“If You Build It, They Will Come”: Do Big Events or Projects Change Cities?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 9, 2014 by urbanphile

We can’t fix a city’s problems with big events. I recently spent a few days in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1996, Atlanta had the distinction of hosting the Summer Olympics. City planners saw the Olympics as the perfect excuse to rebuild and restore a blighted section of the city near Georgia Tech’s campus. I can remember the buzz about this amazing redevelopment of the area and how it would transform the lives of the people who lived in that area. During my recent trip to Atlanta I heard residents blaming the Olympics development plan for messing things up in the city. When the city of Atlanta redeveloped the area around Olympic Park they had to move everyone out of that neighborhood. When the Olympics were over, the area was now more dressed up and suited for a higher-rent community. In effect, the city of Atlanta made the poor of that community move further away from downtown. They did not actually solve or improve anything. In fact, the former residents of that neighborhood only faced disruption at the hands of city planners. (Here is a book discussing gentrification.)

Just recently Business Insider featured an article about cities bidding for the Olympics. Oslo, Norway pulled their bid from consideration for hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022. This leaves only two cities in the running, Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China. No one else wants to undertake the huge debt to host a month-long event and then leave behind buildings and structures that provide little benefit to the city. It was once a major prestige to host such a global spectacle, they believed the big event would bring in big revenue. That just isn’t case.

Most cities around the world aren’t trying to court the Olympic committee, but they have still succumbed to this mindset. City leaders become obsessed with skyscraper or building a new city plaza. They sell the idea by using phrases like “boost the construction sector” or “attract investors” or “put the city on the map”. But these big, sparkly, multimillion dollar projects rarely yield much for a city. The simple fact is we can’t just build our way into a better city.

Economics are critical for a city’s survival. If the economic stream of a city is gutted, there is no city in the world that could remain vibrant. Instead of looking for these big events or projects as the quick-fix solution to their economic woes, city leaders would do better to create a culture of entrepreneurial risk-taking and small business development. The focus needs to change from building buildings to building people. We have been trying to fix problems of urban poverty with buildings for decades and it still isn’t working. We need to find ways to restore economic opportunities at the grass roots level. It takes more time, energy, and risky investment, but it will yield far better results.


Radical or Ordinary: How Does Christianity Thrive?

Posted in book review, Christian living, church structure, consumerism, missional, transformation with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2014 by urbanphile

Ordinary is the new Radical. Michael Horton’s newest book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, campaigns for the church to reconsider her calling to be faithful in ordinary Christian living. This is according to a Christianity Today book review by Philip Cary. (FullOrdinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World disclosure: I have only read the review of the book, but not the book…yet.) According to the review, Horton critiques the trendy obsession with “radical” obedience.Instead, he suggests that Christians plant themselves where they are. Instead of being obsessed with changing the world tomorrow, live faithfully by preaching the word, serving the local church, and giving a long commitment.

The cover design of the book and use of the term “radical” indicates the book Radical by David Platt might be in his cross-hairs. Platt’s book looks at the “American dream” and sees a contradiction with the Bible. The book came from a sermon series preached at the Church at Brook Hills, nestled in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, AL. The book calls for readers to live less for themselves and live for Jesus in the way of Jesus. Giving to the poor, investing your lives with those who who have been marginalized or neglected by ministry efforts, and going with the message of the gospel to all parts of the globe. The book became wildly popular and was influential in many taking extraordinary steps in radical obedience to Jesus. Some Christian families took in foster children and/or adopted children. Others sold their large, comfortable houses and moved to locations where they could better serve those who had little.

Is Ordinary the way to go?

I understand Michael Horton’s concerns. All over the country, Christians are clamoring to be a part of churches that do extraordinary things. Churches, particularly of the mega variety, sensationalize their ministries and missions in such ways that it out-cools the smaller, simpler local churches. Christians will jump to new churches that appear to be doing such incredible things because they want to be a part of a church that does promotes such tweet-worthy endeavors. I was at a church that was hyping their missions emphasis by bragging that their church alone was going to send short-term missions teams to all 24 time zones (until they realized that one time zone had very few people in it). Sensationalized ministry and mission draws a lot of attention for a time, but if you leave a church to go to a different one doing bigger and better things, then chances are you will leave that church for the next church that does even bigger and better things. Celebrity pastors, rock concert worship performances, and hyped-up ministry campaigns can charm us into zombie-like enslavement to consumeristic Christianity.Front Cover

Horton’s call for Christians to live deeply where they are and live committed to a local church is a good one. The longer I’m around on this planet, the more I’m struck by the long-term potential impact of a church. All over the world there are small, simple, extremely uncool churches who are faithfully making disciples of Jesus and serving people in their communities. Most often these churches have pastors that come and go, but they have members who have committed for the long term. Odds are many of these churches are riddled with inter-relational troubles, but they stumble forward in service of our King. Long-term faithfulness in the place where God has put us doesn’t sound radical and yet it is (Jer. 29:4-7).

Is Radical the way to go?

I also understand David Platt’s concerns. I see the average, middle-class life and I see families living in a luxury that is shared with only a few people. We shuttle our kids to soccer practices and games and birthday parties and concerts and park in garages larger than most homes around the world. Thousands of dollars are spent on birthdays and holidays; much of it is spent on our families. This lifestyle takes what God has provided and spends it on ourselves. Then we fall into patterns of busyness that leave no room for serving the poor and marginalized. The urgency of the gospel is drowned out by getting our kids to one pleasant activity after another. It is no wonder that Platt called for the church to reconsider the biblical call to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. The story told by Jesus to illustrate what this means is the one about the good Samaritan who took great risks and made great sacrifices of time and resources to help a nobody (Luke 10:25-37).

The call to live radically is not intended to be guilt-inducing or works-righteousness oriented. There is a recognition that many of us built up a lifestyle for ourselves that needs to be dismantled so we can live faithfully in the way of Jesus. Nobody is suggesting this is an easy move, but it is a necessary one. It troubles me that whenever someone reminds us of the biblical injunction to do something difficult, the grace police come out with accusations of trying to earn God’s grace by living radically. The Bible is indisputably clear that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor and we have no other recourse except to turn in faith to the Messiah Jesus. And the Bible is equally clear that, now that we live in God’s grace, we can and should put everything on the line for God’s glory. This is not a call to go find the church with the sexiest radical ministries or the pastor with the preaching that makes it hurt so good. This is a call to intentionally live our lives where we are, with our orientation on serving Christ and his kingdom.

But that is not the whole story. Christians, as a whole, are overwhelmingly middle-class and in places where there are a lot of other Christians. If we all live faithfully in our contexts–as wonderful as that would be–there would be large segments of the global population who would be untouched by our faithful service. In our cities, we tend to live in the places where it is safe and the schools are good. Who will serve the communities mired in poverty which lack the basic structures that would enable them to be lifted out of it? Who will serve 1 billion slum dwellers around the world? Who will share this message of God’s grace to the 2 billion people who live beyond the reach of a faithful church worshiping in their language?

A solution found in church history

Michael Horton’s call to live faithfully right where you are seems incomplete. David Platt’s call to live radically is perceived to be too extreme for the ordinary Christian. What do we do with this apparent conflict? When we look back at 2000 years of our history as the church, the names that come to mind are those who took radical steps to live obediently to the radical gospel of Jesus. We know the story of Paul, a converted Christian-hunter, who gave everything to take the gospel to cities and provinces that had yet heard the news. Perhaps we can recall St. Francis of Assisi, who left his comfortable lifestyle to preach among the poor. Or, William Carey who put his whole family in jeopardy in order to go to a part of the world that lacked a gospel witness. Or, in our contemporary era, Viv Grigg giving up a comfortable ministry with middle class university students in order to share Christ in the slums of Manila (you can read Grigg’s story here). There are thousands of others who have responded to the gospel of Christ by taking radical steps.

St. Francis, William Carey, and Viv Grigg took courageous steps to obey the call of Christ on their lives. The challenge in doing so was the church. The church’s default ministry orientation is to her immediate community. In the case of each of these men, they had to develop another structure for those who felt called to a more radical type of obedience, whether it was to the poor in the same city or crossing oceans with the message of the gospel. Throughout Christian history, there have been monastic orders and missionary societies that have provided a structure for those wishing to follow Christ radically. In 1973 the late Ralph Winter gave an address promoting the two structures used by God for his redemptive purposes. One structure we readily acknowledge is the church. We tend to be more reluctant to acknowledge the validity and role of the missionary structure. Yet, it is precisely this structure that continues to push the church beyond the status quo, by going to places where the church is not yet established. The church as a whole has thrived best when these two structures are both present and mutually supportive.

So, we need Michael Horton’s message to invest deeply where God has placed us with an unrelenting commitment to the local church and the ministry of the gospel. And we need David Platt’s message to break out of a mediocre Christian life in order to serve God more radically by serving the poor and going to people who have been beyond the reach of the established church.

Urbanization Fosters Democracy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 6, 2014 by urbanphile

Two news stories serve to remind us of the positive potential of urbanization. Both stories are in countries not known as beacons of democracy. For the first time in a long time women in Afghanistan are able to vote in their elections. It is unprecedented because during the Taliban era this was unthinkable. The news reports indicate that women are braving the voting stations in the cities of the war-torn nation. In a country women are too often treated like property, this progressive event could only happen in cities. Social change happens in places where news ideas are generated and there are enough people to adopt and spread these new ideas. Cities are such places.

The other story comes out of China. Thousands of Christians have come together to help save a church building in Wenzhou (a city with a long Christian heritage). It seems a local politician decided to tear down this church building, but with no legal grounding to do so. These Christians organized a peaceful protest by staying on the church grounds around the clock to prevent its destruction. In a fractured and disconnected society politicians can rule without regard for individual rights or justice. But in a city, people have opportunities to stand up to such blatant injustice. There is an empowering effect that comes with urbanization. Thousands of Chinese Christians have mounted an extraordinary, round-the-clock defence of a church in a city known as the 'Jerusalem of the East'

The democratizing effect of urbanization is not a new phenomenon. History tells of many dictators who have been overthrown by the groundswell of empowered urban dwellers. The EDSA Revolution in Manila, Philippines effectively took down the Marcos regime. The Arab Spring a few years ago was a testimony to the strength of urban numbers. Although urbanization brings many difficulties and can facilitate exploitation, it also becomes a powerful force against government and political abuses all over the world.

Poverty and Segregation

Posted in gentrification, the poor, urban density, urban poverty, urban transformation with tags , , , on March 27, 2014 by urbanphile

The Atlantic ran an article by Richard Florida on American cities and the geography of poverty. Florida draws on the findings of a report by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon. I think this is an important topic to consider, because the ways we design, legislate, and administrate our cities depends on clear thinking about this issue. A lack of clear thinking about this can lead to superficial legislation that does not aid the urban poor. Here are a few thoughts on the report and the conclusions we might draw from it.

First, don’t be thrown off by the word “segregation”. In the aftermath of racial segregation, this word might conjure up images of forced separation of the rich and the poor. By and large the poor live in places they can afford to live. Wealthy communities remain wealthy communities because the poor cannot afford to live there. In this report “segregation” is used to denote geographical separation regardless of the causes.

The geography of poverty matters. As the report by Bischoff and Reardon states, there enough studies that show causal links between poor neighborhoods and human impact to cause us to pay attention. We, middle-class Americans, have a tendency to think very individualistically about wealth accumulation. Quite often it is because family and neighborhood factors were so stable and supportive that we didn’t notice the boost it gave us. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods aren’t just poor, but they don’t have the same quality of education, public libraries, police protection, and even public maintenance. The less tangible consequence of hailing from a blighted neighborhood is the stigma one carries with them. It can impact education, employment, bank loans, and even social interaction. In other words, ares of concentrated poverty should draw our attention and concern.

Not all concentrated poverty is equal. There are some advantages to living in a poor neighborhood for some people. If they are recently resettled refugees then they need access to their own community for language, culture, and even job needs. It is easier for children of immigrants to be near other children of immigrants rather than in a less multicultural suburb. There are also proximity needs. If people don’t have access to private transportation, then they need access to public transportation or walkability. People live where they do for complex reasons.

It was suggested in Richard Florida’s post that there is significance in the fact that poverty is more segregated in higher density cities. A lot of other factors need to be considered to interpret this observation. High density exists for a reason. It tends to be the older cities (northeast and midwest) that are most dense. This makes sense because they are the oldest cities and grew at a time before the automobile became the default mode of transportation in American cities. High density usually means high demand for property which also means high cost. As much as we lament some of the impact of gentrification, it is not something we can just stop. The poor in more population dense contexts are more often renters, which means they subject to less sought after locations. Newer cities are less dense and less economically segregated…so far. I wonder if this will begin to change over time. I also wonder if the suburbanization of poverty is going to flip some of the findings of this study. The primary census data they are using is from 1970-2000. Could it be that changes over the 14 years are changing some of those findings? Does a history land ownership impact the results of the study?

The report does still serve to call attention to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and our response. There have been efforts in the past to tear up the socioeconomic pavement and try to create mixed class neighborhoods. This has been challenging, tedious, and has yielded few good reports. And our answer can’t be simply to pump in middle class families into a poor neighborhood. It runs the risk of gentrifying a neighborhood and making it inhospitable for poorer families. Robert Lupton urges us to consider a small number of people who enter a neighborhood to seek its welfare. It is a slow way to bring change to neighborhood, but it is a proven way.

Urban Parks are the Best

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 28, 2014 by urbanphile

Just one block from where I’m staying in Taipei is urban park. It is the 228 Peace Memorial Park. On a whim I walked over there after getting some coffee. The park was buzzing with activity. people were walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing, and even practicing martial arts. There were the elderly intermingled with young children. Today there was a wedding going in part of the park. And not too far away there was an orchestra playing music for all to enjoy. It was not a big park, maybe six or eight city blocks, but it is green space in the midst of urban density and it is a public space for everyone: rich or poor, young or old, local or visitor.

I have been to my fair share of suburban parks. I get depressed going to them. They lack life unless there is a baseball game going on. They feel like a waste of tax dollars and a good lawnmower. They sprawl endlessly and generally feel neglected (even if it is maintained).

The little urban park in Taipei isn’t unique among urban parks. It is a natural phenomenon when these small public spaces are carved out of urban density. They are an open space for people to gather. They attract all of the diversity of the city to entertain in the city’s living room. Urban parks become one of life’s little joys that add to a thriving city life.

Gentrification is not a Topic to Ignore

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 22, 2014 by urbanphile

“I don’t want to mention the ‘g’ word.” The “g” word she was referencing was “gentrification.”  I heard one of the presenters at a recent seminar on the topic of “urban placemaking” say this as she told of her work in niche urban development. She was salvaging heritage buildings by turning them into beautiful houses and weaving the residents into a real neighborhood. Her presentation was combined with two other presentations. One was from an entrepreneur who has started niche artisan cafes and bakeries in the midst of high-rise concrete apartment blocks. The third presentation was from erudite architect who gave compelling reasons to design buildings inside and out that is both aesthetically pleasing and highly usable by people. Each presenter was passionate about making better cities and the relationship between physical space (and built environment) and the flourishing of urban Imagedwellers.

But my ears registered a disturbance in the force when I heard the desire to avoid the “g” word. It struck me that while all three presenters aim to beautify the city, their plans were primarily for those wealthy enough to use disposable income for such beauty. Each of them presented ideas that would raise the image of the neighborhood and attract the middle and upper class. One of the presentations quite clearly portrayed urban renewal in a community that was famously blighted by bringing back to the city home owners through highly appealing urban home designs. This is precisely what gentrification is. It is the arrival of middle and upper class land owners in older, run-down communities. Gentrification hotly debated in cities all around the world and for good reason. It is not as simple as making old neighborhoods newer and shinier. The changes in the community impact the old residents of the community, sometimes forcing them out to other locations.

Returning to the seminar I attended. I asked the presenters about possible solutions for placemaking for the urban poor. This is an important consideration since two out of seven people in the world are considered the urban poor. I was hopeful that these creative and inspiring presenters would regale me with wonderful ideas for make urban places better for those without access to plump bank accounts. Their responses were thoroughly uninspiring. One of the presenters even mentioned a soup kitchen for the poor. It was telling to me that the presenters seemed to consider good places and well-designed structures only relevant for the haves. And for the have-nots, we will just make sure they have a bit of food for a day. This is the danger of not taking an honest assessment of gentrification and its impact on all of the people in the community.

There is a brand new book that wrestles with this very important topic of gentrification: Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. The contributors bring the experience of those seeking the good of their cities as well as nuanced thinking about a complex issue. The book is available as a paperback or an e-book. Check it out.

Income Inequality

Posted in Uncategorized on January 9, 2014 by urbanphile

The Atlantic posted on article that seeks to demythologize the causes of income inequality. The article made this claim:

Don’t mind the rich-poor gap. Statistical analysis shows three factors—overall income growth, marriages, and local government spending—matter most for poorer children chasing the American Dream. 

But this is actually a deceptive way of looking at things. Income inequality is far more complex than these three factors. And even further reflection into these three factors reveals that a superficial fix is not the answer.

The rich-poor gap is not simply a matter of some individuals being rich while other are poor. It is directly related to the structures (both formal and informal) that benefit large corporations and spending that does not lead to local government spending. Local government spending relies on local tax dollars. Many big box stores and other large companies prefer to develop on unincorporated land further where tax rates are lower. Of course the tax rates are lower because it was often rural farmland. When this happens it draws tax dollars away from local communities where more people live. In other words, if we want local government spending, then we need to support businesses that pay taxes in our communities.