Building Cairns in the City
Building Cairns in the City

Building Cairns in the City

Designing cities to cultivate rootedness and memory.
June 1 st 2014
Appears in Summer 2014

The built environment is the setting for the stories we live out every day. In our urbanized world, this takes the form of sidewalks, streets, buildings, and neighbourhoods within a city. Like fish swimming in water, however, we are often oblivious to our physical setting. We easily take for granted the significance of the built environment; particularly in the way it roots us in shared narratives and collective memory.

Our setting matters much more than we think. The built environment orients us in particular places. These places, imbued with memory, root us and connect us to past stories that shape our identities through community membership. When we know where we are, we are better able to know and remember who we are.

This is illustrated well in the story of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. As the reader follows Clarissa Dalloway through the sidewalks of London, the banal task of running errands becomes a lens into post- WWI London and its shifting culture as cars and department stores enter the scene. Amidst such changes, Clarissa finds continuity and stability through particular places and her memories in relationship to them. Through the built environment she is rooted in a history, in a shared narrative. Woolf writes:

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock . . . pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves.

Like Clarissa, we inhabit a physical setting that affects our stories by tying us to specific places, and in turn, the development of memory that fosters a sense of community membership.

In fact, research has demonstrated that people are more likely to thrive when socially embedded in a particular neighbourhood. Neighbours come to know one another and amass social capital. Social capital is a collective resource for members of a community to tackle mundane and systemic problems together through shared networks, information, and feelings of trust and reciprocity. Civic virtue grows as neighbours work together to resolve conflict. All of these assets are dependent on regularized community interaction, rootedness, and collective memory. Through rootedness and memory we come to understand our place in a particular place. Together we wrestle through what has worked and has not worked for our particular neighbourhood. Through history we learn how to redeem the broken places and re-envision them for our good. Redemption requires a retelling of our shared stories. And, in order to retell, we must be able to remember.

Unfortunately, we don't often build our cities with this in mind. Modern patterns of development don't value these tenets of rootedness and memory. In particular, our highway system has expanded our geographic boundaries, enabling us to leave our local neighbourhoods for accessing basic conveniences, workplaces, and church communities; a reality that often makes us less committed to one particular neighbourhood. Likewise, we are more willing and, perhaps, more prone to move often when we are not rooted within a geographically limited community because we have fewer memories and identities tying us to the physical space we inhabit. This ease of movement is not without detriment. In A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb, Philip Langdon notes the result:

"Repeated millions of times, the decision to move out robs communities of their memories and their social relationships. It leaves them shallow rooted and ill equipped to provide their residents sustenance during hard times." We all lose as a result.

Landmarks Of The Kingdom

When we are rooted in a particular place, we develop memories. Memory acts as a conduit for connecting us to the places we inhabit and to one another. Over time, collective memory is formed, which often frames our identities. Through memory we relate the past to the present. We recount our shared stories. Memory plays a profound role in (re)orienting us as members of a community to something larger than our individual selves.

Research shows that our identities are often closely connected to the memories and emotional attachments we form around physical places. Psychologists Clare Twigger-Ross and David Uzzell assert that two of these identities are characterized as place-related distinctiveness and placereferent continuity. Place-related distinctiveness highlights a desire for uniqueness. For example, one might identify oneself as being a "New Yorker" or a "city person." By this type of place identification we differentiate ourselves from other communities. Often associated with features of the built environment, such as architectural structures and historical monuments, people usually exhibit a sense of pride as they define where they live and who they are in terms of well-known community landmarks.

Also associated with landmarks, placereferent continuity describes how physical places act as markers in our lives to connect us to past selves and actions, providing continuity to our identities. They are a way for us to know who we still are. Consequently, maintaining a link with particular places becomes central to perpetuating identity, and the preservation of such places can be emotionally charged. As physical beings it only makes sense that we are inclined to identify and orient ourselves around the physical spaces and places we inhabit.

For Christians, our identity also encompasses membership in the communion of saints, those before us who have professed Christ as Saviour. As Wilfred McClay once noted (in First Things), "Christian faith requires one to take account of the past as something real, as something in which one is unavoidably embedded, and to which one is profoundly connected." Memory is central to this identity and to the unfolding of the great redemption story of which we are to be active participants. Biblical passages bid us to remember God's faithfulness and recount his goodness to others. Only in this remembering can we orient both others and ourselves to this larger story. For the biblical narrative to be relevant in our current built environment, we need to encourage building places that both remind us of, and honour, our humanity— including our limits. By recognizing our place in the created order, our need for community membership and redemption is manifest. Promoting the design of physical places that cultivate memory is a step in calling our neighbour(hood)s to witness the goodness of God.

Building For Rootedness And Memory

In our contemporary urban landscape, memory and limits as they relate to the built environment appear largely insignificant. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs postulated, "We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves." Working in real estate development, I am confronted with designing projects for a highly mobile society where rootedness is nearly non-existent and memory practically irrelevant. We build places for the modern urbanite whose fluid lifestyle leaves him or her seeking building efficiencies and amenities over commitment to community membership. This is evidenced as we design units with no space for a dining room table, but suggest instead that residents eat at a stool pulled up to the kitchen island, inadvertently implying that communal dining is immaterial and working against corporate memory. This, in my opinion, is expecting too little of our stories and ourselves.

Nevertheless, the built environment is fundamental to our stories and, therefore, integral to rootedness and memory. If we recognize this, we must ask: How do we design the built environment to cultivate these things? I believe it starts with building spaces and places that are on a human scale and adaptable, and then using them as dynamic vessels for our stories.

For example, building for the human scale means prioritizing walkability, which, at the very least, calls for good sidewalk design. This might seem obvious, but I am consistently surprised at how many places lack sidewalks or have shoddy ones at best. The truth is our cities and neighbourhoods are built for cars. Sidewalks are often interrupted by curb cuts where drive paths cross pedestrian paths for access to driveways and parking lots. These create ambiguity about the right of way. A good sidewalk is a continuous, clearly delineated pedestrian path protected from the road with trees or boulevards as buffering. Good sidewalks incline us to walk. As we walk within our neighbourhoods, we open ourselves to the potential for community interaction, story development, and rootedness. We have occasions to bump into neighbours. We notice streetscape nuances, such as a local monument, a sidewalk poem, or a pocket garden. Viewing our surroundings at a walking pace contributes to memory formation because we are able to absorb the particularities of the built environment.

But we also need good reasons to walk. People are more apt to walk with a destination and variety of places to see. Modern day zoning has deterred walkability by separating commercial and residential uses. Few of us live within walking distance of basic conveniences. If we are within geographic walking distance, oftentimes the design of streets and sidewalks precludes true pedestrian accessibility. While one may live a few blocks from a grocery store, the actual walking path may involve crossing hightraffic roads and expanses of parking lots. A return to mixed-use development where we can access basic goods on foot within our neighbourhoods is a positive step toward honouring our limits. It enables us to live more wholly within a smaller geography and affords more opportunities to know our neighbours as we walk for daily errands. We become more rooted in a particular place and more likely to participate in shaping the places we inhabit.

Housing Memory

We are creative beings who thrive on shaping our environment. Henri Lefebvre terms this the right to the city when we, as community members, exert our power to shape and modify our built environment to meet community needs. Stewart Brand, in his book How Buildings Learn, notes that buildings come to be loved through adaptivity. As we modify buildings, our affections for them grow; buildings become coffers for our stories and memories. Accordingly, buildings should be designed for permanence and adaptability so they can harbor stories from one generation to the next. In contrast, modern big-box stores and tract housing are not designed for durability or modification. Brand suggests that developers plan with the expectation that building skins will "ugly out" after fifteen years. Hence, these buildings, in their fleetingness, do not invite adaptation and stand in stark isolation from any larger narrative. In The Space Between Eric Jacobsen thus rightly observes that "the generic nature and short time span of the buildings make them resistant to holding the stories that are generated there." However, when we construct quality places on a smaller, neighbourhood scale, we support variety, resiliency and memory as these spaces are more easily altered, managed, and preserved by a myriad of people over time.

We should also promote vernacular development and architecture: building and/or rebuilding in a manner that reflects local tradition and memory. The opposite of ubiquitous chain-store development, vernacular architecture is highly localized and cultivates identities of place-related distinctiveness and place-referent continuity. It connects us to our stories as we imagine how buildings might be (re)made to reflect our community identities. The redevelopment of a Sears warehouse in Minneapolis presents a beautiful example. From its development in 1928 until its closure in 1994, this Sears was valued as public gathering space for the community. When steps were taken to redevelop the building, personal attachments and memories of the gathering space generated enough neighbourhood and political will to dictate the inclusion of a public market in the building. Reborn as Midtown Global Market, the building reflects the ethnic diversity of the local community and maintains a link with its past identity as a neighbourhood gathering space.

The built environment is a dynamic vessel for our stories, but we must design for this. We should attend hearings where projects are presented and meet with city planners to express our desires for community-oriented design. In working for cities and developers, I have seen community members influence the built environment. Local institutional leaders often have the most power to affect change. Pastors and church leaders, then, might be particularly responsible to attend to the built environment; it is the setting of their local community and in which their body congregates.

Church As Collaborator

While modern society has expected too little of itself in relationship to the built environment, I contend that the modern church has tended to do the opposite; expecting too little of new buildings and thinking too much of ourselves. Pastors urge congregants to be concerned with the spiritual vitality of their neighbours, but rarely consider how the built environment is a significant component. For example, churches send out neighbourhood invitations to church festivals, but do not often send representatives to neighbourhood meetings to learn about and speak into the local developments that affect community rootedness and vitality over time.

The Gospel teaches that the law exists, not to condemn us, but to show us the beauty of living within community and limits. For individual churches to flesh this out in the built environment, they need to situate themselves within a specific, geographical context, similar to the parish model. This may mean literally marking boundary lines on a map to define the physical community that the church seeks to know and serve. Establishing geographic limits opens up space for church members to engage in a very specific place. In my own context of St. Paul, I represent my church on the neighbourhood District Council. My participation demonstrates the church's commitment to the physical flourishing of our neighbourhood. I vote on local projects and seek to promote developments that cultivate community membership. I relay local development knowledge to the church and share where needs exist.

By rooting in a particular community, a church invites others into membership. Pastors ought to encourage their members to live in the neighbourhood in which they worship. Attending to a smaller geography gives a church greater capacity to fully inhabit the stories of the local community over time. A church can only speak to how or what to build in a community if it first knows the history of what exists. While the feasibility of returning to a true parish model may be limited, the church should still be advocating her members to promote human flourishing in these capacities within their own neighbourhoods.

The church, more than any other societal institution, has consistently upheld human dignity as a foundational value. This is reflected in the legacy of universities, hospitals, and monuments built by the church to champion human flourishing in our cities. The Gospel reiterates the truth of human dignity. If we believe God is redeeming all of creation, we must advocate for our built environment to be conducive to community membership so that the redemption story can be shared. Just as churches give financial support to those working to share the Gospel story, I would challenge churches to allocate a portion of their mission budgets to efforts regarding the built environment. These could include projects such as establishing a revolving loan fund for local business façade improvements or developing a pocket park. Stewarding healthy and beautiful places alongside other local institutions encourages collaboration in the neighbourhood and cultivates corporate memory and identity, which provide more space for the Gospel story to be told.

If the church (both as an institution and as the collective body of individual members) does not inhabit and support the built environment for the good of membership and memory, how can we ask the neighbourhood to value and participate in the membership and memory of the Church? We must confront this question because it is through rootedness and memory that the Church carries forward the great redemption story. From biblical times to present, the Church is predicated on the stories of those who have gone before us and their encounters with a faithful God. In A Theology of the Built Environment, T. J. Gorringe argues, "The Church . . . exists to instantiate the central significance of memory and tradition in a world where mobility is prized and indeed expected." The traditions of the Church are a stalwart calling to be rooted in community and to remember our stories in light of the greater narrative. I do not believe there are more cogent reasons for the Church to petition for rootedness and memory in the built environment.

If a church actively considered how these characteristics are to be promoted in the built environment of our cities, she would strategically root herself in a particular place. She would call for neighbourhoods built on the human scale. She would designate church leaders and representatives to sit on district councils and neighbourhood committees to learn community history and be a voice for promoting human dignity in the built environment. She would encourage her members to inhabit and shape the public realm because when we shape our setting together, our membership within a larger community and a larger story is made visible. God gave us the honour of being co-creators in the setting of our stories. Thus, both the institutional Church and individual church members ought to be at the city-planning table, calling for projects that promote rootedness, and in so doing, become cairns of God's goodness to which we can point as we share our stories throughout the generations. Buildings and sidewalks in and of themselves will likely not give people a reason to stay. The memories and identities associated with these places are what will keep people rooted, but we must build places that cultivate shared stories and memories to draw us to community membership. To do so is to work for the good of our neighbours and for the good of the Church herself.

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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