A Place to be Truly Human

Photo by Lance Tyrrell

Photo by Lance Tyrrel

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.


Urban Development, Transportation, and the Christian Church

140425_CityPres-68Urban centers all across the country are moving toward becoming more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented.  Salt Lake City is no exception.  Salt Lake City leaders have been anticipating a thriving downtown for a long time. In a recent Deseret News editorial, Ravell Call reflects on a summer day in the city,

There was a rare energy on city streets brought by crowds headed to a number of events. They came by various modes of transit, which testifies to the present and future value of having an overall city transportation master plan, which is now in the works.

Call goes on to talk about the impact that new development has on the city’s transportation system, and the trend toward a variety of transportation modes.  Call states, “Salt Lake City’s growth and downtown drawing power is the kind that feeds on itself, and additional development will bring additional pressure on all forms of transportation. The city needs to plan for additional demands.”

Add into the mix the impact that factories and automobiles have had on Salt Lake City’s poor air quality and everybody is thinking about and talking about the built environment and transportation.

What about the Christian church? Has the church joined the conversation?  Among the world’s religion, a distinctive of Christianity is it’s focus upon the physical world.  God became flesh and dwelt in the physical world.  God’s mission is to renew the physical world, the entire earth.

Over the past couple of years, I have been in the midst of establishing a new church called City Presbyterian in central Salt Lake City.  My main role is that of a Pastor / Church Planter and a major part of my job is interpreting the place where I serve and applying the story of Christ and his work to the physical world where we live.  My quest to learn more about Salt Lake City has provided opportunities to serve alongside other leaders in our city as part of the advisory group for SLC’s downtown master plan, Central Ninth Neighborhood Business Leaders Group, and with the downtown streetcar stakeholders group.

The ongoing conversation about development and transportation and the task of seeking a more beautiful city with other leaders has led me to ask questions like, “What is the role of the church in city planning, the development of cities, and transportation development?” and “How can the church strive to serve our city better by working alongside city planners, transportation planners, and civic leaders?”  I don’t have many answers to these questions, but they have led me to become more intentional about bringing church leaders, city planners, civic leaders, business owners, cyclists, and non-profit organizers together to talk.

It was these type of questions that led me to seek a venue in which to bring leaders together to talk about the role of the church in the city.  It was these type of questions that sparked my interest in PDX Loft’s Bikeable Church STUDIO.  So this past April, City Presbyterian hosted the SLC Bikeable Church Studio in which we invited Researcher and Urban Missiologist Sean Benesh of PDX Loft to lead.  The Bikeable Church Studio is an exploration of the intersect of transportation and missiology with the goal of presenting a way forward for local churches to think and act in light of these changes that are happening in cities around the world. a conversation using bikeability as a representation of the larger changes taking place in cities.

How important is the conversation about the changes taking place in the built environment to the church?

In an article titled “Why You’re Missing the Boat on Bikeable Churches,” Benesh states,

Throughout church history the church has always adapted around the built environment which includes not only buildings but transportation infrastructure as well. On one hand some can argue that the trajectory of the suburban church with its commuter-based congregants was keeping in step with the changing dynamics of the city. But what happens when cities seek to reverse low-density sprawl and encourage multi-modal transportation? It means talking about bikeable churches and the need to think on that scale is only going to increase.

Are churches in Salt Lake talking about the changing dynamics of our city?  To what extent should the church concern itself with issues such as urban development and transportation?  I am planning to host a Bikeable Church STUDIO again in SLC in the near future.  In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the relationship of the Christian church to the built environment.


Benefits Beyond Bicycles: Salt Lake City’s Protected Bike Lanes

It is a great time to be a bike commuter in Salt Lake City. The first of two protected bike lane projects are underway and a lot more bicycle infrastructure improvements are coming in the very near future. However, with change there is always resistance. Like in many cities across the United States, Salt Lake City’s bike infrastructure improvements are being met with applause, but also with criticism. The newly installed protected bike lanes along 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City have brought with them some criticism, some of the criticism from local business owners.

All too often, we as human beings, resist the very thing that is best for us.  We resist the very thing that would lead to more flourishing. In this case, those who are criticizing the new protected bike lane installment the most are those who may benefit greatly from this project.

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer states, “When they’re used right, protected bike lanes are part of the path to prosperity.” There are a significant number of studies that show that Andersens’ statement is accurate.  Andersen goes on to state,

A new round of entrepreneurial innovators are discovering that protected bike lanes can help modern retailers get more customers in the door and boost sales. Though customers who bike to a store tend to buy less in a single visit, they return more often, spending as much or more over time than the average customer who arrives by car. Because bicycles are quick to park and space-efficient, bikes turn people into the customers of retailers’ dreams: easy to attract, cheap to serve and more likely to return again and again.  http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/here-are-the-4-ways-protected-bike-lanes-help-local-businesses

I personal love riding where there is a protected bike lane. I know that when I ride along 300 South, I’m safer and have more opportunities to interact with fellow riders who are also using the lane. Since the installment of the new lanes, I’ve also found myself stopping more often at my favorite bakery, Sweet Cake, located just steps from the bike lane. Oh, and since, I’m riding and getting exercise, it’s easier for me to justify splurging on their fantastic baked goods. Sweet Cake is one business that will most likely benefit from new bike facilities like protected lanes, especially as more and more people’s preferred mode of transportation has become bicycling, relying less on cars for transportation, and now using what they had budgeted for gas for other kinds of purchases.

Part of the increase in bicycling has to do with cost efficiency. In Mia Birk’s book, Joyride, Earl Blumenauer states, “A bike costs less than a dollar a day to maintain, annual operational costs for a car approach $8,000.” (Joyride, iii)  If this is the case, Cyclists are more likely to invest their money into the small businesses which they are peddling in front of.  Which is why more and more businesses, such as bars and restaurants, are not only encouraged by the close location of bike lanes to their businesses, but are also providing Bike Corrals for their patrons who cycle. In his forthcoming book, The Bohemian’s Guide to Urban Cycling (Coming 2014), Sean Benesh states,

Not only do bike lanes add benefit to local businesses, but so do bike corrals. What is a bike corral? “On-street Bicycle Parking Corrals make efficient use of the parking strip for bicycle parking in areas with high demand. Corrals typically have 6 to 12 bicycle racks in a row and can park 10 to 20 bicycles.”8 This uses space otherwise occupied by one to two cars. Bikeways are great ways to get people to businesses or at least pass them by, but having ample bike parking can be the difference between cyclists stopping or continuing on. (The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling, 62)

Numerous researchers and authors, like Benesh, are showing us that bicycling has positive impacts on small businesses. The benefits of bicycling and the impact that bicycling has beyond cyclists themselves is one of the reasons urban cycling is not just a Portland thing anymore. In fact, Portland’s bicycling crown was just recently taken by New York City.  New York’s cycling story is important because what happens in the largest urban centers is often a showcase for others. Through a 2012 study, “New York City found that protected green lanes had a significant positive impact on local business strength. After the construction of a protected bike lane on 9th Avenue, local businesses saw a 49 percent increase in retail sales. In comparison, local businesses throughout Manhattan only saw a 3 percent increase in retail sales.” NYC DOT, 2012  http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2012-10-measuring-the-street.pdf

The story of American cities is a story of change and bicycles are a part of the story that is vibrant and positive. I applaud Salt Lake City officials who have worked hard and who are working hard to serve our city by striving to make it more “bikeable.” My hope is to see our city and our city’s businesses welcome the trend of urban cycling, not just because cycling is fun and freeing, but because it is also good for businesses and good for the overall health of cities.

A Global God and His People

Last night City Presbyterian’s Ministry Training began. The initial question we talked about was “What do you like about City Presbyterian?” I was blown away by the enthusiastic responses from our church’s core group. All too often, church planting can be discouraging, especially, church planting in a city like Salt Lake City, where historic Christianity has never had a significant presence and where even the established churches tend to be small in size and struggle because of limit resources of all kinds. Last night, I was reminded of the faithfulness of God, how he is at work among us, and how he is growing City Presbyterian into something beautiful, something vivid.

Among the responses to “What do you like about City Presbyterian?” were: “I like the rootedness that the liturgy in the worship service brings to City Pres,” “I like that it is a small church where you can be known and easily find a place to serve,”, and “I like the coffee” (Yes, the coffee is amazing! Most Sundays we serve SLC’s own Blue Copper or Charming Beard from our neighbors across the street, Nobrow Coffee Werks).

However, the response last night that I am still being stirred by this morning was this: “I like City Pres because I get to worship with people from different parts of the world.” Immediately, I was reminded of the story of the Bible, an unfolding story about a God who says to his people, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” In the beginning books of this historical story, we read about a God who gathers a people for himself from a particular culture. Then as the story unfolds, we read about how God begins to include people of all nations among the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh dwelling in our world, laying down his life for the world, and rising again from the dead for the world. The God of the Bible is the one true global God. This is the God that we see at work at City Pres! We are a small church plant, but on any given Sunday, among our 25-30 people who are present for worship, there is a good chance that you might meet someone from China. There is a good chance that you might meet someone from Korea. There is a good chance that you might meet someone from Columbia. Even among the Americans present, a variety of ethnicities.

To answer the question that I asked last night, “What do you like about City Presbyterian?” One of my responses is this: I love that at City Presbyterian I get a glimpse of where the story is moving, a glimpse of the vivid city, made up of people of all nations, worshiping the one true God. God is a global God who gathers his people. Even in the midst of our small church plant, I’m reminded of the wonderful words of Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Toward the Vivid City

New York City

Photo by Chris Isherwood

On an ordinary Thursday night at the University of Nebraska, just after studying with friends, an extraordinary question was asked. “Do you want to go to New York City tomorrow?” Being a typical college student, eager to explore the world, while at the same time not in to calculated planning, I didn’t hesitate to answer, “Sure, let’s do it!” So the weekend adventure began which stirred in me a greater love for density and diversity, for vibrancy and authenticity, the vivid city!

Our time in New York was brief, very brief. We left Lincoln, Nebraska at 5:00 PM on a Friday and drove 24 hours straight, into the heart of Manhattan. Of the three friends of mine and I, not of us were into calculated planning and so we found a few things on the map that we wanted to see and we drove around the city for a quick peek at each of them. Broadway, The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Harlem’s Cotton Club because of my interest in Jazz music. Without a plan, and with very little money in our pockets, a quick peek, a glimpse, was really all that we experienced of NYC before having to drive back to Lincoln the next day. A glimpse of the city.

Since then I’ve learned a little about glimpses. Getting a glimpse of something good leads to a greater desire for gazing toward something good. Put a little differently, getting a taste of something good leads to wanting to feast on something good.

During my early years of life, I got glimpses of cities that birth a desire to dwell in cities. Chicago was one of those cities that I dwelt for a time. St. Louis was another. Now, Salt Lake City is the city where I dwell. However, whether we have opportunities to just glimpse at cities, dwell in cities, or we simply desire a taste of the city, our desire is never satisfied. There is such beauty in the city, such vividness, and yet at the same time, such brokenness. I long for a better city! One of my favorite things about the story that God tells, the unfolding story of the Bible, is that it is a story with a trajectory toward a beautiful and enduring city, a city not broken, but only brimming over with beauty. I love cities, I love my city, but I’m not fully satisfied with glimpses, tastes, or even dwelling here. The city I long for, the city I’m built for, is the city which is to come. The Bible tells us that this city is where God and his people dwell. It’s the place where God and his people dwell and are fully satisfied. This city is a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).

The story tells us that way to the city is by way of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He is the one who was led outside the city to be crucified and to be denied the presence of God, his loving Father, in order for us to experience the presence of God in a beautiful and vivid city that is come. It is toward the vivid city, with the presence of God, that I now venture!