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Urban Planning Series: Learning to Appreciate the City
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Judy Hall's picture

It is important for students of urban ministry to know Jane Jacobs’ work because she is an advocate for the city. She helps us have a positive attitude towards the city, our neighborhood and its streets, which is essential if we are involved in urban ministry.

Jacobs writes about having a positive attitude toward a city neighborhood using the example of Boston’s North End, which she says was originally built “to house the flood of immigrants first from Ireland, then from Eastern Europe and finally from Sicily.”

Jacobs shows people’s contradictory feelings toward the North End in the late ‘50s. On one hand, it was considered a terrible slum. But on the other, it had been rehabilitated by its own people without the help from banks, which refused to loan money to people who were living in a “slum.”

Jacobs mentions a friend of hers who investigated the North End at the time and found that this “slum” had “among the lowest delinquency, disease and infant mortality rates in the city...lowest rate of rent to income...The death rate is low...The TB death rate is very low.” Having been heavily influenced by the current city planning tone of the time, he admitted, “Of course it’s a terrible slum…but of course we have to rebuild it eventually. We’ve got to get those people off the streets.” At the same time, however, he also had to admit, “I often go down there myself just to walk around the streets and feel that wonderful, cheerful street life.”

Jacobs concludes: “Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods...told him the North End had to be a bad place.”

Fifty years later, the highway has come and gone, five elementary schools have closed as families have moved out and the neighborhood has become gentrified, but the North End’s vital streets are still clogged with people who love that “wonderful, cheerful street life!”

Having a positive appreciation for the city greatly changes how we see and do ministry in the city. The Son of God came into this world because he loved the world. Despite our fallenness, we are loved by him. God sent his Son not merely because he felt sorry for us, but because he really loves us! Following his example, we know that before we can ever engage in fruitful ministry, we must first have love and a positive attitude towards the people and city in which we work.

All quotes are taken from: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pg. 9-11.

Learning to Appreciate the

Learning to Appreciate the City By Judy Hall

Guiding Questions: Can a person be an effective urban practioner even if they don’t love the city? When we say God loves the city, are we saying that he loves both the people and the city itself or just the people?

“Having a positive appreciation for the city greatly changes how we see and do ministry in the city.” I can appreciate the importance that cities have purely by the fact of their massive population alone. Though crowded streets, the hustle and bustle along with an inescapable sense of danger doesn’t appeal to everyone, cities do possess a certain charm that needs to be appreciated. I have lived in the Bronx for most of my adult life, but never felt completely safe in the city. I attribute that to the fact that I was born in a quiet rural setting where everybody knew each other, and also to the fact that my initiation to city life was anything but charming. Two muggings at gunpoint, a break-in robbery, and an incident in which my mother was violently beaten in an attempted rape have only reinforced that sense of insecurity and tainted my ability to foster deep love the city. Rather they have more served to reinforce my preference for quieter, more predictable places to ret my head.

While I would not deny my love for people – all kinds of people – I cannot say that I have the same love for cities; charming though they may be. But I think I understand God’s love for cities, and, more importantly, why I should learn to have a positive appreciation for my city. God loves people and cities are where the most souls are gathered. Thus it logically follows that God would love the city. But if I never learn to love the city, is my love for people sufficient or does God require more? Is it the city itself that I’m called to love or the people of the city? And when we speak of God’s love for the city, are we speaking of his love for the people of the city alone or are we also saying that he is enamored with the city itself? Can God use someone to change a city even if they are not enamored with it? I think that may have been Jonah’s problem. Yet, in spite of the fact that he had a beef with that great city, Nineveh, God still used him to usher in revival there. In the end, I pray that the Lord will give me a better testimony than Jonah.

Ray Mott's picture
Submitted by Ray Mott (not verified) on Wed, 06/06/2012 - 7:23pm.

Learning to appreciate the

Learning to appreciate the city would require a theology of place which would consider the idea that God loves the world which he created and calls his own. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world (kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son…” The term “kosmos” suggests a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the world with all of its interrelated parts. It is in the “kosmos” that we have the setting of the drama of redemption which is recounted in the Gospel. The God who created the whole world also loves and will redeem the whole world. Since God loves the whole cosmos we can theologize that God loves every place within it which includes urban places like Boston and its neighborhoods like East Boston.

The city environment and landscape becomes a part of the world that God loves and invites us to love. I remember driving through East Boston with my wife for the first time, noticing that there are no yards. In this densely populated neighborhood the houses are built up against each other and right up to the sidewalk. Initially we thought how sad it was to not have any yards. When we moved here we discovered some great little back yards for recreation, gardening, and family barbeques. Then I came across Jane Jacobs, who described the elements that provide for a safe, urban neighborhood and it sounded exactly like our neighborhood. The close proximity to the sidewalk allowed many people to be able to see what’s going on outside which provides for safety. Through our living here and our learning about the city we continue to discover new ways that we can appreciate and love our neighborhood.

David Searles's picture
Submitted by David Searles (not verified) on Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:58pm.
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