'NO MEAN CITIES'
A Christian Perspective on Urban Planning and Policy
Some months ago I was shown a copy of a Penguin Book which was published in 1942 at the height of the second World War. It was called Living in Cities, by Ralph Tubbs, in which the author anticipated some of the developments in architecture and planning which might follow the ending of hostilities. On page 36 of the book, under the title 'The home in relation to the town', one reads the following:
'Cities must satisfy the demands of all the complex functions of human existence. They are centres of human organisation, of the arts, of knowledge, of industry, of trade; but they are still primarily places to live in. It is only because they have been allowed to deteriorate that they have come to be regarded as places to escape from the moment one's work is finished.
'Family life is the basis of a happy existence. How can town planning help to make a happy family life possible? The answer is found by considering the wants of the ordinary family. The father will want to be near his workplace, his wife near a market for household shopping and near smart shops for specific things. The whole family will want to be near a park and to have opportunities for social life. Residential districts must therefore be clearly planned in relation to other parts of the town.
'What architectural form will these districts take? Endless rows of individual or semi-detached houses, however well designed, are both irritating and monotonous. Different people have different requirements, according to age, whether single or married or with children. Some can live most happily in flats, some in houses. All will want to see flowers and trees from their windows.
'The solution is surely terraces around open quadrangles of lawns and trees, punctuated with high blocks of flats. How pleasant to walk from one quadrangle to another, to enjoy the sense of seclusion and the peace of the inner courts, with a skyline ever changing with the silhouettes of towering flats. For centuries men enjoyed some of the pleasures in the mediaeval cloisters, in the university quads, and in the courts of the Temple or Lincoln's Inn in London. Can it be that we have forgotten how to live?'
I wonder how Ralph Tubbs would react 40 years later were he to return to survey the highrise blocks of flats in our cities? My guess is that he would not regard them as an unqualified success, either socially, environmentally, or architecturally speaking. Indeed, as I peregrinate around the country addressing gatherings on the subject of 'Faith in the City' it is quite common to hear folk from so-called 'comfortable' Britain working themselves into righteous indignation about the diabolical results of high-rise construction during the 1960s. Christians are to be heard denouncing them as contrary to God's will for His creation, and advocating wholesale demolition of them and replacement by low-rise units each with its own 'defensible space'. I have yet to hear someone produce likely costings for such a programme, but I feel sure it would exceed the Trident programme many times over.
Three Theological Approaches
This example serves to introduce the opening section of my paper, a brief glance at some particular theological approaches to the issue of 'the City'. For the sake of time I have limited these to three, and I have deliberately not chosen the work of either Raymond Bakke or David
The Biggest Building Site in the World? Canary Wharf
Sheppard. This is mainly because I assume that a lot of those present today will be familiar with The Urban Christian and Built as a City, but also because I find both writers are highly anecdotal in their books and I wanted to focus on something which set out a specific position in rather more worked-out terms.
My first approach is that contained in Harvey Cox's The Secular City, published in 1965. Cox may be regarded as the apostle of secularisation. If this describes man's 'coming of age' then urbanisation describes the context in which it is occurring. Diversity and disintregration of tradition are paramount. 'The urban centre is not just in Washington, London and Beijing. It is everywhere.'1 Our secular urban culture makes itself felt in all our intellectual projects, artistic vision and technical accomplishments. For Cox the term which best describes the modern city is 'technopolis'. Modern London is more than simply a larger version of its mediaeval ancestor: what has occurred is a qualitative change consequent upon the Western scientific revolution. It represents a new species of human community. We have reached this through transitional stages of 'tribal' and 'town'; tribal society was distinguished by kinship ties, whereas town culture gave us printing, books, rational theology, the scientific revolution, investment capitalism and bureaucracy.
There are two characteristic components in the shape of the modern city - anonymity and mobility. Both features are singled out for attack by religious and non-religious critics alike - they are 'anti-urban epithets'. Cox attempts to show that far from detracting from human life, they may in fact be indispensable modes of existence.
So without anonymity, Cox holds that life in the modern city would not be tolerable. He believes it to be a liberating phenomenon, and deplores Christian criticisms of depersonalised urban life which he regards as misplaced. He attacks the attempt by a group of ministers to establish home groups in high rise flats who discovered that the inmates did not wish to gather for neighbourhood or church groups. Flat dwellers develop such resistance in order to preserve any human relationships at all. They select relationships, though they can still display true neighbourliness when required to do so towards other flat dwellers. David Sheppard offers a critique of Cox's view in Built as a City, arguing that Cox is using the example of a middle class professional in-comer rather than a traditional inner city resident who has had no choice in being rehoused in a high-rise block.
Cox's second feature is mobility; people migrate between cities but also within cities to find more convenient or congenial surroundings. They commute to work, to play, to shop, to socialise. Religious critics attack this 'rush' of modern life but, asks Cox, 'must man necessarily be impoverished by mobility? Can he travel without getting lost?' He contends that we would not wish to return to the way of life of pre-mobile societies. So-called idyllic rural life was frequently static and poor. Therefore to encourage residential and occupational immobility stems from a reactionary mentality. Presumably Cox would endorse politicians who advocate that traditional urban dwellers should get on their bikes! He conceded that there are some dangers in mobility, but believes mobile people are more open to change and innovation.
Cox's stance may be described as optimistic. Now I turn to a very different view, that of Jacques Ellul in his book The Meaning of the City, published in 1970. To use his own description, his perspective is that of 'active pessimism'.2
In a brilliant opening chapter Ellul traces the history of the biblical city from Cain's construction of Enoch (Gen. 4:17) following his murder of Abel. Ellul sees this as symbolic of killing the country, which was the home God originally intended for man. Nimrod and his descendants build cities out of a spirit of might and conquest: for Ellul they display 'the reign of man given over to his sin, to his idols'. Man's revolt reaches its zenith in his construction of Babel (Gen. 11) for 'it is only in an urban civilisation that man has the metaphysical possibility of saying "I killed God"'.
As a result God came down, not to smash the city to pieces, but to confound the language of the inhabitants and to disperse the races. So the city becomes symbolic of the place of non-communication, where people can no longer understand each other. Babel = Babylon, the city representative of all cities (Daniel 3 & 4; Revelation 14 & 18). 'Babylon, Venice, Paris, New York - they are all the same city, only Babel always reappearing, a city from the beginning mortally wounded.'
So the sad tale continues. Israel, called to be separate, is found contructing a city for Pharoah in slavery; Jericho is rebuilt despite being cursed; Solomon builds his cities as an act of unfaithfulness. In the books of Chronicles the prophets attack cities, not because of some simplistic idealisation of the nomadic way of life but because of the corruption of the inhabitants of those cities. Judgement falls on Sodom and Nineveh.
'The city cannot be reformed. Neither can she become other than what men have made of her. Nor can she escape God's condemnation. Thus in spite of all the efforts of men of good will, in spite of all those who have tried to make the cities more human, they are still formed of iron, steel, glass and cement. The garden city. The show city. The brilliant city. They are all cities of death, made of dead things, condemned to death, and nothing can alter this fact. The work of her builders and the judgements of God weigh her ruthlessly down. And everything she hoped in is condemned, her walls have crumbled to dust, her money is scattered, her power is annihilated. She has become the house of the demons who haunt the desert. Throughout the Scriptures we find the same judgement falling on all who live in cities...'3
For Ellul, the city is one of the angelic powers whose power Christ has crushed by the Cross. Jesus Himself was a stranger to the world of the city. Even Jerusalem was the inevitable place of judgement - 'It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem' (Luke 13:33). The 'Holy City' is condemned for not knowing the things that make for peace nor the time of her visitation (Luke 19:42, 44), while in Matthew 23:37 she refuses to come to Him as a hen wishes to gather her brood. Jerusalem is thus obeying her urban nature - refusing to acknowledge the coming of God's kingdom. Only in the final re-creation will God usher in the new Jerusalem, the work of His grace, which becomes Yahweh-Shammah, 'the Lord is there'.
Is there an alternative to Cox's optimistic perspective and Ellul's pessimistic stance? Yes, there is the biblically realistic one advanced by a Reformed scholar such as Luther Copeland in his essay 'Urbanisation and Salvation: Can the City be Saved?' in the collection Discipling the City (Baker Books, 1979). Copeland believes Ellul's attitude offers no hope for earthly cities. Rather he insists that if the City is the symbol of God's final redemption, then cannot the earthly city be expected to display some signs of the Eternal City? Accordingly he calls upon Christian planners to construct a 'biblical urbanology'. In so doing he recognises the essential secularity of cities - typified by the design of the front of our conference brochure, with the spire of the church dwarfed by towering sky-scrapers, the products of human technology. Christians must recognise their presence in the city is a minority one: this will entail discovering a prophetic and servant role. Further, we must recognise that the needs, problems and opportunities in the metropolis are complex. Diversity and complexity are the marks of metropolitan society. But most crucially, the city is worth saving. Copeland castigates American churches for their flight to the suburbs, and American evangelicals for their over-emphasis on individual salvation. 'We have been so concerned to get people to the heavenly city we have neglected their earthly hells.'
In Copeland's biblically realistic approach Christians would
(i) give due recognition to Ellul's case for the city as the seat of man's sin and rebellion.
(ii) insist that the destiny of humanity in a redeemed city is a mark of Christianity's uniqueness (contrasted with other major religious faiths).
(iii) Christianity is the most societal of religions. Thus people will be reconciled to God and to one another in the context of their interpersonal and environmental relationships.
(iv) The Church's responsibility for the city is inescapable. God's judgement and promise must be proclaimed in the City. We are to seek the Shalom, the peace and well-being, of our city as the exiles of Israel were to do in Babylon. Although the salvation of the city can only be achieved by God's grace, we are called to share in that redemptive task.
I think I can predict confidently that in this gathering the majority of particpants will incline strongly to the third viewpoint I have just outlined - especially as his Christian name is Luther! Nevertheless I would suggest that a truly biblical perspective on the City should combine all three views in constructive tension. If we believe in God's common grace in sustaining his creation we can affirm the positive values of city life - and there may be a number of good things we would prefer to Harvey Cox's commendation of anonymity and mobility. But if we hold to the Bible's record of the Fall and its consequences we must also agree with much of Ellul's active pessimism. So Copeland's realistic plea for a biblical urbanology perhaps embraces most appropriately the apparent polarities of the other two stances.
Urban Priority Areas: How Do We Respond?
Against this background I come now to consider (from one small angle) the particular problem of urban priority areas and a Christian response to this. Since the publication of Faith in the City three years ago the phrase Urban Priority Areas has become common coinage for all professions and disciplines, not just planners. I do not know how many of you have actually read this document, let alone agree with its basic thrust or detailed recommendations. You may well be numbered among those who consign it to the same genre as Das Kapital, Mein Kampf and The Origin of Species! But I hope I can assume at least in broad measure that we accept the main conclusion of the Archbishop's Commissioners, namely that 'the nation is confronted by a grave and fundamental injustice in the Urban Priority Areas. The facts are officially recognised, but the situation continues to deteriorate and requires urgent action. No adequate response is being made by government, nation or Church. There is barely even widespread public discussion'.4
I think we can claim that were the Archbishop's Commission for Urban Priority Areas team to be writing the Report today they would not say that. There is now considerable discussion about the situation, not only in the Church and in various government departments. In recent months major statements about 'the inner cities' have been issued by the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Christians thankfully are playing a major part in these deliberations, though there is no single Christian blue-print as to how to solve the complex problems. Faith in the City set forward one line of approach in the 23 recommendations addressed to the nation, but the authors never envisaged their document to be regarded as a tablet from Sinai which brooked no discussion or disagreement. Clearly the present government is following a different course, though certain branches of local government are more supportive of the Archbishop's Ccommission on Urban Priority Areas standpoint.
Christians therefore find themselves supporting different approaches. Simplistically for present purposes I have divided these into two, namely the viewpoint of the Right and that of the Left. At the risk of being hopelessly superficial let me try to summarise what seem to be the main elements in the two approaches (I acknowledge my debt here to the fine book Britain's Inner Cities by Paul Lawless first published in 1981).
a) The Right and the City
In a speech at Scarborough in September 1979 Michael Heseltine stated, 'The object of my inner city policy is for local government to bring about in the depressed areas the conditions which will encourage the private sector to come in, and to come in on a large scale'. It is not too unfair, I think, to say that the dominant element in the government's programme for urban regeneration is the involvement of the business community. Broken down more precisely one can trace five main strands:
(i) The belief that a thriving private sector will stimulate economic expansion in the cities. This was the key theme in the 'Action for Cities' roadshow mounted by ministers last winter and spring.
(ii) In the public sector the task is to create an infrastructure in which the private sector can thrive - e.g. transport facilities should be improved.
(iii) There must be a reduction of bureaucratic and financial controls. The jungle of regulations which frustrate initiative and free enterprise must be cut through, and planning controls made more flexible (e.g. the abandonment of office development permits). Here of course the limits on Rate Support Grant have been crucial.
(iv) There must be physical development within the Urban Priority Areas. This can be advanced through more retail outlets, but also a growth in owner-occupied housing (e.g. an attack on the rigidity resulting from the Rent Acts).
(v) A redefined urban programme, in which we have the familar Urban Development Commissions, Task Forces, etc.
b) The Left and the City
This encompasses various views from radical to reformist. Supporters of the left do not automatically support state monopolies: many radical left thinkers agree that these often underpin the influence of the dominant classes rather than reducing it. I recall reading an article in New Society which argued cogently that town planners, though able to manipulate the effects of housing and transport to assist more depressed groups, were actually buttressing social and economic structures which ensure the continuation of the capitalist system. Christian radicals may well concur that policies often do reflect and indeed reinforce the status quo. Broadly all adherents of a 'Left' viewpoint agree that the problems of UPAs cannot be divorced from the macro issues of economic structures and national government policies. There are three key features in their approach.
(i) Community action. It is widely held that there would be a much better delivery of welfare services if the public sector could adopt more sensitive relationships with inner city groups and individuals. So local authorities must be encouraged to introduce 'community planning'. There should also be intervention at the local level through area management (e.g. Islington, about which Pete Broadbent will no doubt speak (Chapter 7 here)). However some sceptics on the far left see this as a cosmetic exercise by public authorities to divert local dissent through talk-shops, and insist that only radical restructuring of society will really liberate the poor and powerless.
(ii) Employment and Income. Here it is conceded that even publicly owned industries have operated policies which have reduced job opportunities in urban areas (e.g. steel, coal, railways). But private industry is the main villain through its mergers, takeovers and remote relocation of plant. New technology with its high-tech developments has only further depressed manufacturing employment. So there must be the application of policies which ensure that the costs of industrial change are shared evenly by all sections of society (surely a viewpoint compatible with Christian theology). Therefore advocates on the Left want more public investment in inner cities to provide jobs, spatial controls on private firms etc. And since the root problem facing many in UPAs is lack of income, the crucial issue here concerns income maintenance and welfare benefits. Many in the service sector receive low wages - hence the current national debate.
(iii) Housing. Here the Left would argue that the procedures governing major tenures, both public and private, are severely flawed. They would accept the need for more tenant participation and self-help along 'defensible space' lines. But there is much hostility towards the continued subsidisation of owner-occupation through tax-relief policies. And in relation to the clamant need for rehabilitation or replacement of the hundreds of thousands of sub-standard homes the Left would argue that the resources allocated are far too limited to carry out the overdue programme required.
Christians must enter this debate, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Those on the Right wish to emphasise the place of enterprise and individual potential, but they often appear to be short on compassion for those who are vulnerable or unsuccessful. Those on the Left stress the issues of justice and co-operation, but often fail to face up to the hard questions about bureaucracy and peer group pressure.
Is the Problem Spatial or Spiritual?
So I come to my final section: is the situation we confront in the City spatial or spiritual? Are we simply engaged in debating the correctness or otherwise of certain planning policies, or are we wrestling against principalities and powers as Ellul and others believe? As I close I want to argue that it is both, and that a mature Christian and biblical response must recognise the two dimensions.
It seems to me incontrovertible that the spatial manifestations of decline, decay and disintegration in the UPAs are in real measure the result of economic and political decisions. The whole issue of regional development and depression is an obvious example of this (though Faith in the City was careful to avoid straightforward support for the so-called North/South divide, pointing up the existence of pockets of poverty and deprivation within areas of comparative affluence). The current reduction in public expenditure must have effects in the Urban Priority Areas since so much of this is directed to the cities.
So when the debate moves on to the moral plane as well as the economic one and the question is posed whether the citizens of comfortable Britain have an obligation to care for and share with their less fortunate neighbours we are immediately presented with the opportunity for a specifically Christian and 'spiritual' response. If we were a truly Christian nation we might expect our fellow citizens to be eager to dispense their cash surplus from tax cuts in supporting causes (even financial investments) to assist poorer sections of the community. In fact, as Michael Brophy, the Director of Charities Aid Foundation, has recently demonstrated, the actual charitable giving by the British (apart from committed churchgoers) is derisory. Likewise many Christian observers (including supporters of the present government) remain unconvinced that the 'trickle down' theory of economic progress really works to the benefit of the poor.
The authors of Faith in the City believed that if any really significant attack is to be mounted on the multi-faceted problem of urban deprivation there must be a concerted effort to direct resources to needy areas. They argue for this in the important chapter 8 of the Report entitled 'Urban Policy'. In the course of this (paras 8:24-30) they address the question 'People or Places' and respond thus:
'...Our view argues for an approach which embraces both
(i) the adoption of "people-oriented" policies which promote justice by mitigating inequalities wherever they are found;
(ii) "place-orientated", area-based approaches which concentrate resources to a degree which makes a visible and sustained impact and so offer new hope.
'Areas are places where things can happen, and can be seen to happen. Resources can also stand a better chance of reaching target groups if there is some focus on areas in which those groups are over-represented. In the absence of area-based approaches, not only would there be a danger of resources being dissipated rather than concentrated to help those most in need but the visible improvements which can change the atmosphere of an area would be slower in coming.
'Although it is with people that policy must be concerned, there does need to be a dimension to action which recognises that places are important too. The concept of neighbourhood is about both people and places.'5
When Raymond Bakke, one of the world's foremost Christian commentators and practitioners of urban mission, spoke in this very building three years ago, he expressed his conviction that in Scripture there is to be found 'a theology of place'. We all recognise the spiritual dimension of people: they are made in God's image and though sinful can be remade in Christ. Do we however always understand the spiritual dimension to the actual places where they live and move and have their being?
I am driven to the conviction that if we are really to address the situation in the inner cities with any hope of turning it round we must as Christians inject the 'spiritual' dimension into all debates on economics, planning, policing, education or whatever our particular calling is. This lies behind the establishment of the Church Urban Fund, launched last April in response to a recommendation in Faith in the City. One area of the fund will involve the adaptation of church buildings to enable the local Christians to respond more appropriately to the needs of their local community. Here is a response which can be both spatial and spiritual! Yet time and time again I am told that the vision of the local church is frustrated by the various bureaucracies and interest groups concerned with church buildings. The Pastoral Committee, the Council for the Care of Churches, the Redundant Churches Committee, the local Council, the Victorian Society, the Society for the Preservation of John Betjeman, etc. How can Christian planners and architects make a significant contribution to the contemporary debates on this issue?
We can be grateful to God that there is abroad today a concern for the UPAs and their problems - a concern which must not deflect us from the wider and even more insistent problem of global deprivation and the absolute poverty of those in Ethiopia or Bangladesh or Nicaragua. Professor David Donnison, reviewing FITC at the time of its publication, wrote that it could do for our generation what the great Victorian reports on the 'condition of England' had done for theirs. Donnison himself wrote a fascinating book The Politics of Poverty (1982) which includes a purple passage where he challenges those who object to the stances of the 'poverty lobby' to become less theoretical and more practical in their approach:
'When the plight of the poor is contrasted with the wealth and massive productive capacities which could easily put things right, I am enraged. And so is everyone who has not lost the capacity for being shocked by injustice. The political reactionaries, the clever professors, the complacent people of middle England who contend, when they argue at all, against the theories of committed social activists, are aiming at the wrong target. It is experience, not theory, which moves us. They should instead get out and see the world for themselves. Then ask "Is this a city I can feel at home in? Would I like my daughter to be raising children in these conditions? Would I like my son to be leaving school at 16 in this city with no prospects of a job? Would I like my old father to die in this reception centre for homeless men?" If they do not like what they see, what are they prepared to do, how much are they prepared to pay to put things right?'6
Here surely we hear direct resonances of the Incarnation. It was no part of Jesus' mission to advance a political blue-print for the economic regeneration of urban Palestine. The case for a Christian perspective on the issues we are addressing today must rest elsewhere in the Scriptures. But our Lord Jesus Christ experienced the pain and the pressures of the inhabitants of the towns and cities he visited, even when they rejected his message of good news for the poor. His costly identification with the world he came to save led inexorably to his sacrificial death outside the city wall of the capital city. Where the Master has led, it is our duty as disciples- as it should also be our inclination - to follow.
1. The Secular City
2. The Meaning of the City p.181
3. ibid. p.57
4. Faith in the City, Introduction, p.xv
5. ibid. p.176
6. The Politics of Poverty p.228
From ACPA Newsletter No. 15, 1989, pp. 7-17.