Thursday, August 30

Book: Sidewalks in the Kingdom

When I first moved to Missoula a few years ago, my (now) wife suggested that I pick up a copy of this book. It served not only as a great introduction to the life and culture of this town, but also painted a broader picture of how the Christian faith and urban infrastructure relate. Eric Jacobsen was a pastor at First Presbyterian of Missoula, where I currently attend. He is now serving a church in Tacoma, Washington.

Summary: The ideal of individualism is deeply ingrained into the American psyche. While an affirmation of personal liberty is valuable, in many ways this commitment has not delivered on its promises. It often comes at the expense of true community.

The Bible presents the Christian life as citizenship, waiting for the ultimate New Jerusalem as the culmination of the kingdom of God. This means that Christians cannot continue to relegate their faith simply to their private lives, but must learn to engage in the public realm and seek its redemption. Redemption includes helping to facilitate relationships, promoting environmental stewardship, creating beauty, and nurturing a crucible for moral character and spiritual growth.

The principles drawn up by the Congress of New Urbanism dovetail well with this goal. Mixed use zoning, a pedestrian scale environment, and a robust public realm all help overcome the dehumanizing abstractions of modern life. Living together with other people may cause you to see them less as strangers and more as neighbors.

These values are starting to take hold in our society, and Christians should carefully consider what role we may play in building healthier communities.

Engagement: I won't write a personal reflection on Sidewalks in the Kingdom, because in a sense that is what this whole blog is.

Wednesday, August 29

"I'm pro-chicken and I vote"

These were the t-shirts that supporters of urban chicken ownership wore to a public hearing in Missoula on Monday.

I'm not kidding. And I don't think they were kidding either.

Here's the dilemma. Currently no livestock are allowed in the Missoula city limits, according to a 1982 ordinance. However, recently it has become marginally popular for individual families to keep a few chickens in the yard. It's a low-cost way to ensure an ongoing supply of eggs and maybe a nice chicken parmesan dinner when it's all said and done. The trouble is that this trend has worried some into envisioning a town overrun with smelly, loud birds.

Every urban community has to decide where it stands in the spectrum between garden plots (good) and slaughterhouses (not so much), between individual liberty and the right for others to not hear clucking over the fence. Montana happens to lean on the self-sufficient side, so my money is on the chicken owners.

But some have also seen a deeper value to the chickens as well. Mr. Wendel Berry of Kentucky once laid out a list of practical ways to instill a lifestyle of conservation. On the top of the list was the suggestion to cultivate a garden, even if it's only a box on a window sill. Not everyone can be a professional farmer, but everyone can have at least some connection to the land. I wonder if chicken-ownership is to animal husbandry what a garden is to farming. Could your breakfast omelet mean something different, even taste differently, if you knew it came from Maggie in the backyard rather than a carton at Safeway? We talk about local food. Maggie is so local you can smell her.

By the way, the hearing came to no conclusions. They will pick it back up next week. Here's a pdf of the proposal to allow chickens under certain conditions.


I've created this blog to catalog my personal exploration into urban planning and community. Any advice, criticism, or comment is encouraged. All thoughts are in process.

For the last few years I have grown to appreciate the power of the built environment. Those streets and buildings, parks and coffee shops that I had walked in and out of all my life have been gradually transformed from neutral background noise into thickly moral elements. The way what we believe is mapped out onto the places we live has fascinated me. I have degrees in philosophy and theology, but I have been eager to find something a little less ethereal and a little more practicable. Maybe this is it.

A good city means an environmentally sustainable, socially rich, economically diverse, and fundamentally humane city. I want to imagine how a city could be organized in such away without drifting off into an untenable utopian fantasy.

Missoula will figure heavily throughout, not only because it happens to be where I live but also because living here has been a major catalyst for my interest in urban design. I also have a particular interest in examining what role urban churches have in forming good cities. What are some practical ways that churches can seek the welfare of the city?

The wonderful book Sidewalks in the Kingdom by Eric Jacobsen is somewhat of a departure point for this exploration. The ghost of this book will be wandering around each of the posts, poking it's head into whatever topic is at hand.