How do these themes connect with Americans, who mostly live in either suburban or urban environments?
Harris: That’s one distinction between a Christian take on creation and a secular romanticism about wilderness. Think about Psalm 104. In that psalm, which echoes Genesis, you don’t just have “the sea and everything in it”; you have ships on it, working. You don’t just have the land; you have people, working. There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet. That’s not the biblical view at all. A Rocha in the United Kingdom actually works in the most polluted, urban borough of the country, because creation isn’t absent just because people are there. The challenge is how to restore a right way of life, rather than escaping to some wilderness paradise. Fifty percent of the planet now lives in cities. That is where we live out our relationship with creation.
As Christian conservationists, do you see urbanization as a good thing, a bad thing, or something neutral?
Harris: My biblical theology means I cannot see it as a bad thing. The ultimate biblical vision is the heavenly city. Our challenge is the redemption of the urban, not the consecration of wilderness.
Peterson: I agree, and I don’t think we realize how much of our view of wilderness comes to us through the Romantic movement. Romantic literature was written at the height of the industrial city, with its exploitation, poverty, and child labor. In reaction to all that, they gave us the concept of nature as romantic. But it’s not romantic.
Harris: It may not even be natural. Sir Ghillean Prance, who has studied the Amazon rainforest for decades, believes that the very diversity of the rainforest is a result of gardening. The human beings who lived there selectively used it and tended it, and that is the best way to account for its extraordinary botanical diversity.
Even biologically, the idea of a pristine, teeming world without human beings probably isn’t accurate. Britain is certainly a case in point. The original British form of vegetation was a pretty monocultural oak forest. It was only as farming came and we had a diversity of habitats that we had the biodiversity that we cherish on the British Isles today.
So we should understand the human presence on the planet in God’s purposes as a blessing.
For years, academics, the media, and big-city developers have been suggesting that suburbs were dying and that people were flocking back to the cities that they had fled in the 1970s. The Obama administration has taken this as gospel. “We’ve reached the limits of suburban development,” Housing and Urban Development secretary Shaun Donovan opined in 2010. “People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities.” Yet of the 51 metropolitan areas that have more than 1 million residents, only three—Boston, Providence, and Oklahoma City—saw their core cities grow faster than their suburbs. (And both Boston and Providence grew slowly; their suburbs just grew more slowly. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, built suburban residences on the plentiful undeveloped land within city limits.)
All this suburbanization means that the best unit for comparison may be, not the core city, but the metropolitan area; and the census shows clearly which metropolitan areas are growing and which are not. The top ten population gainers—growing by 20 percent, twice the national average or more—are the metropolitan areas surrounding Las Vegas, Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Riverside–San Bernardino, Orlando, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, and Atlanta. These areas are largely suburban. None developed the large, dense core cities that dominated America before the post–World War II suburban boom began. By contrast, many of the metropolitan areas that grew at rates half the national average or less—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, New York—have core areas that are the old, dense variety. Planners and pundits may like density, but people, for the most part, continue to prefer more space.
What makes [Vancouver] unusual—indeed, at this point unique in all of North America—is that roughly 20 percent of its residents live within a couple of square miles of each other in the city’s center. Downtown Vancouver is a forest of slender, green, condo skyscrapers, many of them with three-story townhouse units forming a kind of podium at the base. Each morning, there are nearly as many people commuting out of the center to jobs in the suburbs as there are commuting in. Two public elementary schools have opened in downtown Vancouver in the past few years. A large proportion of the city’s 600,000 residents, especially those with money, want to live downtown.
No American city looks like Vancouver at the moment. But quite a few are moving in this direction. Demographic inversions of one sort or another are occurring in urban pockets scattered all across America, many of them in seemingly unlikely places. Charlotte, North Carolina, is in the midst of a downtown building boom dominated by new mixed-use high-rise buildings, with office space on the bottom and condos or rental units above. Even at a moment of economic weakness, the condos are still selling briskly.
We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once. But we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. For several decades now, cities in the United States have wished for a “24/7” downtown, a place where people live as well as work, and keep the streets busy, interesting, and safe at all times of day. This is what urbanist Jane Jacobs preached in the 1960s, and it has long since become the accepted goal of urban planners. Only when significant numbers of people lived downtown, planners believed, could central cities regain their historic role as magnets for culture and as a source of identity and pride for the metropolitan areas they served. Now that’s starting to happen, fueled by the changing mores of the young and by gasoline prices fast approaching $5-per-gallon. In many of its urbanized regions, an America that seemed destined for everincreasing individualization and sprawl is experimenting with new versions of community and sociability.
Perhaps nothing will be as surprising about 21st-century America as its settledness. For more than a generation Americans have believed that “spatial mobility” would increase, and, as it did, feed an inexorable trend toward rootlessness and anomie. This vision of social disintegration was perhaps best epitomized in Vance Packard’s 1972 bestseller A Nation of Strangers, with its vision of America becoming “a society coming apart at the seams.” In 2000, Harvard’s Robert Putnam made a similar point, albeit less hyperbolically, in Bowling Alone, in which he wrote about the “civic malaise” he saw gripping the country. In Putnam’s view, society was being undermined, largely due to suburbanization and what he called “the growth of mobility.”
Yet in reality Americans actually are becoming less nomadic. As recently as the 1970s as many as one in five people moved annually; by 2006, long before the current recession took hold, that number was 14 percent, the lowest rate since the census starting following movement in 1940. Since then tougher times have accelerated these trends, in large part because opportunities to sell houses and find new employment have dried up. In 2008, the total number of people changing residences was less than those who did so in 1962, when the country had 120 million fewer people. The stay-at-home trend appears particularly strong among aging boomers, who are largely eschewing Sunbelt retirement condos to stay tethered to their suburban homes—close to family, friends, clubs, churches, and familiar surroundings. . . .
Family, as one Pew researcher notes, “trumps money when people make decisions about where to live.” Interdependence is replacing independence. More parents are helping their children financially well into their 30s and 40s; the numbers of “boomerang kids” moving back home with their parents, has also been growing as job options and the ability to buy houses has decreased for the young. Recent surveys of the emerging millennial generation suggest this family-centric focus will last well into the coming decades.
Irvine, California, was given the title, “Safest City in America” (over 100,000 people) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on June 1, 2009. I would like to submit that suburbs just like this may actually be the most dangerous places in America.
The suburban enclaves—with their middle-class citizens and well- manicured lawns, gates and guards protecting their Orwellian lifestyle and toys, Starbucks a few minutes from each busy intersection, and some of the best schools in the country—may actually be the most dangerous places to live. We may not have the high murder counts or robberies that urban centers have, but I wonder if the suburbs have become breeding grounds for the accessible and shallow thrills of drugs and alcohol abuse, extravagant parties and proms, and mere facades of happiness and the American dream. Just ask your local city drug dealer about his primary consumers: suburban teenagers and college students.
I’m not a researcher, but my gut impression from my travels and interactions with youth in the major cities of the world, as well as in suburbs and rural communities, is that they are all equally dangerous, just in different ways.
The dangers of the suburbs entail the lack of imagination (where do you find real art museums, innovative music venues, and creative opportunities to explore nature?); materialism; greed; isolation behind cookie-cutter neighborhoods and homogeneous clubs and churches; boredom: apathy; fascination with the relevant more than the real; a love affair with popularity more than loving the poor; and a thirst for excitement superficially satisfied in the Friday night party. All this takes precedence over a dangerous ride with God on the frontlines of his movement.
New York and other top cities—including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston—have been suffering the largest net out-migration of residents of virtually all places in the country, albeit the pattern has slowed with the recession.
It’s astonishing that, even with the many improvements over the past decade in New York, for example, more residents left its five boroughs for other locales in 2006 than in 1993, when the city was in demonstrably far worse shape. In 2006, the city had a net loss of 153,828 residents through domestic out-migration, compared to a decline of 141,047 in 1993, with every borough except Brooklyn experiencing a higher number of out-migrants in 2006.
Since the 1990s virtually all the gains made in the New York economy have accrued to the highest income earners. Overall, New York has the smallest share of middle-income families in the nation, according to a recent Brookings Institution study; its proportion of middle-income neighborhoods was smaller than any metropolitan area, except for Los Angeles. . . .
[M]iddle-class sensibilities get short shrift by urban scholars such as Richard Florida, who argue that in the so-called “creative age” places of residence should be “leased” like cars. In his mind, single-family homes, the ideal of homeownership, should be replaced “by a new kind of housing” that embraces higher forms of density without long-term commitment to a particular residence or location.
In fact, the sustainable city of the future will depend precisely on commitment and long-term residents. It also will rest on the revival of traditional institutions that have faded in many of today’s cities. Churches—albeit often in reinvented form—help maintain and nurture such communities. Similarly, extended family networks will be critical to future successful urban areas. As Queens resident and real estate agent Judy Markowitz puts it, “In Manhattan people with kids have nannies. In Queens, we have grandparents.”
Economic vitality may rely on a fast-paced lifestyle of risk and reward. But the creative class of one generation gives way to the next when they burn out and seek refuge in the suburbs. Just ask city pastors. This is the problem they struggle to solve. Turnover gives urban churches wide national influence. Ironically, it also undermines local community. So the very bonds of fellowship that attract young people to urban churches in the first place eventually dissolve when members lose their resolve to stay in the city.
Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust.
—Letter to the King of Persia, 539 B.C., quoted in Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, p. 12