Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Justice in Place

Gideon Strauss


May 20, 2011
by Gideon Strauss

“Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom."
                                                                                                             – Walter Brueggemann

The trustworthy story told by the Bible of God’s magnificent work concludes in the communion of God with God’s people in God’s world.  Among the most vivid pictures of God’s future world is that of a city, the New Jerusalem. This picture teaches us, among other things, that God eventually intends for the cities of this world to flourish as places of true communion.

The word “city” can have two distinct meanings—a distinction that I have learned from David Koyzis.

In the first sense (let’s call it Definition A) “a city is a municipality, a differentiated, explicitly political subcommunity within the larger body politic.”  In this sense, the city is a local community of government and citizens, commonly responsible for the exercise of public justice. In the second sense (let’s call it Definition B), “a city is a multifaceted network of local, differentiated communities—a community of communities—defying easy identification along social, economic, political or religious lines.”

The core task of the city in sense A is to regulate or support the complex social fabric of public interdependencies (a description of “civil society” that I borrow from Jonathan Chaplin) that constitute the city in sense B.

For a city to flourish, I suggest the built form of the city must enable both magic and comfort to characterize the social fabric of the city. This demands both a network of vibrant downtowns and a mosaic of distinct subcultures in “urban villages.”

Christopher Alexander and his colleagues summarize these two norms as follows:

“Put the magic of the city within reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. Do this by means of collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtowns will be between two and nine miles apart.”

“Do everything possible to enrich the cultures and subcultures of the city, by breaking the city, as far as possible, into a vast mosaic of small and different subcultures, each with its own spatial territory, and each with the power to create its own distinct life style. Make sure that the subcultures are small enough, so that each person has access to the full variety of life styles in the subcultures near his own.”

City magic and comfort requires efforts from city government, through its regulation of the built environment. Every vibrant downtown and urban village needs a plaza or square to serve as its heart: as Philip Bess explains, “Cities are made of blocks of buildings that define a public realm of streets defined by private buildings, and of plazas and/or squares typically fronted by civic buildings or focused on a centralized monument.”

Every vibrant downtown and urban village needs great streets. Allan B. Jacobs explains that great city streets universally offer: places for people to walk with some leisure; physical comfort; qualities that engage the eyes; complementarity (in the architecture of the surrounding buildings); (good) maintenance; and (a high) quality of construction and design, among other things. Jacobs adds that it also helps for city streets to have: trees; a diversity of buildings; design details (gates, fountains, benches, lights); breaks (widenings, narrowings, small plazas or parks); accessibility; residential and land use density; parking; the patina and adaptiveness that comes with age

And every vibrant downtown and urban village needs third places beyond home and work, where civic life is nurtured informally—for example, privately owned pubs and coffeeshops, or publicly owned parks, museums, and libraries.

To achieve justice, city governments must concern themselves not only with their own functional tasks, or with the direct relationship between government and citizens, but also with the built fabric that serves the emergence and nurture of a vibrant civil society—and this is very much also a matter of bricks and mortar, zoning laws and building regulations. Christians who want to engage in slow politics must learn to care, and care skillfully, also about these matters.

—Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”