catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 18 :: 2004.11.05 — 2004.11.18


Re-inventing the well

Considering design for healthy neighborhoods

It is estimated that American industry loses from $50 billion to $75 billion annually due to absenteeism, company paid medical expenses and lost productivity. Stress in the lives of workers is a major cause of industrial losses. Two-thirds of the visits to family physicians in the United States are prompted by stress-related problems. “Our mode of life,” says one medical practitioner, “is emerging as today’s principal cause of illness.” Writes Claudia Wallis, “It is a sorry sign of the times that the three best-selling drugs in the country are an ulcer medication (Tagamet), a hypertension drug (Inderal), and a tranquilizer (Valium).”

Unfortunately, opinion leans toward the view that the causes of stress are social but the cures are individual. It is widely assumed that high levels of stress are an unavoidable condition of modern life, that these are built into the social system, and that one must get outside the system in order to gain relief. Even our efforts at entertaining and being entertained tend toward the competitive and stressful. We come dangerously close to the notion that one “gets sick” in the world beyond one’s domicile and one “gets well” by retreating from it. Thus, while Germans relax amid the rousing company of the bier garten or the French recuperate in animated little bistros, Americans turn to massaging, meditating, jogging, hot-tubbing or escape fiction. While others take full advantage of their freedom to association, we glorify our freedom not to associate.

Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

Though terrorism and security were dominant issues in the campaign for President of the United States, no political election can occur without abundant reference to “family values.” Debates over who and what constitutes a healthy family take place everywhere, from our churches to our political talk shows. It is largely assumed that the breakdown of the family unit in our society is the source of many, if not all, of our culture’s illnesses.

My husband and I are experiencing our culture’s illness and brokenness firsthand as we begin to participate in community development in our small town. We had no idea how angry and desperate people have become until we attempted to engage fellow citizens in discussion about a proposed Wal-Mart SuperCenter. In spite of an effort to keep the focus on what decision would best serve a positive vision for our community, many folks wish to place the burden of proof for Wal-Mart?s entry into the community entirely on its capacity to offer low prices on everyday goods. Discussion of the future of local business, the character of our city, and principled purchasing is of little relevance to those whose primary objective is to spend as little as possible to get as much as possible.

While family values may have some influence on an individual’s perspective on the Wal-Mart issue, I contend that our cultural illness is equally due to the severe erosion of neighborhood values. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg would say this erosion is evidenced in the lack of “third” or “great good” places in our communities. Third places, as he defines them, are those establishments where we spend time outside of work and home, those centers of gathering where we build relationships with others in our immediate community. These are the places to which, in many cultures, people gravitate to relax and for those who have found their great good place, it is indispensable. For the Irish, the pub constitutes the standard third place; for Germans, the beer garden; for Italians, the coffee shop; for Japanese, the teahouse. We even have a biblical example of third place in historic Middle Eastern culture when Jesus holds a meaningful discussion with a Samaritan woman near a well. Third place, at its very best, is a place where the Spirit is revealed.

Unfortunately, the trend of urban design in North America is toward separation, rather than gathering. This separation not only infects our zoning codes by isolating residential areas from commercial, but it infects our attitudes and behavior as well. Cars, rather than legs or bikes, have become the primary means of transport; housing is segregated by age and income; and our local gathering places have all but disappeared. We are systematically eliminating every need for human interaction.

But who is driving these trends? Wal-Mart and other “big box stores” make easy scapegoats, but our careless choices, both individual and communal, lead us to alienation from our local communities. The tendency toward isolation reflects the difficult search for authentic community, which can be so exhausting that many give up and depend on their individual plot of land to provide for all emotional needs. And so the average square footage of houses keeps uncritically increasing, as does the outflow of cash and credit for excessive consumer products.

Thankfully, a movement to counteract these trends is underway. People in both rural and urban communities are realizing the importance of “the way things used to be” and attempting to reclaim pre-WWII urban design. For example, here is a list of principles contained in the 2002 Land Use Plan for Plainwell, Michigan (pop. approx. 4,000):

  • Recognize the neighborhood unit as the basic building block of the community.
  • Neighborhoods should be compact and walkable.
  • Neighborhoods should have clearly defined edges and be connected to well-defined centers.
  • Community centers typically should be no more than one-quarter mile or a five-minute walk from neighborhoods.
  • Pedestrian access throughout the neighborhood and connecting it to the center should be a priority.
  • Streets should be laid out as an interconnected network to form coherent blocks.
  • A diverse mix of residences, shops, schools, workplaces and parks should occur in close proximity to one another.
  • Open spaces such as parks should be provided in convenient locations throughout each neighborhood.
  • A wide spectrum of housing options to accommodate people from a range of incomes, ages and family types, should be available in each neighborhood.

Not only is the little town of Plainwell creating a vision for human-scale design, but hundreds of projects and cities are becoming associated with a movement called New Urbanism, which is creating principles for design, as well as a new language for expressing those principles so that they might be incorporated in to public policy. New Urbanist principles encourage the preservation of older neighborhoods, as well as the creation of new intentional neighborhoods.

Christians are also recognizing the importance of reforming our approach to community development. In Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Presbyterian minister Eric O. Jacobsen outlines a theological basis for reclaiming neighborhood values. His introduction quotes Jeremiah 29:7: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” He continues by not only laying out the principles of New Urbanism, but also firmly grounding them in the biblical narrative.

Cultivating our communities, Jacobsen says, is not just an activity with which to occupy our time on earth, but it is the practical enactment of a belief in the New Jerusalem, the promise of a Kingdom to come. He writes, “We cannot retreat to our own private gardens. That way has been closed off. We must at some level learn to take our cities seriously. Whether we live, work, worship and play in our cities, or even just cheer for them at a distance, we need to look to our cities if we hope to catch a glimpse of what God has in store for us.” What’s in store includes what is life-giving, not life taking, that is, it includes that which has been redeemed from distortion and ill intent.

We all know the problem well: our cities grow ever outward, yet ever less fulfilling; our homes are full, but our hearts exceedingly empty; our vulnerable citizens are regarded less and become more useful as stepping stones to a destructive ideal. Creating a positive vision for change and cultivating that vision as reality are the new challenges we face as the tide of culture turns from necessary interdependence and toward systemic individualism. Healthy interdependence is not only a warm, fuzzy ideal; it is the reality of life in the Kingdom and until our communities can begin to reflect this reality, our neighborhoods and cities will continue failing to satisfy our deepest needs.


  • Bess, Philip. “Civic Art and the City of God: Traditional Urban Design and Christian Evangelism.” Journal of Markets and Morality, Vol. 6, Num. 1, p. 33-57.
  • Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
  • Jacobsen, Eric O. Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.
  • Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

This article originally appeared in Comment, the journal of the Work Research Foundation.

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