Cover Story

Street smart

The city is now where most of us live. WORLD profiles 10 unique urban centers, the people who make them thrive, and those whose life calling is to make them better

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

Somewhere between the garden that was Eden and the new Jerusalem is the street where you live. The one I knew first was Twelfth Avenue, a lane marked by curb and gutter in a neat 1950s neighborhood of low rooflines and wide, short driveways. But it was close to main thoroughfares, and on a clear day my mom and I could walk to collect my brother from school and we knew the name of every neighbor and merchant we might pass along the way.

Then came Brantley Road, a tar-and-gravel road in an ever-expanding "subdivision." To be legitimate we had to plant a regulation mailbox on a post at the street and take the bus to school. The road to anywhere from there wound through pine woods, crossed rail tracks and a river before hitting the first stoplight that meant "town."

Now the subdivision lies fast-bound by eight-lane highways, office parks, chain hotels, and (of course) Starbucks. Neighbors are friendly but transient. An ever-expanding school district means children are more likely to go to school 10 miles away than two, and are more likely to find pals on a club soccer team or at a strip-mall gym than to find them up the street as I did.

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My childhood enclave in Richmond, Va., has morphed into that icon of 21st-century American development: the suburban bunker. There a typical family can concentrate its assets (and debts) on a small piece of real estate that hosts an outsized home in a neighborhood gated or seductively landscaped into a fortress. This prompts those so landed to enter their lonely vehicles and drive inordinate distances to carry on commerce not with the local grocer or the butcher or the hardware man but with a sales associate who reports to a corporation leagues removed from anywhere.

This "galactic metropolis" (as social critics dub it) has some efficiencies and benefits. Thanks to the corporate retailers, the cost of school supplies, groceries, clothing-even a gallon of gasoline-is lower in relative terms than in my parents' inflation-driven days. French wine, Italian cheese, Brazilian beef, a New York Times, a cappuccino!-luxury goods that were worlds away from my childhood-are now but a few minutes' drive from my childhood home.

Yet for all that, sometimes we grow wistful for that vibrantly woven city, what sociologists textualize as "a living organism based on a web of interdependencies," or what Christian essayist Wendell Berry calls a place "generally loved and competently cared for by its people." We want to know the meat seller again and have the produce man thump a melon for us to make sure it's ripe. We worry: What will happen if the Wal-marts and Costcos of the world fail? Will we be moored in tracts of pavement on an empty retail prairie, forgettable constellations of congestion and sameness that culture critic James Howard Kunstler caustically described in a 1993 book as the "Geography of Nowhere"?

What is certain is that everyone is discovering the city. Rapid urbanization is a global phenomenon, as rural dwellers increasingly take up life in the city or at its swelling fringes. In 1900, 13 percent of the world's population lived in cities. In 1950, 29 percent. And sometime this year, demographers predict the scale will tip a dramatic degree-and more than half the world's population will be city-dwellers. From 732 million in 1950 to about 3.3 billion, the figures represent a quadrupling of urban residents in under six decades. Most of these urban dwellers live in China, India, and the United States.

Equally dramatic is the number of urban areas with 10 million people or more. In 1950 there were two (New York and Tokyo). Today there are 20.

With the rising numbers comes a heightened need for city planning. New Urbanists, an architectural movement that actually began in the 1960s, are discovering new audiences as they challenge traditional notions of urban growth-i.e., mindless sprawl-and propose instead close-knit communities where buildings and streets again are linked, where dense populations may increase both community and commerce, safety even, over the isolating and underplanned stretches of suburbia.

New Urbanist Christians, too, are emphasizing city engagement as "cultural gardening" rather than combat in a war zone.

  • Pastor Timothy J. Keller's Redeemer Church in New York has helped start over 50 "city-center" churches in his city, as well as guiding similar downtown plants in Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Amsterdam.
  • La Fonderie is an association of Christian artists that opened art space in the heart of Paris last year, where concerts, exhibitions, and other gatherings are expanding a biblical worldview of the arts in one of the world's art capitals.
  • Chinese CEOs in Beijing have linked to pray for their city and businesses, to encourage Bible studies at their factories and offices, and to work together to hire migrant Christian workers.

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