This past week was probably the busiest and possibly the greatest week I’ve had in Edinburgh thus far. It was the Christian Union’s mission week, specifically themed this year “Something More.” Every day from Monday through Friday was packed with morning, afternoon, and evening events, from prayer breakfasts to lunch bars, international student suppers and evening talks. I attended almost everything and helped with some of the cooking and setting up of events, especially the international student dinners (because, wonder of wonders, I’m an international student right now!). It was an enriching time of growth and learning, meeting and getting to know new people, and also an encouraging week of realizing that there is a community here in Edinburgh that I not only want very much to be part of but one that wishes me to be part of it too.
As part of the week’s events, I became familiar not only with people in the Christian Union – full-time Edinburgh students, visiting CU Guest speakers, community members, and fellow international visiting students – but also with some new places around campus and the city of Edinburgh. I spent every morning in Buccleuch Church, sitting on the floor of the annex praying and then eating cereal, fruit, eggs, and bacon butties, a British breakfast staple. My lunch hour I spent in the Chaplaincy Centre, a mere two minute walk from my flat. I spent my evenings eating and listening to speakers in the sanctuary hall of St. Columba’s Free Church along the Royal Mile and then Greyfriar’s Kirk. As I became more comfortable with the people and places I was, I became more involved, progressively spending more time at St. Columba’s helping out with food preparations and the like. These spaces, once foreign and honestly a bit daunting – yes, churches can be daunting even for Christians sometimes! – are now very familiar to me and are spaces into which I’d have little hesitation entering.
It is interesting how one of my readings for this week aligned philosophically with the Christian Union’s Something More week. Really it should come as no surprise, especially with both Christian and urbanistic claims to universal (though not uniform) application. In Urban Design, Space, and Society, Ali Madanipour dedicates his latter chapters to the ideas of community building, democratic urbanism and what he labels meaningful urbanism. As I was reading these chapters, I couldn’t help but relate the ideas of socio-spatial and critical urban theory to the Christian faith I believe to be true; I figured I would share a few of those fascinating parallels here for your amusement.
Madanipour purports that individuals have responsibility toward their community and that the “community has been lost and needs to be rebuilt” (p. 210). In looking at urban history, as a result of industrialization and social stratification, society has become fragmented, filled with people who fear the (socioeconomic, racial, geographic) “other” and thus seek some sort of distinction or separation, physical or mental. This only increases the fragmentation, increasing differences and thus distrust and fear toward one another. Madanipour points out how the Victorian era sought to reintegrate society “through promoting various kinds of either religious morality or secular solidarity” (p. 211). Though Christianity ought never be reduced to a mere religious morality, it is interesting how society becomes community in light of a unifying belief and faith. I witnessed the agglomeration of peoples from all over the world, from all sorts of different socioeconomic, cultural, and social backgrounds, coming together during Something More. The greatest part too about community is that it does not require agreement on all issues all the time but instead allows for disagreement and facilitates discussion and debate because that fear of the other is recognized and dealt with, not hidden and, by neglect, exacerbated. Something More wasn’t just about bringing together Christians to reaffirm our beliefs all held in common – it was also about raising questions, challenging assumptions, and inviting the “other” to become “brother.” This, in essence, is very much what urban planning ideally seeks to accomplish: the creation of spaces and places that encourage diverse agglomeration without engendering distrust or creating hierarchical difference. Ideally.
One of Madanipour’s chapters is called “Meaningful Urbanism,” and one of its main questions is how urban planning and the layout of the urban arena can create meaning while also granting freedom to the constituents within, allowing them to also have a say in what the meaning created actually is. He says that in our postmodern society, “the nature of meaning has completely changed, becoming an illusion linked to a desire only” (p. 223), which, needless to say, makes very difficult proving anything has meaning or claiming that meaning is something definable at all. He claims that “implicit in the theories of urban design are theories of the good society” that, once understood, could be translated “into a spatial configuration, which would in turn nurture and accommodate” this good society (p. 255). Wrapped in our search for meaning and goodness (whether goodness in society or otherwise) is a constant concern for the preservation (or perhaps final attainment) of our freedom. The problem with the ideal is it’s often perceived as romantic and thus impossible, or at least laughable, and utopias “fail because of their finality of vision” (p. 255) that oversimplifies complex, fluid issues. We have not yet been able to find and create the perfect society by looking to a good spatial order that would facilitate such a society because we don’t understand how to define what a good society even is: “We are in the cult of modernity, seeking the new every single day,” but feeling forced to find that new in the existing, i.e. the old. Some could read this and say my words are an exact argument against the claims of Christianity, but that is only if God does not exist and has not provided the answer to not what makes a “good” society but what grants us ultimate meaning and purpose. A spatial order fails to create good society – religious or not, I think we can all agree on that – because it is an external solution to an internal issue; it is whitewashing tombs filled with dead bones. Check out Matthew 23:25-27 if you’re interested to see one explanation why a beautiful city won’t create good society.
A final point looks at the “interplay of agglomeration and dispersion” (Madanipour, p. 258) that exists in the urban fabric and how this simultaneous creation of urban convenience yet desire to escape from the anonymity often associated with urban life contributes to an “anti-urban mentality” that simply does not work (p. 257). It is similar to seeking ultimate meaning in or by using finite resources; in trying to make life as full as possible, we seek out things that eventually leave us dissatisfied and empty. I would argue that in our constant struggle and search for meaning here on earth, we reveal our need for the infinite. Meaningful things, in some ways, are things that last; whether speaking architecturally, urbanistically, philosophically, or spiritually, it seems that those things that stick around for the longest we find the most meaningful. Even things as fluid and fickle as memory and identity we consider immensely important; that is why we struggle so much to find meaning, because our identities must be meaningful and our memories have to have importance for some reason, right?
Madanipour elaborates on this constant striving within the “urban,” here understood not a merely concrete and street plans, but as a socio-spatial construction of people seeking something individually and collectively:
“Every object and activity plays a symbolic role in this interplay of agglomeration and dispersion, contributing to the processes of connection and disconnection, of inclusion and exclusion. … A city is an overlapping concentration of difference and the role of urban design is ultimately to improve the life of citizens, rather than serving minority interests by creating exclusive enclaves” (p. 258).
From this perspective, the urban designer is a creator of meaning, or at the very least the creator of the environment in which meaning is potentially found and created. It is meant to be democratic and fair to all. It is expected to take into account every anomaly, prepare for the unexpected, and hopefully point the lost and confused toward their destination and then help them get there. What a big job! Humanity’s existence is consistently marked by these fun contradictions and complications: the desire for individuality but the longing for genuine community and belonging; the enjoyment of the present marred by the uncertainty of tomorrow and truancy of the past; the search for meaning in something that constantly defies its own clean and concise definition.
Of course, as a Christian, I believe that life does have meaning, very specific meaning, and our lives feel holey because we’re missing the holy. As as someone who lives and breathes and experiences the complexities of social relations within both dense and dispersed agglomerations, I can see daily that all of humanity does have at least one thing in common. Whether we are students, professors, urban designers, actors within this urban drama of any kind – regardless of our social status, we are all searching for something more. Urban designers seek to build cities that allow good societies to exist. Though a noble gesture and a worthy cause, I would say that only God has those sorts of tools. Just check out the Gospel of John if you don’t believe me.
Isn’t urban studies neat?