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Those Who Can Fix Anything: Restoring Through City Planning
I love my job as a city planner and urban designer. My work lets me explore and discover the basic principles of creating great communities. Through my years in this passionate pursuit I’ve found that the elements of great places are universal and timeless. There is a genetic code to healthy and vibrant communities and the more we learn the better able we are to create great places today.
Regardless of technology, topography, geography, economy, religion or culture – all great places successfully connect people to people. Think about your experience in a place you loved. It felt so alive, full of energy, it had that great café, the amazing park, it was beautiful, it pulled you in, you walked for blocks and blocks. From small towns to big cities, the places we love connect us together.
We love community and God loves community. He made us to love Him and others and nowhere is this more possible than in the community of abundant connections. God desires us to be connected and the design of your community makes this either really easy or painfully difficult. Therefore, as members of community we must champion anything that connects us and root out whatever separates us.
Often times the barriers to connections are obvious. Every element of our built environment can be designed in a way that either facilitates connections or hinders them. The places we live, work, play or worship can and should be designed to maximize connectivity, but God’s desire for connections goes far beyond just the physical arrangement of things.
Isaiah 58 reveals God’s deeper perspective on the disconnections that matter most. Injustice is a barrier. Exploitation is a wound. Oppression is a pit. Debt is an anchor. These keep us apart and have the power to disrupt the love of God and others. These are the symptoms of the broken city and the remedy is love in action.
"This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.”
The broken city is repaired not by removing needs but by meeting them. Restoration comes not from pushing others out but by lifting others up. Redemption won’t be prayed away but must be broken, ridden, freed, canceled, shared, invited and given away. Could the call to action be any clearer? And for those that put these words into action?
“You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”
Isaiah 58 is God’s blueprint for what could and should be in your community. There isn’t an organization in this world with greater potential for putting these words into action than the local church. You may have never thought of the church as a placemaker or a community builder but if Isaiah 58 is true then could there be any greater champion for community than the local church?
If these needs exist in your church’s community – your church must act. If they don’t – your church must find a community where these needs are and partner with the local church there to act. If your church is so blessed – do both. In a time of unspeakable need and pain this could not be any more relevant for the communities of this nation and world. Imagine a church at the center of it all – meetings needs, building community, rebuilding broken walls and living out a love for God and others with unavoidable radiance.
In your opinion, is city planning a legitimate expression of Christian faithfulness? Have you or your church been involved in any placemaking projects?
I really, REALLY like the statement, "These are the symptoms of the broken city and the remedy is LOVE IN ACTION." And all the symptoms listed are just a few of the endless burdens we all bear in our "advanced" society.
If we are to effectively bear one another's burdens, however, we should examine the form of the community we choose to work in towards this end and see if our church is indeed functional in its all its missions.
Does our form of our church promote the prerequisite intimacy that unabashedly reveals our burdens, so that others can see our hindrances to powerful living and come to our rescue? Our good intentions go to waste if we merely toss them in the air and hope that God puts them to good use.
The visible church we have today is a like machine trying to be a living organism. It is like a train going around in a big circle, making scheduled stops along its man-made route, to drop off some food and water now and then. We don't live on this train, nor do the people we should be truly ministering to.
Instead, we live and work in the sea of life, a more appropriate metaphor than a train running on tracks. So, shouldn't the form our churches be taking be more like a rescue boat, where God is our captain and our shipmates are those who have themselves been rescued and therefore have the spiritual heart to do as the Captain wishes?
City planning is good, but in relation to God's city or church, it is best left to Him to do the planning and building under the continual direction of His Spirit. I just don't see something this important should be left up to fallen, yet-to-be perfect, men, often times working hand in hand with unregenerate people who have diametrically opposite motivations.
I think James 4:13-15 has something to say about all this planning.
I am not sure city planning is exactly a "legitimate expression of Christian faithfulness." I have met many city planners who make me think otherwise. Though, I think if the fruits of the planning are faithful to Christian values like restoration, transformation, and community then I think you have something. One of the neat things I enjoy in comparing - I'll call it 'public service' with 'Kingdom service' - is that you can see a wonderful overlap between what occurs on the inside (restoration, transformation, love of others) because of the work of Christ with what can occur on the outside - or, in the community (restoration, transformation, love of others) because of the work of Christ. These two need to be occurring at the same time...we can't just experience it - the love of Christ - alone, we then need to share it; share the hope, joy, love and peace. Keep on going in Isaiah...Isaiah 61 goes even further down the path you are heading down...the prophet proclaims the good news of the Messiah when he talks about 'setting the captive free and healing the broken hearted' (Jesus himself quotes the same scripture in Luke 4) and goes on to talk about the physical restoration too of the 'ruined cities' - this is the restoration our cities/communities need; both internal (heart) and external. One last thought...city planners need to work with developers (and vice versa), with the investors, to create plans that are practical, feasible and economical...not for greed, but for the greater good. We have to work together to invest the resources that were given to us by the Creator in a way that multiplies the returns for the Kingdom, not just the investor.
I have to disagree with you a bit. I think that every activity that we engage in (moral and non-moral activities at least) can be used as a legitimate expression of our Christian walk. I'm not talking about building a "Christian" city, but by making sure the communities and spaces that we construct are compatible with and help promote the ideals of the Christian faith. As Aaron said, spaces that are ill designed hinder community. If it is the case that God cares about true community, then building spaces that promote community is part of what a Christian city planner should do.
There is a issue that I have though. First, while I agree that the local church is God's plan for caring for the community, I think talking about it in those terms misses something important. I think that God's plan for caring for the community is not merely the local church as an organization, but us as individual members of the local church. I think we have a tendency to turn our pastors, deacons, elders, etc. when there are needs in our community when we, as individuals, have the ability to meet, though it may be uncomfortable for us to do so. In other words, the local church is more than the paid or volunteer staff. It is us.
I think that the church has largely been a place where people gather on Sundays for the larger part of the last century. As the millennium has turned the "new" church must take a more central role in being the center of the community as it was in the past. Look at any historical city and it's center village. The church has always been the locational center and the heart that moves the people through city. If the church can embrace this calling, whether it's a building or coffee shop owned by believers, the impact of the church could be that we could be come the life blood of the city once again.
I would agree with Leroy. God's placement of humans with the ability to have relationships and fellowship is amazing! This helps our motivation, purposes, determination, etc... If we strive to the best of our abilities to use these relationships in all areas of life God can, through us, effortlessly advance His Kingdom.
I'm incredibly thankful you wrote this article.
I am currently studying urban planning and hope to work for in the field after I graduate. I've spent a good amount of time exploring the connections between God and the places we inhabit. For me, it's encouraging to see that God is going to use our gifts and talents, no matter how strange they might seem to those around us. I get excited about streets and buildings and the way they work to bring people together.
In many ways, planning is for the prophets. It's for people who see something broken about and apply creative solutions that offer resolve and vision. Effective planning fosters good fruit in our communities; it's interested in the holistic health of who we are as people, not just quick fixes that one-sided interest groups offer.
Planning can be a legitimate expression of Christian faithfulness. It propels people towards community-centric living rather than isolated suburbia. Placemaking not only allows us to be creative beings (like the Father), it reinforces emphasis on people not things. God is certainly interested in us doing life with people more than our lengthy morning commute.
Leroy - you are right on in saying that every activity we engage in can be a legitimate expression of our Christian faith; I guess what I meant or was thinking was more the 'profession' of a city planner...hard to explain what I was thinking, but you got it better than I did. Its the fruits of the activity that are the expression...
And, I agree with Joshua about the church being at the center of the community and Leroy you hit it again by saying its not just the building, but the people. We, the body of believers, have to be at the center of community, because Christ is at the center of our lives and His body...the church.
I love this Aaron, and it made think of community, a topic I have been thinking about a lot.
Yes, I believe we can choose to deploy city planning as legitimate expression of Christian faithfulness, of course. We are called to do it. Now, it made me think about "going far beyond the physical arrangement of things."
The main question that was raised to me is : Is community service?
In the age of the megachruch it seems that churches are becoming less and less community-oriented and it has become more difficult for people to connect. Our churches definitiely need to get back to connecting and creating a since of unity and unified vision through building the community within and outside of the church walls.
Good read, Aaron. I can imagine only a few professions that cannot be legitimate expressions of Christian faith, so I think the answer to your question undoubtedly is "yes." "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men". It's a simple instruction, and it requires a simple response, "Yes, Lord." Easier said than done of course.
But even setting aside moral and personal considerations for a moment, I find it difficult to imagine a situation, at least in my profession, when acting in faith would yield a worse result than any other possible course of action. Why would it be otherwise? The biggest challenge for me is getting past the limitations that I put in my own mind about what God can imagine and work out for us (whether His work be in the open or "behind-the-scenes"). But every time I manage to get it right and not doubt, He's incredibly faithful in ways I never would have imagined.
Keep pressing, brother.
I agree with those above who affirm the role of community planning as a "legitimate expression of Christian faithfulness." Aaron makes some astute observations above about healthy community being a place that connects people to people. I love the statement, "God desires us to be connected and the design of your community makes this either really easy or painfully difficult."
Banks statement of concern about leaving community-building to a church made of "fallen" individuals is worthy of note, and there are certainly "counterfeit" expressions of community that seek to exploit connectedness. I don't believe, however, that we should leave this to God and stand apart from taking action, but that "love in action" should bear a redeemed motive and operate under the clear guidance of His spirit.
I don't know much about city planning, but from a non-spiritual perspective, author Jane Jacobs writes on the principles community development. Her sentiments affirm that city health is a function of community planning that facilitates connectivity.
Thought-provoking read, Aaron
I highly recommend "The Commune-ist Manifesto" by James Daniel Forlines as a follow up to this article and discussion. A well thought out read by another city planner.
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