Written by: Rev. Eric O. Jacobsen
I think that if the New Urbanists have taught us one thing it is that we can destroy community through bad design. The great American postwar suburban experiment has leveled a terrible blow to our community life and the New Urbanists were among the first to call this out.
But now that New Urbanists have spent a generation building neo-traditional neighborhoods, I sense that we are discovering a few limitations as to what can be accomplished through design. We can destroy community through bad design, but we cannot simply build community through good design. You can build a traditional looking neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean that its residents will all of a sudden start acting neighborly.
So I’m sensing a growing interest in the way that community can be built up through both good design as well as cultivating practices that enliven that design. This is a potentially a very large topic for discussion, but I’d like to focus on just one aspect of it this afternoon.
I’d like to focus on how communities of faith from the Biblical religions can bring richness to the urban environment by helping to mark time. In the book of Genesis, [Genesis 1:3-5] we have this odd statement about the first day of creation in which God separates the light from the darkness.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
One way to understand this conceptually is this is a description of time being created as we see the daily cadence of light and dark described here.
So, we can think of time not as a given, but rather as a gift and we think of it as a gift that is given in a particular way. Time comes to us in rhythms of day/night; work/rest; sun/snow.
But not everyone likes having to receive something as a gift and so in the modern era, we’ve tried to move away from this position of having to receive time as a gift and instead tried to comodify time by making it into something that we could exchange and accumulate. We use technology such as electric lights and HVAC systems so that we can gain more control over time – working when we want regardless of whether it is day or night. Working in the cold or the heat.
Our language betrays the fact that we think that this project is possible. We talk of saving time and spending time as if we could control the flow of this gift. But try as we might, we continue to find time hard to get a handle on.
One way to begin to understand the problem is to think of another thing that comes to us as a gift. Music is a gift that we must receive in a particular form. The composer or performer present to us a set of sounds organized in rhythmic time. But we can at least imagine someone trying to improve this situation by trying to control this gift. Imagine someone telling you that if you like this piece of music, they can give you much more by speeding up the time and by organizing the notes alphabetically. They can thus make your music listening experience more rational and efficient while packing even more music into a shorter period of time. Anyone who has ever experienced and enjoyed music will know how ridiculous this proposal is. Whatever it is you ended up with it wouldn’t be more enjoyment of music.
I think that analogy gives us some insight into a malady of our age. We try to control time, but what seems to happen invariably is that we end up doing is making ourselves more harried and miserable. I think that much of this is because we have forgotten how to receive time as a gift.
I think that one way to think about the built environment is that it provides settings for the gracious receiving of time as a gift. One place we see this is in Jane Jacob’s wonderful description of the “ballet of street life” in Death and Life of Great American Cities.
When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s; this is the time when teen-agers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of MG’s; this is the time when the fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by.
I love this passage and have often thought about the various activity on the street and have wondered what forces count the cadence for this kind of impromptu ballet. Most of the forces behind the particular ballet that Jacobs describes are economic, social, and perhaps educational. But technology has pushed the boundaries of those particular practices to the point at which they no longer have a discernible shape.
One place where we continue to see the marking of time to a unique rhythm is from the various faith communities in a neighborhood. Here we see the daily rhythm of morning prayer, the weekly rhythm of gathering for corporate worship, and the marking of the seasons of the year (winter/summer) as well as the seasons of life (birth, confirmation, marriage, death).
It is for this reason that I think that faith communities have an important role in enlivening communities by helping us all mark time and avoid that modernist tendency to collapse time and space into a shapeless mass.
Zechariah 8:4-5 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.
 Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, 52.
- Can the New Urbanism deliver true community?