Planning better places

“Help make better places” is the strap line of my department. It’s fairly good as far as strap lines go, and is reflected in the goals of many of our students. It recognises that the cities and habitats we live in at the moment are far from perfect, but does so without diminishing the hope that we can improve both our situation and those of others.

The complexity, and the fun, arises when we start to consider what a better place might look, feel and smell like. We reveal our values and aspirations as we consider questions, such as what does ‘better’ mean, and for whom? We take theoretical concepts about space and society and use them to frame our discussions about making places, transposing our values into changes in our (largely) urban environments. In this sense planning is both a theoretically driven subject to study and an everyday experience as we shape the places around us.

So then, for the Christian, as for everyone else, our values are exposed as we promote a vision for society in space, for how places will work for our communities. But, how does the Christian decide on an appropriate vision? How do they bring theoretical understanding and everyday experience together to please Christ?

I have found the glimpses of Reformational philosophy I have seen to be of great help in shaping my framework for combining everyday experience and theoretical concepts. I’ve also found the work of others who have written explicitly about place and space from this perspective very useful, not least the work of Craig Bartholomew.

Bartholomew’s book Where Mortals Dwell provides a useful framework for Christians to work through an approach to place and planning. The first part of the book considers what Place means in various passages of the Bible, as well as the overall thrust of scripture. Humans as implaced creatures look for redemption as reimplacement, looking forward to the new Jerusalem as a place with God as co-inhabitant. The second part considers how Western Philosophical and Christian Traditions have conceived of place, revealing how the theological and philosophical perspectives have been intertwined and at times have been less critical of each other than they could have been. The third part develops Bartholomew’s thinking of a Christian view of place in the twenty first century.

Building on a christocentric trinitarian view of place means starting from God as the prime reality. Creation then flows as the place for humans to enjoy co-habiting with God, an ordered place for relationships, cultural development and environmental stewardship. Whilst the fall opens up the possibility of misdirection in the order of place, a Christian approach to planning seeks to redirect it. Consider the centre of your neighbourhood: its layout and design may well be dominated by the prevailing societal worldview and philosophical schools of trained planners. But a Christian perspective seeks to see these places as part of God’s order. A planner might respond by seeking not to prejudice one aspect over another, making places which are simultaneously supportive of relationships between humans, without damaging the environment, not pitting culture against nature; places that are sympathetic to, but not beholden to, the historical narrative of a site; places that encourage commerce without making economic success the pinnacle of the neighbourhood.

One joy of planning is that even though we recognise our neighbourhoods are not what they could be, we all have a role to play in making better places. As home makers, gardeners, neighbours, employees and students, we help make the places around us and influence how others experience our shared places.

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