How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?

How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?

Stories and The City is a London-based initiative that attempts to promote the betterment of urban life by unearthing narratives that creatively expose experiences of both health and malaise that are part of the challenges encountered in any city sphere.  Their promotional material helpfully suggests that ‘a key principle of vibrant urban spaces is human scale and a sense of distinct character.’  Some of the more daunting aspects of city-dwelling certainly affirm that this is true, especially when the correlations between what enhances a sense of distinct character and the necessary humanness that accompanies it are so easily dwarfed by massive and (too often) mundane architecture, transport systems that unavoidably cater to cattle-like flow of bodies, systems technologies that can only account for numerical and, thus, monetary value, and so forth.

Noble aspirations of encouraging more ‘human scale’ functions and a variety of singular characteristics that define it are well and good, and are, admittedly, much needed in neighborhood cultures (local spaces and relationships) that are heavily influenced by urban realities.  The question, however, is whether or not such good and laudable objectives are achievable, and if so, how?  I want to suggest that theologically-laden contributions to concerns for the city ought to be resoundingly affirmative as long as the how side of the equation includes God’s triple focus on heart and spirit and Spirit.

This is precisely one of the burdens that the prophet Ezekiel carries in his message to Israel from Yahweh (יְהוִה אֲדֹנָי), the prophet’s favorite name for God that purposefully insists on the addition of ‘Lord.’  The ‘Lord God’ addresses the mountains of Israel in Ezekiel 36:1-2, that are further and pejoratively referred to by her enemies as ‘the everlasting heights,’ clearly reminiscent of Babel.  There is little question but that Hebraic use of the mountain metaphor (יִשְׂרָאֵל הָרֵי-אֶל) has urban prowess in view and, in fact, the enemies are correct in that the language of duration (‘everlasting’) and grandeur (‘heights’) carry clear overtones of hegemony that is too often the power-projection of any city.

It is in this context that the Lord God is concerned about vindicating the holiness of his great name (36:23), and thus he promotes the anticipation of a new covenant that is actually triadic in nature, involving human transformation that is described as a new heart and a new spirit (36:26), but also the result of the indwelling of his own Spirit (רוּחִי-וְאֶת) (‘My Spirit) that characterizes a collective people of distinctive faith.  However, a creational goal of renewing what could be thought of as ‘human scale’ attributes is surprisingly included by the prophet when the Lord God promises to ‘remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’   The problem, from divine perspective, is not that the populace has become too human, but that they are not human enough.  The heart of stone (הָאֶבֶן לֵב-אֶת) is replaced with a heart of flesh (בָּשָׂר לֵב).  City hegemony that too often and too easily defies God has produced calcified people.

We are talking, of course, about spiritual renewal that works from inside out, especially as it has significant impact on urban structures and experiences.  It calls for a triple focus on the human heart and the human spirit and the Spirit of God himself precisely because God, in fact, is greatly invested in what accounts for the human scale of things.  I contend that it is only this investment (theologically verified) that can ever actually promote and enhance the distinctive character of urban localities and situations that are set free from the common default to what could be minimally labeled as the banal and monotonous.  It is, after all, not unlikely that the Apostle Paul had Ezekiel in mind when he reminds us that ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Cor.3:17).

Wes White

SOCIAL JUSTICE URBAN THEOLOGY