People of Faith and the Future of Cities

Presentation by Dr. Chris Elisara, Co-Director of WEA Sustainability Centre on creation care in the context of urban ecosystems. The presentation was part of ‘A Consultation on Cities: Mombasa, Kenya.’ The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


In the next 30 years the percentage of the world’s population living in cities will increase from 55 percent to 75 percent. This historic period of rapid global urbanisation exacerbates serious social, economic and ecological challenges. In his presentation, Dr. Chris Elisara discusses how people of faith can help address the challenges and opportunities of this global transformation through positive contributions to the development of cities that are commensurate with God’s vision for well-being and thriving for all.

If we are to understand the challenge of rapid global urbanisation, and respond to it properly, I believe we need a biblical reorientation of our faith toward the city. As part of that reorientation, we need to ask ourselves this question: what narrative do we believe about the city and how does it motivate us to engage with the city? In my own faith tradition, Evangelical Christianity, I believe we are working with muddled and perhaps even wrong narratives about the city. One pervasive and simplistic narrative that we have is that the city is bad, while original creation, or nature, is good. Simply put, cities are bad and incorrigible. 

I don’t believe that is the right way to think about the city from our Christian tradition. In the Genesis narrative we start in a garden living in fellowship with God, but we actually end up, as we go through the biblical story, living in fellowship with God in a city. But it is a specially designed type of city, it’s a garden city. In this narrative the city is something good because it’s designed properly for human habitation. It’s a garden city with trees in it and a stream that flows through it. The city is a place of healing and fullness of community for both non-human ecological communities and human communities, and God is present within the community. This all happens in the context of a city. On the other hand, if we have the concept that the city is bad and creation, or nature, is good, then I don’t think we’re going to have the imagination to work hard to overcome the challenges that we’re facing in cities and design the cities, towns, and neighbourhoods that we need. So let’s work on better understanding the city from our faith tradition’s perspective so we can act with faithful enlightened urgency in this pivotal period of human history.


Place Matters

Scripture teaches us that human beings, simultaneously created and placed in a garden, are emplaced beings. This means to be human, and to live fully human lives requires us to live in places that are commensurate with what it means to be human, which requires us to build and design places commensurate with human flourishing. And what are places like that like? Well, those are places where we can live in a just community together, but also in a healthy relationship with other geophysical systems so we have a stable climate with a livable temperature range, clean air, clean water, clean oceans, etc.. 

We need these healthy ecological systems for our food systems, but we also need them for the materials required to build the places we inhabit. We urgently need, however, to get the built environment right in the hamlets, villages, towns, and cities where we live our spiritual, social, culture and economic lives. That means people of faith need to relearn that place matters and take care of the totality of a place–the ecological systems and the built environment. Since place matters, we have to design and build in ways that bring natural systems and human built environments together with a shalom integrity, because the places where we live impacts on what it means to be human.

One way of building cities that meets this criteria is the 15-minute city, which is a way of designing places at a human scale. A 15-Minute City is basically saying let’s design a place at a human scale so that we can walk, or take a mobility scooter or a wheelchair, to all of the things we need within 15 minutes. With that design principle in mind we can design the places that we need, and fix the bad places we’ve already built. 


Faith Gathered and Faith Scattered

As people of faith, there are two key ways to contribute to sustainable cities. The first is based on our gathering together, which for most of us requires having a property, i.e., temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, and land. Because faith communities own properties we have a responsibility to care for those lands and buildings in this ecological context of multiple crises–the crises of biodiversity, the crisis of climate, but also many social crises too. Our buildings and our properties need to be thought through in ways that we can make them places of ecological refuge–green spaces, parks, and habitat restoration, like the prayer garden in Nairobi, Kenya. We also have a responsibility for making our properties the best they can possibly be for sharing the love of Christ through serving the community too. That’s what we can do as a ‘faith gathered’ community responsible for the land and buildings we own. 

Secondly, when we go out from our gathering places of worship we become a ‘faith scattered’ people living in the wider society. As members of society, yet informed by our faith, we can be advocates for the common good in our towns, places and neighbourhoods. This means advocating for good urban policies, city plans, and urban designs that benefit the common good.  As people of faith, therefore, we act for the common good of cities both in our roles as the ‘faith gathered’ when we act responsibly toward the land and buildings that are in our care, and in our ‘faith scattered’ role when as faith-informed citizens we can advocate for sustainable urban plans and designs. 


Working Together for Global Action

There are important organisations at the global level where people of faith can engage with these issues. For example, you can join the World Urban Campaign and bring what you are doing as a faith organisation into the conversation happening there. We need many more faith actors to work in these city spaces to create sustainable cities.

At Habitat III in 2016, evangelical leaders wrote a statement entitled The Gospel and the Future of Cities a Call to Action that presents what it means to take place seriously from an evangelical Christian perspective. I really encourage other faiths to do similar work and come up with statements that can be shared with the world in places like the UN where we are having serious dialogue about the future of cities. In those venues the world is looking at the challenges we’re facing in a rapidly urbanising world and trying to resolve them. As people of faith we should act from the places that we understand deeply, namely our own faith traditions, then bring our perspectives, values, and knowledge into these dialogues. In addition, we can and should join in with others at the table to design, finance, and build the sustainable, just, and beautiful cities we need.

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