City vs. Suburb

This piece on Slashdot back in February comments on Google’s and Apple’s choices to plant their mega-complexes in the suburbs; the debate? Is this good for our society, or bad? Should they have built their businesses in the cities where existing public transit options already were in use, or does using “Google Buses” to get employees to work make good sense?

As you read through the comments, you’ll notice how the dialogue swings back and forth between the poles of suburb vs. urb, with no little nasty frosting on top. These kinds of “us” vs. “them” debates have perennial attraction to people. It might be “town” vs. “gown”; it might be “red” vs. “blue”; it might be “white” vs. “black.”

But what if we understood city differently? Rather than an exclusive entity belonging only to a certain kind of place, what if we asked, “Is it preferable to live in the urban city or the suburban city?”

On this basis, as I see it, all people live in cities. Period.

What differs are factors such as density, crime, resource availability or scarcity (things like food, employment, public transit options, schooling, etc). So that we can define Smallville as city with a certain set of scaled factors; and San Francisco as a city, with a different set.

So many miss this scalar approach, in which city is a generic concept with a number of scaled factors, and instead pit some stereotypical and often imaginary, or even idealized, notion of city versus suburb (which is almost always described using words like “sprawling” or “wasteful” or “pedestrian unfriendly,” etc.)

What’s more, in our eco-minded cultural climate, and one in which families tend to suffer at the hands of an elite and intellectual establishment (families being perceived as living in the wasteful, stingy, and selfish suburbs), the whipping boy consistently seems to be the suburb.

My scalar approach forces us to admit our presuppositions and  prejudices about place; it also paints a truer picture of our interdependence in human society: cities depend on suburbs, and suburbs depend on cities.

There’s a deeper, philosophical agenda I have with this approach as well.

Seeing city as a blueprint for any human colony, of whatever size (be that village or megapolis) fits my understanding of Christian and biblical ecology, one in which the Story tells us that all creation will one day be a New City. That Day (capital “D”) will come about when the Redeemer returns to a New Heavens and a New Earth, a kind of cosmic city, to the glory of God, that fills all of creation.

In the meantime, while we who believe wait for that Everlasting Habitation, we must live with the unending debate, like Dr. Seuss’s Star Bellied Sneetches, of who’s better than whom:

‘Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.’

As for the slashdot article, in this case, I’m convinced that the tertium quid, or third way, is to see the locale of choice for a family or a business as an extension of calling. (Yes, I believe businesses have a God-given calling.)

So, how you, or your business, defines “urban” or “city,” and what you think about the urbae vs. sub-urbae of our society really reveals where and how you are called to do the work of God in our world.

Make no mistake: you are called to do the work of God in the world. So as you do that work, let each one serve where he is called, and not look down on the calling of another.

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3 thoughts on “City vs. Suburb

  1. Thanks for this posting! It exposed some of my snootiness and snobbery towards the aesthetically predictable burbs. In all fairness, however, dwellers in big cities have had to put up with centuries of criticism from certain Christians who have perpetuated the myth of the pure country folk. Now that cities are hip we need a new target for our scorn: enter suburbia. What your piece forced me to wrestle with is how suburbia is a type of city. These things truly are on a scale or a spectrum. In our church planting circles, suburban church plants get no respect. Loved the Dr. Seuss reference.

    • Thanks for commenting, Stephen. Can you give an example of the myth you’re talking about? Scanning my brain, the only example I can think of re: “the myth of the pure country folk” might be along the lines of Pilgrim’s Progress: not the book, per se, but the idea expressed in the book of Vanity Fair, and cities being the houses of all things vain and sinful. While it has by some been taken to an extreme, criticism of this sort is still I think a propos, though it seems everyone has a different meter or gauge for what “in the world” but not “of the world” looks like. I’m concerned that cities may have become part of a modern-day evangelical “Babylonian captivity” (per Luther’s phrase) in which we strive to be relevant, and part of the conversation, to the point that we lose our calling or stance to witness or display for people a New Kind of City, a Place Where Righteousness Dwells.

      • The myth of the pure country and the bad city is a pretty common myth. Sodom and Gomorrah were cities and their destruction is historical, not mythical. But when people conclude that the two cities were destroyed because they were cities, they ironically miss the point that Lot and his daughters carried plenty of sin with them out to the countryside cave. When I was ten years old in the 1970s my family moved out of smog-filled Los Angeles to a small country town of 3,000 souls in Northern California. We had just seen a Disney movie called “Wilderness Family” that typifies this myth. The assumption of most of us transplants (there were hundreds of others in the small town who had sojourned like us) was that the city was bad and the country was good – not merely for the lungs, but for the soul. Isaac Kikawada wrote an insightful and influential book on the unity of the Pentateuch in the 1980s in which he perpetuated the myth of the bad city/good country: Cain’s descendants are connected to the first cities; the Tower of Babel was a coming together of a tight population rather than a scattering out. The question is whether the biblical authors want us to walk away with a prejudice against cities; your reference to the new Jerusalem in Revelation would suggest the answer is no, that the city is to be redeemed/transformed. Wendell Berry is quite popular these days; his vision of authentic living is much more rural than urban. The “white flight” from the urban centers which followed mandatory integration and busing of school children in the 60s and 70s contributed to urban blight. It is only in the past 25 years that it has become cool to gentrify a neighborhood, live downtown, use public transport, not own a car, etc. Tim Keller has been one of the leading voices urging middle-class American conservative Christians (who still believe firmly in the bad city/good country myth) to rethink the whole thing. Of course now that many of us have been influenced by Keller, there is a pendulum swing that has resulted in a cultural despising of the suburbs. That is where your posting comes in and forces us to see that we are talking about image bearers of God forming communities together – let’s not exalt and idolize one form of community organization over another. But back to the myth: you can see it in dozens of films and movies where the plot line involves getting urban kids out of the city streets and out to God’s Country (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – Capra), out to the Boy Scout troop (“Follow Me, Boys” – Disney), out to the mountain air. John Denver was all about this myth. As were the Foxfire books. Simply change their environment and these kids were bloom and blossom; this was not just a false anthropology, it was part of the myth (blame Rousseau for this one). A lot of the bad city/pure country myth is a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. American populist politicians (William Jennings Bryan, Ralph Nader, Rand Paul) all tap into this myth. Thomas Kincade’s paintings depended upon this myth. I can assure you from my 10-plus years living in that town of 3,000 people that human depravity is every bit as much present there as in the city – every bit as much. I would challenge someone to do a quantitative study to see if there is indeed a higher sin index in the city as opposed to the country. Indigenous tribal religious people groups practicing human sacrifice and cannibalism do so in a rural, non-urban context. This is a fact.

        One last example of the myth: John Cougar Mellencamp’s wonderful song:

        “Educated in a small town
        Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
        Used to daydream in that small town
        Another boring romantic that’s me

        But I’ve seen it all in a small town
        Had myself a ball in a small town
        Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town
        Now she’s small town just like me.”

        Note that Mellencamp knows that the view he’s perpetuating here is “romantic” as in Romanticism. Romanticism is the worldview behind the myth.

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