What Makes a City a City?

A few weeks ago there was an article in The New York Times that suggests that a refugee camp in Jordan is becoming a city. zaatariThe author raises some provocative questions for me: what is the difference between a really crowded, densely populated refugee camp and a city? What makes a city a city? The article suggests that urban life is defined, in part, not just by size or density but also by the presence of economic activity and social organization. What do you think? Is urban life defined not just by how densely we are housed together, but also how we organize ourselves?

Here’s another question: so what? What difference does it make how we define “urban?”

Public Spaces, Continued

high line 2After seeing Amanda Burden’s Ted Talk about public space, to which I linked on this blog last week, I took closer notice of this article about the proliferation of vacant land in American cities. Who would have thought that such a large percentage of urban land –often as much as 12% –lies vacant most of the time? What a great opportunity that land might create to make the sort of public spaces that Burden talks about. It makes a person think.

I was also happy to discover what is for me a new website about cities: The Nature of Cities. I will be following its stories in the months to come, and I will let you know when I see something interesting. In the meantime, check it out. I found this, by the way, through the City Lab emailings that I regularly receive.

Urban Health and Vitality

high lineWhat makes a city work? What makes a city worth living in, worth staying in? In this TED Talk, Amanda Burden makes a strong case for the importance of good, usable public spaces that are green, user friendly, and fun to visit.

Her insights are reminiscent of that great section in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jane Jacobs talks about urban parks, and what makes some safer and more usable than others.

As Burden observes, public spaces are often overlooked and they are always contested. It is hard work to create and maintain healthy public space in a city, especially one like Manhattan in which the price of land is so sky-high. But, Burden makes a compelling case that the effort is well worth it.


city structuresEvery weekday I get an email from a website connected to The Atlantic, called Atlantic Cities, which provides links to about five or six articles about all things urban. It’s really interesting, and it is the source for some of the trends, ideas, and developments that I share with you on this blog.

Recently Atlantic Cities announced a new title and a new look to this site: CityLab. I encourage you to take a look at the site. Its goal is to serve people interested in urban living, urban problem solving, and effective urban development. It’s a great resource.

Envisioning a City

ny public libraryWhat makes for a flourishing city and flourishing citizens? There are hundreds of ways to answer this question, of course, but I am reminded by Ian Frazier’s “Talk of the Town” piece in the June 2 New Yorker that a significant answer to this question is “public libraries.” Frazier concludes with this statement:

“New York City has created visionary civic projects in the past; its public library is chief among them. America now has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and New York’s is among the worst in America. The public library has always been a great democratizer and creator of citizens, and a powerful force against inequality; it must not retrench, especially now.”[1]

You may wonder why a shout out to public libraries appears in a blog about urban ministry. Two reasons: (1) I have a broad understanding of ministry, and believe that our public library system is to some degree the fruits of Andrew Carnegie’s religious vocation and the vocations of others less well known. The impulse to make ideas and resources available to the public resonates with open minded Protestantism at its best. (2) In these days of diminishing public resources and deepening inequality, the church should exercise its voice about issues like the allocation of resources to libraries, because the church has a role to play in promoting open and broad access to intellectual resources and in cultivating civil and informed dialogue about what makes cities flourish.

[1] Ian Frazier. “Buildings and Books.” The New Yorker (June 2, 2014).

Visualizing Urban Change

chicago map2In my Introduction to Urban Ministry class, the primary project that students do is making a map of a Chicago neighborhood. Mostly what I ask them to do is to produce an organizational map that identifies the institutions that exist in the neighborhood: other religious entities, schools and libraries, museums, health clinics, businesses, food pantries and homeless shelters, etc., etc. It’s a great project, if I do say so myself, and even people who have lived for years in a particular neighborhood learn something new about the place they call home.

This is a sort of long introduction that explains why I’m interested in mapping, thinking geographically, understanding how institutions inhabit their space, and how these same institutions might influence and be influenced by the world around them.

Last week, at a meeting of the International Visual Sociology Association, someone mentioned the Stanford Spatial History project, so I looked it up in the hopes that I can learn something new about mapping from them. Suffice it to say that these folks are light years ahead of me, and the work they are doing is really interesting, so I thought I would tell you about it.

The project explores how space is constructed, understood, transformed, and practiced. I think these issues are important for urban ministers to understand, because we make our own spaces, and many of us commit significant energy to transforming the spaces around us. As people invested in this sort of work, we need to understand its subtleties and dynamics.


If a church hangs around long enough, sometimes it rubs up against cultures that trumpet different values than it cherishes. In the Netherlands the Old Churches in Amsterdam and Delft, which I visited a few weeks ago, exemplify this reality.

old church amsterdamThe Old Church in Amsterdam is the city’s oldest building, and dates from the early C13. It’s a beautiful old building, filled with idiosyncratic expressions of spiritual life and artifacts from the Protestant takeover of a building built for Catholics. For a church geek like me, it was a wonderful place to visit and in which to sit for a while and meditate. It is also plunk in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district (prostitution is legal there), and one cannot get to the church without passing by windows in which live, generously endowed women are offering themselves for pleasure and sex. The juxtaposition is jarring.

old church delftAt the Old Church in Delft, which also dates from the C13, we attended a vespers service that featured a performance of a Bach requiem. We looked forward to ending our day with the soothing sounds of voices ringing in a cathedral, and were nearly as dismayed as the pastor was when the service opened. The bar next door had a live band outside, and the band was loud, the patrons were enthused, and the pastor indicated that the most polite requests to tone it down had been repulsed. He shrugged as he talked about it, and the worship leaders did their best with rock music in the background, Reformed liturgy and Bach in the foreground. We in the congregation had to pay closer attention than usual to block out what seemed like noise.

Europe is secularizing, as we all know, and so is the United States. Lots of our churches express values or offer programs that juxtapose awkwardly with the world around us. That reality is part of what makes ministry so interesting. What about church and church life are important to preserve, as we rub up against cultures that increasingly view us as irrelevant? How do we need to adapt and change and embrace the world as it is evolving? Who are we? Who is our neighbor? And, so what? What do you think?