The built environment, which provides us with all the most direct, frequent and unavoidable images and experiences of everyday life, is never just happenstance. It reflects conscious decisions which in turn reflect ideologies and class positions" (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).
True enough. That a brick is here and not there, a sidewalk on this side of the street and not over there, a house with a porch or not, is certainly not chance, and yet I suspect many building decisions today reflect pragmatic marketing and not value-laden and principled decisions. For example, a slick brochure (actually, more like a magazine) I received recently has stories about a new "community" that developers are shaping north of my city. With homes starting in the $900s, this is definitely a community that will lack socioeconomic diversity. And yet the well-heeled will pay dearly to join a "sustainable" community, an ecologically conscious one, and one focused on "bringing families closer together." With one to six acre "private reserves," though, and 5000-8000 square foot homes, it's difficult to see how a sense of community will be encouraged. You won't even be able to see your neighbors' homes, much less get to know them. No, these are much more like private vacation retreats where you can get away from everyone, particularly those who are uncomfortably unlike you. In fact, even in your own home there's enough space so that you need not see anyone in the family, if you choose not to.
Actually, our guilt and emotions are being played on. We are being told that it's OK to have a home that is beyond our means because it will make our family happier and, besides, we are protecting the environment. We're told we can be a part of a community, when the exclusivity and large lot design practically guarantees there will be no community.
In fact we do long for community, for beauty, and for a sense that we are living justly. God made us this way. Marketers play on those longings to sell to us. To be fair, they are not always conscious of this, not always so crass as do do it intentionally, and they often have mixed motives, desiring to do something good and yet not beyond playing to our emotions.
I confess I'm a bit of a skeptic about even high-minded planning and design. Perhaps well planned subdivisions can be conducive to a communal spirit, but I doubt that true community comes from such designs but, rather, from hearts shaped by another kind of Planner. Communities look the way they do because of the kind of people we are. When we change, the built environment will follow. Form follows function.
This is why I'm interested in Gorringe's book. If a meditation on God's word can bring forth a theology of the built environment, we can better understand why we build and plan as we do, how our own fallenness has such deleterious consequences, and how, with God's grace, an with new hearts, we can design and built more human places for all people.
Place matters. Our living space matters. These tangible realities say something about who we are and have something to do with shaping our behavior. God's grace infuses life, and yet so does the curse of sin. Planners and builders can't build a heaven on earth, a utopia, despite what the slick brochures promise. But they can acknowledge human weakness and promise and reflect on what kind of design will best allow the good things in human character to thrive. We can do better.