It’s survival in the city
When you live from day to day
City streets don’t have much pity
When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay.
.. The Eagles

The classic Eagles song tells one side of the story. William Cronon notes that for many of us cities have “represented all that [is] most unnatural about human life… a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.” (Cronon, 1992. 17) This dualistic view has the negative effect of limiting creative and redemptive engagement in our urban places. We must move beyond the duality of country good, urban bad: a more nuanced engagement is needed.

imageBut, what is a city? Is a city different than a town or a hamlet? Is a city defined by population, geography, or function, or some combination of these? In his book The City Shaped, Spiro Kostoff offers two popular definitions for the city, both dating back to 1938. “For L. Wirth, a city is a ‘restively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.’ For Mumford, a city is a ‘point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community.’” (Cronon, 1992. 26) More recently, Tim Keller defines city as “a walkable, shared, mixed-use, diverse area. It is a place of commerce, residence, culture and politics.” (Cronon, 1992. 26) This is what we call a functional definition.

Broadly speaking there are three models of city, organized by function. Architect Kevin Lynch delineates these as cosmic, practical, and organic. The “cosmic” city is designed to reflect the core of a belief system. Ancient Chinese capitals were laid out in perfect squares, with their twelve gates representing the months of the year. The “practical” city is imagined after a machine, and grows as new parts are added and old parts altered. New York is a practical city.

The third type is the “organic” city. Here functions are arranged organically, with cohesion, access and function acting together. Streets may meander, and neighbourhoods and boroughs are joined together in the greater labyrinth. London, England is a good example of an organic city, as are Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC.

“Show me your city and I will show you what it is you long for.” (Ward, 2003. 467)

Why concern ourselves with the city? More than 80% of Canadians now live in cities, and this proportion will increase. The city is the place where most people will exercise their “skilled mastery” (Genesis 1, “radah”) in this century. This will translate into place-making in the city. Jacques Ellul writes,

The city dweller becomes someone else because of the city. And the city can become something else because of God’s presence and the results in the life of a man [sic] who has met God. And so a complex cacophony raises its blaring voice, and only God can see and make harmony of it. (Ellul, 1970. 44)

Our task in skilled mastery doesn’t stop with farmers and craftsmen, but includes shaping the urban landscape. This becomes only more important when we realize that our environments in turn will shape us. Will our environment make us more human, or less? Will our urban places help us to thrive, and offer us a context for shalom, encouraging practices that make space for the Kingdom? Even in the city, place-making is determined by a master-story.

The narratives which shape our cities are complex. The forces of global mapping privilege the universal in the name of profit. Graham Ward writes that, “the major issues affecting a global city are increasingly less local, or even national – they are international. This is mainly because it is an international profile that the major cities of the world are competing for in order to attract investment.” (Ward, 2005. 30) Thus the ability to make choices is often suspended, transferred to multinational corporations where unelected leaders wield enormous power. Ramachandra identifies the global village, in the sense of a mutually enriching exchange, as a myth. (Ramachandra, 2006)

What, then, does characterize global cities? According to Ward, the answer is fear and anxiety. He writes that, “The global, post-secular city [London] is the home of the migrant soul. Citizens are caught between two public narratives: the potential violence of coexisting cultural differences, and the fear of the erasure of difference.” (Ward, 2005. 39) He notes that both these narratives are totalitarian and depoliticizing (they do not lead to engagement). Ward argues that the alternative is a “practice of living that… negotiates difference without assimilation.” (Ward, 2005. 39)

Some say that tolerance is a Canadian virtue, and certainly an ideal to which liberal Canadian elites aspire. But tolerance is not a Christian ideal: rather, our engagement is a politics of resistance rooted in a paradox. David Bentley Hart frames the paradox like this: “He is not the high who stands over against the low, but is the infinite act of existence that gives high and low a place.” (Hart, 2003) The essential practice is the Eucharist, which “creates space for the diversity of human voices to participate.” (Sheldrake, 2001. 168) The Church is an anticipation of the eschatological humanity, with the Eucharist a counter-narrative of globalization that builds the global Body of Christ in every place, with all its beautiful diversity.

(This is the first half of an introductory chapter that will appear in “Soul of the City: Mapping the Spiritual Geography of Eleven Canadian Cities,” later this fall.)