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.