Eric O. Jacobsen. The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. 304 pp. $25.00.
The church I pastor has a strong commitment to place: the neighborhoods we live in, the streets we travel, the businesses we frequent. In a city known for sprawl, this commitment isn't easy to practice. Recently, our elders have been deliberating whether future officers ought to live within our parish. One suggested, “What matters is how you live, not where the dirt under your bed is located.” Another countered, “I agree, but doesn't it matter where the dirt under your front porch is located?”
What do you think? When you walk out of your front door, does the first space you step into affect your ability to live faithfully as a Christian? Does it have any bearing on biblical priorities like evangelism, justice, hospitality, and community?
Eric Jacobsen, a Presbyterian pastor in Tacoma, Washington, believes it does. His 2003 Sidewalks in the Kingdom argued that Christian theology comports well with New Urbanism, a burgeoning urban-design movement that resurrects pre-World War II principles for creating mixed-use neighborhoods built more for pedestrians than for cars. His latest, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, provides a more comprehensive framework for thinking practically and theologically about place. The book’s three main sections summon Christians to orientation, participation, and engagement in this central aspect of our existence.
Jacobsen writes with the mind of a professor and the heart of a practitioner, weaving history, theology, illustrations, and practical examples into a compelling portrait of life lived well before God and with others. Church and civic leaders will find it especially insightful, but so will soccer moms, college students, and cubicle-dwelling commuters. All who embrace his perspective will find themselves more self-consciously drawn toward wisely built places, and more committed to improving fragmented ones.
God's Gift of Place
As the title suggests, Jacobsen focuses not on buildings but on the spaces people cultivate between them—those marked by features like sidewalks, plazas, alleyways, yards, and parks. Such places aren't just static arrangements of asphalt, stone, and foliage but enacted spaces that demonstrate a “dynamic interaction of people and props in a particular place through time” (17). In other words, they're the places “where the story of our salvation is played out” (26).
If such concerns seem spiritually incidental, Jacobsen reminds us that Scripture holds place in high esteem—starting with its grand narrative arc that begins in a garden and ends in a city. In between, God's promise to root his people in a particular place fueled their hopes and fed their sorrows for centuries. Even our Savior's identity was tethered to a place: Jesus of Nazareth. What's more, Jesus preached about a kingdom of shalom, or peace, that extends to every facet of human existence, including the material world he declared “very good” and commissioned us to cultivate. This kingdom is here already, but not yet in its fullness.
God, Jacobsen argues, has given us four underappreciated gifts for participating in his already-but-not-yet kingdom: the gift of embodied existence, the gift of a place in which to thrive, the gift of community, and the gift of time. How we steward each is shaped by—and also shapes—the built environment around us. Sound theology shapes healthy environments, and healthy environments help us enact sound theology.
Places of Shalom
Consider your experience of favorite places. Can you walk to multiple, varied destinations safely, pleasantly, and in a reasonable amount of time? Does the arrangement of space naturally invite neighbors and even strangers into conversation? Do natural features, buildings, and monuments complement and enhance one another, creating a distinctive ethos in which generations of memories are embedded? Are essential goods and services easily accessible on foot? Wherever such features obtain, a healthy theology of place is on display, encouraging relationships across lines of class, ethnicity, ideology, and culture.
Jacobsen draws from multiple disciplines to furnish readers with a serviceable vocabulary for interpreting the elements of good placemaking. Expressions like “town fabric,” “streetwall,” “aspect ratio,” “enclosure,” “virtual thresholds,” “third places,” and “outdoor rooms” describe phenomena that non-experts recognize instinctively but don't have the categories to understand or appreciate. As he warns early on, “This book just might change the way you look at everything” (24).
Wise living is as much about anthropology as theology; how we understand God's character and our own design. Accordingly, Jacbsen’s first section, “Orientation,” asks readers four questions: Who are you? Where are you? What are you? and When are you? His answers pave the path toward a God-centered, kingdom-oriented, embodied human identity while charting the various historical and philosophical sidewinds that have blown us off course in recent decades. Of particular interest is the 20th-century emergence of a rationalist, mechanistic approach to urban planning. The catastrophic failures of high-rise public housing projects stand as blighted monuments to its folly.
In Jacobsen's account, the chief emblem of disordered place is the automobile. Not only are we “more likely to find places of shalom in environments built before the proliferation of automobile culture” (275), but we tend to make our cars into idols of individualistic self-determination. Jacobsen defines idolatry as “placing something in the center of our existence that has no business being there” (53). It's hard to imagine a better description of almost any environment built in the last 60 years. Factors as mundane as curb radii and street width have made our places hospitable for fast-moving cars and hazardous for slow-moving pedestrians. Yet in general, “environments designed for slower navigation may be better suited for the faithful living of an embodied human” (40). Rather than consumeristically asking, What would Jesus drive? Jacobsen encourages us to consider “why in the United States we have built a world in which Jesus would have to drive an automobile to participate in daily life at all” (207).
Other modern innovations such as central air conditioning have drawn us away from front porches that for centuries drew people into conversation with each other and their neighbors. It's now possible to drive from an air-conditioned home garage to an office parking garage and back, spending entire days without interacting with a single stranger. Consider the corresponding effect on loving our literal neighbors and sharing the gospel with them.
That said, Jacobsen is no Luddite; wisely embracing the benefits of cars, air conditioning, and communications technology simply means working against their unintended side effects. The way to shalom is neither nostalgia nor revolution but God’s way of redemption. He even cites my own city of Atlanta—a former posterchild for suburban sprawl—which is now building an innovative Beltline of trails, parks, transportation, and workforce housing around little-used rail lines to reconnect our balkanized intown neighborhoods.
Redeeming Place for People
Jacobsen's second section, “Participation,” explores the arenas of family, church, and politics. Few Christians would disagree that these are primary fields for exercising our faith, yet too few have considered how the built environment tends to misshape them. Older generations still remember when children roamed their neighborhoods in safety for the bulk of daylight hours, yet moral decay alone can’t account for the shut-in contrast today. Could single-use zoning and terminal, cul-de-sac street layouts (misguidedly created to insulate us from moral decay) be contributing to why we no longer trust our neighbors—or even know their names? Could the scarcity of actual physical public squares help explain why our political climate is so toxically polarized?
For centuries, one of the most common spaces around church buildings was a cemetery. For newer churches today, it's more likely a vast parking lot or multi-story parking deck, increasing the physical and psychological distance between our worship and the unbelieving world around us. Is it any wonder that effective evangelism requires so much more time and energy to build bridges between faith and unbelief? What percentage of our church budgets are dedicated to engineering “community” that used to occur naturally where we live, work, learn, and play—and with a far more diverse set of participants than the typical age-and-stage compartments of modern church life? Lifestyles of spiritual commuting have dis-jointed and dis-membered the whole body of Christ.
Jacobsen's third section, “Engagement,” draws more unsettling concerns about environmental sustainability, social justice, creative work, and even bodily health—all of which are dear to the heart of God and profoundly affected by the environments we build. Can you guess the “greenest” city in America—that is, with the lowest carbon footprint per capita? New York City. And Jacobsen cites Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose research found that “urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity. . . . [It] turns out that the world isn't flat; it's paved” (218). How and where we pave it will directly affect the holistic well-being of our friends, family, and neighbors.
Loving and Resting in Place
The Space Between concludes with two chapters exploring existential, relational, and aesthetic factors that most obviously affect the practice of our faith. Our Christian calling to show hospitality to strangers, so central to the biblical social ethic, requires physical links between public, social, personal, and intimate levels of belonging. The nature of the spaces between them will either help or hinder our ability to traverse them. And when we're not working, the built environment will either invite us to rest or goad us to keep working.
“Love bonds us to the place where we live,” Jacobsen says, “but our love can also shape the place we live” (240). Jesus loves our places in his world, and one day he will return to redeem them fully for his glory. Until then, should we not love them, too—and avail ourselves of every resource he's given us to improve them?