navigable environment, or it can create a series of impossible gauntlets that wear us down daily.” In the city, these gauntlets can take the shape of bus stops that lack shelter from the elements, intersections with no painted pedestrian crosswalks, poorly lit streets, or unsightly waste sites that provision screening in utilitarian ways. These things keep us on guard and thereby inhibit freedom for exploration.

In light of this, I am called back to David’s Psalm 18. In some translations the phrasing reads, “He set my feet in a broad place” (v. 19). This particular wording clearly resounds with a reconciling recognition of our humanity that a place like Mears Park affords. The “setting of feet” indicates a rightful, physical interaction with the world, walking freely as we are designed to do; and a broad place, in David’s context, implies entering a life-giving space, uncluttered by competing and wearing intrusions for our attention. The contentedness found in such a spacious place engenders the freedom to be curious participants in this world. In this way, a spacious place leads us further into the gift we have been given to be co-creators, rather than merely consumers, alongside God himself.

The Beautiful City

The second meaningful characteristic of Mears Park is the gift of beauty that it bestows to users. In the middle of the city, this park embodies an oasis of delight. The gardens along the stream’s edge are a palette of colour all summer long. The tree canopies scattered throughout create a welcoming habitat for birds and squirrels. Many weekend mornings I have witnessed playful games of tag transpire between squirrels as flocks of sparrows splash away in the stream. While natural beauty abounds in Mears Park, there is another element that has been thoughtfully included by the designers of this space. The park has a speaker system that is used for broadcasting special events and concerts during the summer. However, on quiet weekend mornings, the city plays recordings of classical music. This audial participation enriches my experience with beauty in a way that is rarely provisioned for in public spaces such as city parks.

God is calling his people to allocate space for everyone to be cared-for members of the community. 

The simple approach to the design and the incorporation of beauty manifested in this park underpins the biblical mandate found in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” In Mears Park, there is space to apprehend and consider that which is lovely. Leonard Hjalmarson suggests that our extant delight in beauty harkens to our “awareness that there is so much more to come: more freedom, more wholeness, and the fullness of beauty and life that was intended for every person and place.” It is in this recognition that I am brought into a spacious place that beckons me to meditate on truth, beauty, and goodness, and consequently, to be presently contented.

Belonging in the City

Last, Mears Park gives space to belong. Located in the urban core, it is a place that attracts and shelters people from many walks of life. On my morning strolls through the park on the way to the market I often pass by several homeless and transient people. Some are sleeping on benches. Others are talking excitedly among themselves. In all of my trips through the park, I have never seen any attempts to shoo away these users. Rather, in this park, it seems there is a quiet acceptance and cohabitation among all members. Urban dwellers walk their dogs. Elderly gardeners tend to their flowers. Young families play among the stepping stones. Young, old, rich, and poor occupy the park with full access to the beauty and delight found there. Here, in this spacious urban place, there is room for all to belong, for all to be nourished in some way, as the social beings we are who thrive with others. In his book Squares, Mark Childs frames the concept of belonging in terms of a convivial public space. Derived from the Latin word convivium, which means feast or banquet, he suggests that a convivial space is a place where we experience “the enjoyment of festive society, as a means of living together,” which he further translates to a simple “vibrant sense of belonging to a settlement.”

The significance of developing space for belonging and nourishment is not new. In Leviticus, God instructs the Israelites to leave ungleaned space at the edge of their fields so that all members of their community may be fed. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you” (23:22). In this command, God limits the consumption of his people so that, in effect, all peoples might belong. God is calling his people to allocate space for everyone to be cared-for members of the community. In The Space Between, Eric Jacobsen contends, “When development strategies exclude all poor people from a particular neighborhood, they are being denied access to the ‘gleanings’ of a dignified experience of neighborhood life.” To belong is a deeply human desire and need. Hence, a spacious place that effectuates human flourishing is one where there is beneficial space made for all to belong. In this belonging, we are contented.

Economically oppressed areas of the city suffer from underinvestment in infrastructure that makes for good spacious places.

A Contented City

Contentedness provides a biblical signpost for the crossroads of minimalism and city design. At this intersection, our engagement with the physical world is reoriented from one of only limiting our habits of consuming to one of actively opening up space for our being. Accordingly, in a good and spacious place, there will be room for curiosity, encounters with beauty, and a sense of belonging. While Mears Park provides a stage for the characteristics of a spacious place, we should not stop short of applying these same attributes to the gritty corners of urban life. Our historical approach to zoning and the separation of residential and commercial uses, in all their varying degrees of intensity, has left many areas of our cities void of such spacious places, and this has disproportionately affected low-income and minority communities. This siloed approach to city development has allowed land and buildings to be used as commodities for production and gain rather than gifts to be integrated and curated for the flourishing of every human being. This is evident in the dichotomy of beautiful parks placed near single-family homes and manufacturing plants placed near low-income apartment buildings. Likewise, economically oppressed areas of the city suffer from underinvestment in infrastructure that makes for good spacious places such as sidewalks, street trees, or utility screening. Craig Arnold points out that these “areas that lack sufficient parks, . . . sidewalks, visually attractive buildings, . . . are not healthy and safe.” He goes on to note, “These environments can also be stressful and psychologically unhealthy contributing to the alienation of area residents from their physical environment and community.”

As Christians, we are called to seek the welfare of all, including the poor and alien in our cities; therefore, we must seek to translate the value of contentedness found in a spacious place to all areas of our cities. I am convinced the avenues for doing so are many, but here are some examples of how we can start. To promote exploration and curiosity, we can call for developments and policies that prioritize human-scale buildings, maintaining good and connected sidewalks, bus shelters, and ample bike lanes throughout the city. In Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, during his term as mayor, chose to pave bicycle lanes before roads as a way to prioritize and bring dignity to low-income bicycle users over wealthier drivers. The result was a less-congested city that was full of bikers, of every income and every age, which effectively led to better pedestrian and public bus experiences as well. Invitations to beauty can take the shape of adding better and more interesting lighting to alleyways, painting artwork on utility boxes and screening, and planting rain gardens in parking boulevards. Even in the smallest of pockets, we can work toward adding beauty. Project Backboard, a non-profit based out of Memphis, Tennessee, has undertaken painting community murals on the blighted basketball courts found in so many historically underserved neighbourhoods. This small initiative has led to the renovation of more than twenty courts, which boast both whimsical works of art and a rebirth of use in the neighbourhoods of colour where they are located. The founder, Daniel Peterson, comments, “Cities will start recognizing that making basketball courts special in this way will make the public space more vibrant, especially in cities that aren’t like New York, that don’t have the same type of street culture.”

Last, we can promote a sense of belonging by advocating for zoning and development policies that promote a mix of uses and a mix of incomes across the city. This allows single-family homes and twenty-unit apartment buildings to share the same block, whereby the single parent, young college student, new family, and retired grandfather can all afford to inhabit the same sidewalks and access the same goods and services. Additionally, we need to be mindful of providing equitable access to amenities and leaving “ungleaned” space to belong. In Happy City, Charles Montgomery shares about an inner-city park in Copenhagen that has a beautiful lawn for games and picnics and a nondescript hut with a high wooden fence. The park planners explained to him that the hut was built in response to what the transient users of the park desired. They wanted a place to meet and hang out where they would not bother other park users and a toilet, so that is what the city gave them. This hut has become their common living room, a convivial space for them to belong.

Finally, I am reminded of the biblical passage that speaks to the coming restoration of Jerusalem found in Zechariah 8:4–5: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’” What a convivial public space is depicted here! We are given a vision of public streets that advocate membership and play among all people of all generations with a freedom to be in the fullness of our humanity. It is here we find deliverance. It is here we are contented. Our coming heavenly city must be a spacious place indeed.

Sara Joy Proppe
Sara Joy Proppe

Sara Joy Proppe is the founder and director of Proximity Project, an initiative centered on educating and activating churches to be thoughtful stewards of their properties for the common good within the contexts of their neighborhoods.


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