Lacking Soul: On Urban Design

Here are men that alter their neighbor’s landmark … shoulder the poor aside, conspire to oppress the friendless … Reap they the field that is none of theirs, strip they the vineyard wrongfully seized from its owner … A cry goes up from the city streets, where wounded men lie groaning … (Job 24). There is (or should be) an informed theological response to built environments, as well as the natural environments. We are called to be concerned for the well being of the built and natural environments and all those who reside within.

NOTE: This piece was written several years ago when I was working in the field of urban behaviors and neighborhood future-visioning. Not much has changed these several years later. As we brew our speculative theology I think it behooves us to think about how our theology informs and interacts with the world around us (and it must). In this case the built environment.

The other day a friend mentioned that the downtown of a nearby small city had been held up at a recent preservation conference as an example of a revitalized downtown. Now while that downtown is indeed charming, it is hardly vital. In recent visits I have seen little evidence of any vitality. This downtown, I think, is a perfect example of what is wrong with much of what passes for urban planning and design these days. Urban planners, designers, and their ilk, have been taught how to design attractive façades, but nothing of how to revitalize the soul of a place.

Today's urban planning and design is often nothing more than cosmetic surgery. And like cosmetic surgery, all the work is on the façades. No attention is paid to addressing internal urban decay or its root causes. There is no soul. There is nothing that makes it whole. Cosmetic surgery, to be brutally honest, may make a person outwardly appear attractive, but it can never make a person inwardly attractive. In much of today’s urban planning and design no real attention is paid to the life force that beats within every urban space. Little attention, likewise, is paid to the needs of the people who will inhabit and work in the "new city" and "lifestyle centers." If anything, contemporary urban design seeks to dictate lifestyle rather than flow from the lifestyles of those who will live, work, and play in these "revitalized" urban cores and neighborhoods.

Please understand, I am not opposed to urban revitalization, it is, after all, how I make my living. Without revitalization places decay and die, and places that are merely preserved or restored quickly become moribund. Nevertheless, approaching urban revitalization solely from the design concept is a flawed approach, one that can never hope to revitalize the urban soul. Design alone can no more create the soul of a place than can the body the soul of a human. On the contrary, the soul takes the person and gives it shape, texture, and substance. In fact, the body can trap – inhibit – the full expression of the soul. The true soul of a place, with all of its nuances, needs to be discovered and then coaxed into fullness, before any design is contemplated. The design – the plan – must flow from the soul. It is soul that must give birth to design, not the other way around. When we merely for the sake of revitalization, begin to impose new directions that are contrary to place, we run the risk of destroying the individuality – the soul – that already exists.

This, of course, begs the question, what is "soul"? Perhaps we best find our answer in the Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, literally, "breathing;" in other words, that which is intrinsically living, vital. From an urban planning standpoint, then, "soul" is that which breathes life into a place. It is the holy breath of a place that makes a space a place, according to the ancients. "Holy breath" implies that Place is a living, breathing entity, sometimes at rest, other times awake, even throbbing with vitality; always dynamic, at rest or awake.

Holy and wholly are one and the same, both have the same root. For a place to be holy it must be whole. Façades are merely, as the word implies, faces. Often not faces at all, but an artificial, deceptive mask hiding decaying interiors that need to be made whole. Are not window dressings often called "façades"? One of the meanings for the Indo-European root of "façades" is "to doom," or "to defeat." Could we not suggest that mere design or plan – design or plan that does not flow from the soul of a place – might in fact defeat the very the purpose of the plan in the first place, that is, urban revitalization?

When organic growth is supplanted by imposed ideas, the fertile, fragile spirit, the soul, of place comes under attack, falling victim to ill-conceived plans. Mystical spiritualities tell of a "creative breath," or melody, that breathes place into existence. Call it what you may, but it is this "life-force," the dynamism, that gives place soul, that makes a space a Place. The song motif serves us well in suggesting the solution, as well as the problem. Simply put, the creative melody is no longer heard in the discordant clamor of our dysfunctional urban cores and neighborhoods, and worse yet, we are trained not to hear it; trained rather to create a new song to mask over what we cannot, or wish not, to hear. The art of hearing, interpreting, and understanding the song is rarely taught in our schools of urban design, planning, and architecture. Yet, this is precisely what we must attempt to do if we are to plan and design—create, if you will, revitalized neighborhoods. We must listen for, hear, and understand the life-force, the dynamic flow, of the neighborhood.

It is easy in writing such an essay as this to fall into the pit of telling "what" without telling "how." So, how does one go about hearing, interpreting, and understanding? Easier asked, than answered. Yet, the answer is deceptively simple: listen ... and then, listen again. The thesis of Edmund Bacon's seminal work, Design of Cities (Studio/Viking, 1967), is that city design is "a people's art." By that he means that design must "meet the needs of the people." This, Edmund, writes is accomplished by listening to the people, soliciting their "democratic feedback" and then modifying the design to fit the people and their needs, as they express and understand them.

I have found that people want to tell you their stories. I have learned the hard way that these stories must not be brushed off as time wasted, for it is in these stories that the kernels of neighborhood regeneration are found. Each story is the story of the individual as he or she reacts within and with the neighborhood; the neighborhood's built, natural, and human environments. These individual stories melded together become the seminal narrative of the neighborhood. It is in this narrative, brimming with crushed dreams, fulfilled joys, and potential hopes, that the song is found and heard. It is in the hearing, properly interpreted and understood heard that we find the seeds that give birth to a design that is shaped by the soul of The place. It is in this song that seeds of wholeness are found, seeds that properly sown will burst forth in sustainable, regenerative, revitalization.

Good interpreting requires that we listen, really listen, a most difficult thing to do, indeed. This is listening that sets our own preconceived ideas and ego-driven needs aside. We must listen to acutely hear what is being said between the lines, what not being said, as well as what is inadequately being said. And we must accept what is being said, even if we do not like what we hear. Listening is the opposite of arguing, of making what is said of no consequence. Arguments polarize and stiffen opposition. Out of listening the right questions flow. For design to be regenerative, revitalizing, it is essential the right questions be asked and correctly answered.

These seeds have often become frozen as objects to be desired and wanted. The trick is to translate – not alone but in concert with those telling the stories – these objects into qualities by opening up the implications and conflicts inherent within the narrative. It is moving beyond the perceived needs to build upon the (often unrealized) assets. It is interpreting site restrictions to fit, not force-fit people into the restraints of site.

First printed in Urban Paradoxes: Flâneur, an online urban blog (now discontinued).

© Frank A. Mills 08.01.20

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