Why Cities Matter
by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard
Pretty much everybody doing anything today has to be thinking about how to respond to urbanism, especially in a global but also a developed world context. While it’s clearly too early to proclaim the “death of the suburb” clearly cities have experienced a resurgence. New York, LA, and San Francisco are at all time population highs. The District of Columbia and Philadelphia grew for the first time since 1950 according to the latest census.
Religion has been one of those movements that has to respond to urbanism. Christianity was traditionally an anchor of cities, especially the Catholic Church which was a key agency of assimilating of immigrants into American society, among other things.
However, in recent decades the urban church went into decline while the heartland of Christianity moved to the suburbs (along with rural and small town environments where it had always been strong). The growth of mega-churches to some extent parallels the rise of the mega-mall. Those steeped in this more suburban milieu need to have adjust their thinking if they want to succeed in penetrating a more urban one.
The book “Why Cities Matter” by Stephen Um of Citylife Church in Boston and Justin Buzzard of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley is an attempt to provoke that thinking. It’s fairly brief at only six chapters (of which I’ll talk about five), but covers some interesting ground.
The first couple of chapters make the case for why cities are important in general. I actually think this is a pretty good general purpose overview of the case for urbanism quite apart from any religious context.
One thing that really caught my eye was when they tackled the matter of why some cities fail. They seem to anticipate the objection that if cities are so great, why are so many of them like Detroit so screwed up? The answer they give is diversity – in the broadest sense of the word. Detroit is very racially diverse, but lacked economic diversity. As they put it:
The one phenomenon guaranteed to stifle the power of density is homogeneity. In other words, if everyone in a city does the same thing for work, thinks along the same lines, and lives relatively similar lives, no matter how densely clustered they may be, that city will lack the necessary innovation capital needed to sustain itself over the long haul.
Or as they put it in a way I’d never read elsewhere:
Density + Diversity = Multiplication
Density – Diversity = Addition
In effect, the non-diverse city is simply scaling horizontally as it grows. And when that growth stops, as it inevitably will, the authors note the obvious implication: “When the bottom falls out on a density-minus-diversity city, population addition becomes subtraction and there is no platform left on which to rebuild.”
The third chapter is a Biblical case for the city. I think this is particularly key and is something far too many people trying to adapt to cities and urbanism – the auto companies, for example – haven’t really done. What the authors are doing is re-telling the narrative of their own movement in an urban context. It’s not just that cities are important. But you have to be able to see how what you do has some authentic urban component to it so that you see the city as part of you, not just some foreign country you have to go figure out.
Having taken a look at the narrative of Christianity as authentically urban, they then turn for two chapters towards how to contextualize Christianity to serve the city. This starts with understanding the city itself on its own terms. In short, it starts with knowing the city’s story. Some questions they suggest asking include:
1. What is your city’s history?
2. What are your city’s values?
3. What are your city’s dreams?
4. What are your city’s fears?
5. What is your city’s ethos?
I’ve noted before how urban church leaders like Tim Keller have been willing to ask themselves the tough question of what they need to do adapt their ministry to the needs of their city, in contrast to too many urbanists themselves. How many urbanists really ask themselves these questions? How many of them go on an anthropology mission to understand their city? Too often, it doesn’t seem like many do. Because so frequently it’s the exact same “school solutions” that are proposed in city after city with little to indicate they’ve been seriously thought about in relation to the city in question: light rail, bike lanes, tech startups, mixed use, density, etc., etc., etc.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these or that sometimes you can’t just import a good idea once it’s been perfected elsewhere. Lots of mass consumer products succeed. However, if your entire plan for your city is based on off the shelf ideas from elsewhere, it’s probably going to fall far short of your ambitions.
I find it ironic that it is religious leaders, who I would expect might argue that they are selling the Ultimate Product, actually seem to be more advanced in seeking to contextualize what they do than do some urbanists themselves.