Redeeming Civic Life in the Commons — The City Online - Houston Baptist University

Redeeming Civic Life in the Commons

by Eric O. Jacobsen on September 21, 2011

From the Winter 2009 edition of The City, Eric O. Jacobsen writes on redeeming the commons.

Driving from Seattle to Steven’s Pass along Highway 2, takes you right through a small city called Monroe. Nestled near the base of the Cascade Mountains and skirting the meandering path of the Skykomish River, this town of 16,000 could very well be a compact oasis of civilization to rival anything one would find in Switzerland or in the Lake District of England. But Monroe is nothing of the sort. It is an ugly collection of strip malls, oversized signs, and utility wires. In short, it is pretty much indistinguishable from most places you are likely to see when driving from one destination to another in this country.

We’ve come to expect this kind of baseline ugliness in our small towns and even in many of our major cities as well. But why should the public realm in one of the richest and most advanced civilizations in the world look this way? Isn’t the public square where we are supposed to show the world and ourselves what we are capable of when we work together? What do such low expectations about the visual culture of our public realm tell us about ourselves and about our values? I think that this regrettable condition may very well be connected to two valuable words that have virtually dropped out of our national lexicon in the past few generations.

The words civic and commons represent important aspects of our shared life that have been badly obscured, undergoing subtle transformations from being concrete notions to abstractions. This fact is especially concerning because there seems to be so little awareness of how these important words atrophied in the recent past, and because in understanding the special case the commons, we can achieve in part a redemption of our civic life.

I’ll begin with the concept of civic, which is connected to the word city. The word city continues to be used as much today as it ever was, but what we call cities today represents a significant deviation from the way cities have been understood throughout much of history. This change can be best understood by seeing the city in relation to the neighborhood.

The architect Leon Krier uses the analogy of a pizza to demonstrate the difference between the traditional and contemporary way of understanding this relationship in his book, Architecture:  Choice or Fate. A traditional city, according to Krier, is like a pizza. There are lots of different sizes and types of pizza and they are generally well regarded. One feature of a pizza is that one slice of pizza is representative of the whole. That is to say, whatever kind of pizza you have, each slice will contain most of the ingredients that make it an enjoyable culinary experience. For example, if you have a Hawaiian pizza and receive a slice that doesn’t have any Canadian Bacon, you are justified in feeling cheated.

Krier claims that cities are like pizzas and slices of pizza are like neighborhoods. That is to say every neighborhood should contain most of what you love about the particular city which contains the neighborhood. You should be able to experience and enjoy the city at the level of your neighborhood.

Yet in the aftermath of World War II, planners decided that there was a more rational way to think about the city. Through a policy tool known as functional zoning, they began to separate the functions of the city into different geographical zones. Hence the emergence of a residential zone for houses, a retail zone for shopping, a commercial zone for working, and a recreational zone for playing.

This idea may have had some merit, but Krier is not alone in remaining unconvinced of its wisdom. In his mind, dividing up the city in this way makes about as much sense as dividing up the ingredients of a pizza and serving them separately. It may have the same nutritional value, but almost all of the enjoyment of the pizza gets lost in the translation. In the same way, our cities today have many of the same components of traditional cities, but because everything is separated by function, cities today are much less interesting and enjoyable than they were before. What we have now is a rationalized grouping of the functions of the city without a city in and of itself.

The second word I want to highlight is the word commons, which typically refers to “a piece of open land for public use.” Although “the commons” was a central aspect of community life in the first American towns, the idea embodied in this word has almost disappeared from our imagination as a result of our changing conception of the functions that buildings and other structures play in the town fabric. According to Daniel Solomon in his book Global City Blues, town fabric has traditionally served three functions:

1. It houses people and provides places for work and their private needs.

2. It creates settings for monuments.

3. It shapes and defines the outdoor public spaces of a town.

Solomon holds that contemporary building practices have reduced the functions of buildings to just the first of these purposes. Most buildings today exist to enclose space for certain activities. Buildings are valued chiefly from an interior perspective for the amount of square footage that they enclose. The outside of a building is only considered insofar as it can facilitate bringing people into the building. That is to say, the outside space is used for parking and signage.

In some cases, contemporary buildings are built for monumental purposes, but what is forgotten is that the monuments depend on the fabric of buildings that allow them to stand out in the cityscape. What is almost completely off the radar is the notion that buildings shape the public realm. The architect Colin Rowe in his book Collage City helped to bring this to light—he used ground figure renderings to draw our attention not to the shapes of the buildings themselves, but to the shapes created by the space between the buildings.

Traditionally, good urbanism sought to make the public realm a pleasant place to enjoy and to interact with ones fellow neighbors. A well conceived outdoor space creates a kind of hallway along which it is pleasant to walk and rooms that invite people to stop and relax. Contemporary cities, by way of contrast, tend to have amorphous spaces that are not good for much except for parking. If we compare the way buildings are sited in the context of pre and post-war neighborhoods we see this difference dramatically. It should come as no surprise then that the commons, understood as a piece of open land for public use, has almost disappeared from our contemporary lexicon. However, when people encounter a space functioning as a commons, they tend to respond positively to it and gather there.

I highlight these two areas so that we can begin to focus our attention as Christians on the redemption of civic life. The classic text to begin thinking about our relationship with our geographic setting is Jeremiah 29:7. “Seek the welfare of the city into which you have been called, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The context here is the Jewish exiles from Jerusalem who are living in Babylon. They’ve just been told that they will have to remain in exile for another 70 years and the verse we read is Jeremiah’s advice for coping with living in a foreign country. He tells them to seek the welfare—or shalom—of the city.

Shalom can be translated as peace, but it is a form of the word meaning more than just absence of conflict. Peace here means wholeness and justice—a community that is thriving. So shalom describes God’s expectation for the cities in which we find ourselves. It is a word of specific content.

The other aspect of shalom that I want to point out is its locus. Jeremiah first tells them to get married, have kids, plant gardens. We can picture him directing his comments to individual households at that point. And then he turns his attention outward—outside of the walls of their individual houses and comments on what the city should be like. The locus for Jeremiah’s specific command to shalom is not the individual household, but the commons and other more public places in between the houses. Whatever shalom means by way of specific characteristics, we must first acknowledge that it is a public or shared vision for life together.

This is important for us to consider given the consequences of fifty years of functional zoning, which have been twofold with regards to this passage. On the one hand our cities have become less shalom-like. And on the other hand, while geographic separation of activities according to function may or may not be a good idea for the purpose of those specific activities, it certainly has a detrimental effect on the space between: the public square.

In order to find a way forward towards a redeemed vision of shared life of shalom in the city, we are going to need to go back a bit into the origins of functional zoning in order to get a glimpse of the values embedded in this planning practice.

Zoning in this country technically began in New York City in 1916, but by the end of World War II it had become the dominant mode of land use regulation in just about every city in the United States. A watershed event for functional zoning was a Supreme Court case argued in 1926 that decided cities did have rights to restrict land uses according to functional zones.

Prior to this decision, land use was regulated by municipalities, but it was done primarily through nuisance laws. If someone was planning to build something next door to your house that would have been dangerous, noisy, or smelly for your family; the city could have deemed that project incompatible with residential character of neighborhood and prohibited it.

The case that we will be examining came about when the town of Euclid (which is a suburb of Cleveland) passed a zoning law prohibiting commercial buildings and apartment buildings in a particular residential zone of the town. A local real estate company who owned land in the newly designated residential section had planned to develop that land for commercial purposes, and felt that the creation of a residential zone made their land less valuable and therefore constituted an unfair intrusion on their land rights.

The case of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty then became a watershed case in land use law and we will be using it to provide some insights into the values embedded in contemporary zoning . I am not a legal scholar and I am not trying to argue that the Supreme Court got it wrong. One could disagree with the premise of functional zoning, but still believe that it is not a constitutional issue and that the federal government has no business getting involved in this discussion. My point in looking at this case, is simply to get a glimpse into the values that shaped the direction that land use patterns took in the post-war years. We will use these implicit values as a jumping off point for evaluating how shalom-like our contemporary neighborhoods actually are.

The first thing that we will observe is the assumptions about children and families embedded into functional zoning. The well-being of children is used as a justification for the need for functional zoning. This particular passage is one of many references to children:

Some of the grounds for this conclusion are promotion of the health and security from injury of children and others by separating dwelling houses from territory devoted to trade and industry.

Now what we picture when we read this is the notion of protecting children from the dangers of a particular kind of trade and industry. One could think of a slaughterhouse or a smelter. But I want you to think more broadly about trade and industry—what about a coffee shop or a corner grocery, or a barbershop?  Do children need protection from these kinds of places?

If we think about the broad scope of zoning regulation, we realize that what is intended here is to protect children not from butchers knives and burning sulfur, but rather the intent is to protect children from society at large. This law when implemented would protect a ten-year old boy from walking to a corner store to buy orange juice for his family or to the barbershop to deliver a message to his dad.

The implicit value expressed in this legislation with regard to children is what Delores Hayden refers to as the “home as refuge” model. The home is a place where children are protected from the larger society. Children are kept in the home safe from society until they are old enough to form their own families. At that time they will protect their families from public life.

This ideal, interestingly enough, is a holdover from the Victorian era and can be linked to Christian (specifically Evangelical) thinking. The home within that community was considered to be a spiritually nurturing place, while society was understood as mostly evil. Christian men steel themselves each day to go out and do battle in the public realm, but come home each night to a haven of spirituality. A major figure that actually helped to perpetuate this ideal for evangelicals was William Wilberforce. Robert Fishman documents his influence in Bourgeoisie Utopias:

This contradiction between the city and the Evangelical ideal of the family provided the final impetus for the unprecedented separation of the citizen’s home from the city that is the essence of the suburban idea. The city was not just crowded, dirty, and unhealthy; it was immoral. Salvation itself depended on separating the women’s sacred world of family and children from the profane metropolis. Yet this separation could not jeopardize a man’s constant attendance at his business—for hard work and success were also Evangelical virtues—and business life required rapid personal access to that great beehive of information which was London. This was the problem, and suburbia was to be the ultimate solution.

This ideal, which became prevalent among Americans in general and Evangelicals in particular, is quite a bit different from at least one image of shalom in the Scriptures:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zech. 8:4—5)

Here we have both young and old interacting, not in private households, but in the streets or the common spaces of the city.

I’m not opposed to the “home as refuge” notion as one aspect of domestic life. We all need a safe place to share intimacy and to be able to relax. What I am suggesting is that if we take Jeremiah’s mandate seriously, we may also want to see home as a place from which children can begin to practice participation in public life and a place where children are trained in public involvement.

A second justification for separating different kinds of land uses into different geographical zones had to do with a general understanding about what the rich and poor deserve. In explaining why it is acceptable to prohibit apartment buildings from existing on the same block as detached single-family homes, Justice Southerland provides the following rationale:

… very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes.

Given all of the other language about protecting children, one commentator quipped: “does Justice Southerland realize that children live in apartment buildings as well?” Frankly, I’m not sure whether he did realize this fact—yet the point of this justification comes across loud and clear. Zoning, from its inception, can be seen as a tool for protecting the home as a setting for private consumption for middle and upper income members of the community.

Now as Christians, this issue should at least get our attention given all that the Bible says about our obligation to not neglect the poor:

They who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned (Amos 2:7)

The question can be articulated in this way, is the idea of income-exclusive neighborhoods consistent with the Biblical notion of shalom? While we have stricken down most political mechanisms by which neighborhoods can be racially exclusive, during the era of zoning economic mechanisms have caused neighborhoods to become increasingly income exclusive.

This is an issue that can easily divide the Christian community into those who feel that income inequality is justified and those who feel it is not. Without tackling that controversy head on, I wonder if our particular topic can allow us to articulate a slightly more nuanced answer. We can begin with one representative passage concerning our obligation to the poor:

You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:10)

The owner of the vineyard is not being instructed to sell his property and distribute it to the poor, but rather he is told leave the boundaries and liminal spaces of his vineyard alone so that the poor can derive some spillover benefit from his wealth.

What I am suggesting here is that if we accept some degree of diversity with regards to different people’s private domicile, we might at the same time think of the neighborhood or the spaces in between the houses as the gleanings from which those with less personal resources could benefit. The question of justice for the poor with regards to land use is so often expressed simply as a demand for more affordable housing. What I am suggesting is that we widen our scope just a bit and think about access to a good neighborhood for everyone as a requirement of justice.

So if I had to stick my neck out and try to derive a justice imperative with regards to neighborhoods, what I might suggest is an end to housing type exclusive zones where we have one zone for big houses and another zone for condos and apartments, but rather mix them all on the same block. I would also question the justice of gated neighborhoods as well as homes on 5-acre lots (unless people are growing crops on them) because they fail to leave any kind of common space for those who can’t afford to live on a large house.

Another value embedded into functional zoning has to do with the place of strangers in society. We have already suggested why a slaughterhouse or a foundry might not be a good fit in a mostly residential neighborhood, but the zoning code of the town of Euclid excluded all commercial activity—including the coffee shop and corner grocery. The rationale for this kind of a move was the following:

A place of business in a residence neighborhood furnishes an excuse for any criminal to go into the neighborhood, where, otherwise, a stranger would be under the ban of suspicion.

The logic here is that a coffee shop is a dangerous place in your neighborhood because it provides a safe place for a stranger to hang out when strangers ought to feel ostracized. Note also how the language implies that a stranger is likely to also be a criminal.

There are a couple of issues here that need to be highlighted. The first is that as Christians we should be a bit concerned about legislation that is targeted against people for being strangers. Treating strangers at least with respect is a mainstay of Biblical justice:

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Duet. 10:19)

Not only does this command require us to treat strangers well it is a reminder of how we all benefit when strangers are treated well. When we speak about strangers we forget that it is a geographically fluid term.

We are all strangers somewhere. One of unsettling characteristics of post war subdivisions is how easy it is to get lost in them if you don’t happen to live there. All of the houses are oriented to the back yard, so you don’t usually see a lot of life in the front. And there are no commercial establishments so you can’t ask anyone for directions.

The other issue that is of concern with this justification is that it assumes a certain relational rigidity in the categories. There are two kinds of people, it seems to imply: strangers and friends. Those who are friends have always been and will always be friends, and those who are strangers have always been and will always be strangers. It doesn’t allow for the fact that most people we encounter begin as strangers to us and then can move along a continuum of acquaintance, friend, soul mate, and even family.

By setting up neighborhoods that shun strangers, we have created a residential setting that actually accentuates the problems associated with strangers. Because there are no good public spaces, we rarely get a chance to get to know those who are strangers to us, and people who live next door to each other may remain strangers because they have no good place in which to interact.

Now again, we have to be nuanced as to how we might apply this notion of welcoming strangers in a contemporary setting. Our communities have become socially fragmented, which leaves everyone more vulnerable to the dangers associated with strangers. And over the past few decades it seems that a growing number of individuals have become significantly estranged from mainstream society and may have a much harder time making a positive contribution to the social capital of a particular neighborhood even in the best of circumstances.

Within the Bible, there was an expectation among God’s people that strangers would be welcomed into our homes. But this was in a context of a tighter knit community with a tradition of elders at the gate. Elders at the gate would be the first to meet a stranger and would act as a kind of screening mechanism against danger and potential threats to the community. Now if after that screen someone in the community decided to take a stranger into their home, their neighbors would be aware of this arrangement and would look out for the safety of the one who took the stranger in.

Since we don’t have tight knit communities, nor do we have elders at the gate, we need to find liminal places where we can get to know strangers in a more secure environment. I’ll make two suggestions in this regard: third places and defensible space. Third place is a term coined by Ray Oldenburg in a book entitled The Great Good Place. Oldenburg’s thesis is that everyone needs a third place that is not home and is not work where they can drop by and stay as long as they want.

Third places are important for socialization and as a non-threatening place to meet people. Oldenburg claims that inviting a person into one’s home represents a significant risk for both the host and the guest. Because it is a risk, we tend to want to screen people before we extend or accept an invitation into a home. And because even for people we know, a home visit requires a lot of coordination of schedules and cleanup—inviting our friends to our homes can be a rare occurrence.

Third places are important in helping us get to know people that we may not yet feel comfortable inviting into our homes. And third places can help increase the frequency with which we interact with those we do know. If estrangement and familiarity are seen not as fixed categories, but in continuum, we can come to think of third places as catalysts of familiarity. One problem with functional zoning is that it often eliminates the legality of third places.

Another related concept is defensibility. This is a concept that I learned from James Rojas, who conducted an interesting study of socialization patterns in East L.A. Rojas points out that the typical middle class American front yard exists to send a message of respectability to the neighbors and is not a social space. In order to interact with the homeowner in such settings, one would have to cross this dead space of front yard and then approach the main threshold of the house at the front door. When the door is opened, it will quickly be determined whether you know the homeowner and will be invited in or whether you are a stranger and will be kept out. If you are deemed a stranger, the conversation at the door will be strained and brief. It is not a setting in which people will tend to move towards a stronger relationship.

In East L.A., Rojas observes that there is a tendency to put a low fence around the front yard (chain link or wrought iron) with a gate in the middle. Now normally we think of a fence as pushing people away. But what Rojas helps us to see is that in this context, the fence is actually creating a more social space by pushing the threshold out towards the sidewalk. The homeowner in this context has a defensible space where they can stand and interact with people on the sidewalk. They can actually position themselves in their front yard in such a way as to indicate what kind of interaction they are open to. They can orient themselves towards the sides of their fence for more familiar conversation with a neighbor, or they can rest their arms on the gate to chat with people as they pass by. Rojas points out that this can be such a comfortable setting that it can sustain a long pause in the conversation without anyone feeling uncomfortable.

Let me qualify everything else that I will say about the church in the neighborhood by first saying that the church’s primary role is the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. Yet we should acknowledge that the church can play multiple other roles, and some of those secondary roles can have a positive impact on the neighborhood.

I think that one of the most important secondary roles that the church plays in the neighborhood is to help redeem the notion of community. Whatever else I’ve already said about the specific attributes of shalom, underlying all of them is an implicit commitment to some aspect of a common life that is lived out in the common spaces of the community. It is getting increasingly difficult for members of society to articulate on what basis this common life exists.

Individualism a longstanding feature of American life, but in the past few decades it has taken a more radical turn. Now it seems that for a lot of people, the individual is the basic and even exclusive unit of society. People express a longing for community and even join communities, but those communities always remain extra-curricular.

When I join a community, I don’t allow that community to become part of who I am. I remain an individual who has voluntarily associated himself with a particular community because it can give me something that I think I need. When I feel as if that community no longer can give me what I need, I see no particular problem with leaving that community.

So what we call community is often just a coalition of individuals who obtain some temporal advantage in meeting together. We see this radical individualism wreaking havoc on marriages and families. People often get married as individuals and remain individuals in their marriage. When the marriage is no longer “fulfilling,” they see no issue with getting out.

Roberto Goizueta notes this difference between his Mexican American community and what he sees among middle class Americans:

When two U.S. Hispanics meet each other, the initial discussion after the introductions will likely involve family and relationships:  who are your parents?  What town is your family from?  I knew your mother’s second cousin twice removed!  I had a friend who must have known your sister. It is thus quite disconcerting for Hispanics to meet an Anglo whose initial discussion will, instead likely involve career and work:  what do you do for a living?  Oh, that must be very interesting work!  Where did you do your training?  These later questions, reflecting an emphasis on individual “achieved” and chosen identity over organic, received identity, are often perceived by U.S. Hispanics as insultingly dismissive of these relationships.

The church—especially those with a vigorous covenant theology—can be a place to witness to a recovered notion of community. The image of the church as the body of Christ with a strong sense of interdependence can be a powerful witness in the neighborhood. For this reason I think that it is important for the church to be as demographically mixed as it can be. I know that the racial mixing has been difficult for the church, but with regard to this issue, I am equally if not more concerned with churches that seem to be intentionally targeting a certain age.

A second way that a church might directly impact a neighborhood has to do with the redemption of space. Wendell Berry develops this wonderful notion of local culture through observing an old rusted out bucket nailed to a tree. This bucket collects leaves and what not over the years and then over time the fibers break down and these things, in the bucket turn into soil that can return to the earth and allow things to grow. Berry sees in this bucket an analogy for how human community is supposed to develop:

A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

Berry claims that in order to do this kind of work, a community must exert a kind of centripetal force on its residents. It must draw residents toward the center of community life, and it must encourage the next generation to return and make their contribution to the local culture.

The schools have failed, according to Berry, to inculcate love for and knowledge of the local culture and instead are focusing training children toward the future—toward the development of a career. This oversight is not only (literally) unsettling for our children; it is also a kind of irresponsible stewardship of the local environment.

I think that the church in the neighborhood could exert this kind of centripetal force on a neighborhood if it was cognizant of the value of this role. In order to do this, a church would have to have a pretty strong sense of its physical connection to its neighborhood. This perspective would have been taken for granted when there was a stronger sense of church parish in the community.

Unfortunately, many churches have completely lost any sense for how to do this. Many churches have adopted the suburban campus model that places its buildings in the middle of a large parking lot and is completely cut off from the fabric of the neighborhood. Or older churches that are more embedded in a neighborhood often develop a kind of fortress mentality toward the neighborhood in which they are located.

Lastly, at risk of coming off as a bit too ethereal, I want to think about ways that the church can redeem time for a neighborhood. Colin Gunton in The One the Three and the Many has made the insightful observation that in the West, despite all of our labor saving technologies, we seem more pressed for time than other more simple cultures. Gunton sees as part of the problem our attempts to seize time and commodify it. With our technological innovations and our scheduling tricks we think that we can save time and then later spend it again. But as Gunton observes, the core of the problem is that we have forgotten how to live graciously in time and to receive it as a gift.

The Biblical doctrine of creation provides a kind of cadence of daily life and the rhythm of the week that is instructional for human living. The church is one of the primary means by which these rhythms are counted out and help to shape the community. The rhythm of weekly worship provides a kind of foundation for common life. This can also be true of the yearly rhythms of advent to Christmas and lent to Easter followed by a stretch of ordinary time. And even life rhythms can be marked and noted by the church as babies get baptized, people get married, and people die.

Our society must begin its recovery of civic common life in the city by thinking about the form of the spaces that we share together. I believe that Christians in their various roles within local communities can model as well as advocate this type of thinking. And Christians can enrich the conversation about our shared life by bringing a coherent vision of shalom as a coherent image of the good life. Institutional churches are not the only place from which Christians can advocate for these things, but churches can play a unique role in the redemption of common life if they are willing to play this role. Churches specifically can bear witness to the reality of community life and play a role in the redemption of both space and of time.

This is important work because our civic health depends on it. Civic health is essential for us to fully become the image-bearing creatures that God created us to be. And civic health is what towns like Monroe need to be the healthful and redemptive places that God desires us to inhabit.

Eric O. Jacobsen is the author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (2003) and has a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyerian Church in Tacoma, Washington, where he lives with his wife and four children.

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