A Theology of Public Space
Quite a few years ago I was working as a youth pastor at a relatively large church in York Region when I found myself on the phone talking to a stranger who had called the church looking for help. It was the holidays and the rest of the church staff were off on vacation and so it fell to me to take this call. The man had some form of mental health disability and was calling because he was in distress over a conflict with his neighbour in the low-income apartment building he was living in. He was feeling bullied and indicated that he desperately needed to find a new living situation because he couldn’t handle it anymore. As I listened, trying to figure out what I might be able to do about it, he finally said something that stuck with me: “I had already tried everywhere else and the church was the last place I could think of.”
This anecdote represents a collision of current issues that are pertinent for the church to consider. For one, there is the increased scarcity of social assistance available for vulnerable people to turn to – especially outside of the urban centres. As marginalized folks have been pushed out of the cores and into more remote settings, access to important resources has become harder to find. This is likely a combination of smaller communities simply not having these resources, decades of neoliberal syphoning of social services, and communities trying to push certain “undesirables” out in order to increase housing market value for their residents. However, it is not simply access to social support programs or services that is the only issue at play in the above example; there is also a less tangible access to a general public space on which the basis for support programs and the visibility of need can be built. It is this diminished public space that represents two sides to this crucial problem. On one side, this troubled individual lacked important relationships with the wider community that left him unsure where to turn for help. On the other side, the church faced a similar lack of relationships with vulnerable people in the community because they too had no shared common space in which to make those connections. And so the church becomes a desperate last thought for someone in need of help.
This relational gap between society’s more vulnerable populations and the church can be partially attributed to this growing absence of properly functioning public spaces. This is a problem that hurts us all. In his book on the topic, Parker Palmer notes that a key role a healthy public life plays is in teaching us our interdependence on one another. He writes,
A healthy public gives people the sense of belonging to a community of support, the sense that whatever scarcities the future may bring, the public will be able to cope… To belong to a community that cares, a public that knows how to distribute resources with equity - that is to know real abundance. (Palmer, The Company of Strangers)
However, it is important to understand that this relational gap will not be solved by the same colonising instincts that fueled the past several centuries of global Christian evangelism.1 The answer is not for the church to simply move into public spaces with the ambition to ‘redeem’ them or in an attempt to make themselves more visible to the rest of the public. This is a largely self-serving strategy that lacks an important starting place, careful theological reflection that informs their action. Thus, for the church to increase its ministry to vulnerable people, it is necessary for it to engage in theological reflection on the role and designations of public spaces within communities with the purpose of liberating them on their behalf.
Form follows function; buildings serve a purpose. For good or ill buildings, from the humblest garden shed to the grandest cathedral, make moral statements. (Timothy Gorringe)
Defining Public Space
For the church to critically reflect upon it for the purpose of liberation, we must begin by asking: to what are we referring when we talk about public space? While this at first may feel like a bit of an obvious thing, it is something that has been given quite a bit of attention by urban planners over the years. Perhaps a basic starting place is the idea that public space is simply the opposite of private space. Yet, even this is a tension that is ever shifting, evolving throughout history and across cultures. In their work, Public Space, Stephen Carr, Mark Francis, Leanne Rivlin, and Andrew Stone, write,
Most, if not all, settlements of people establish public and private spheres, areas with differing degrees of privacy and publicness. These public and private domains are a product of the prevailing values of a society, and reflect different degrees of recognition of the needs, rights, and quest for meaning of their members.
That being the case, if we wish to understand public space, we need to understand the role and function it plays in the wider society.
In his seminal work, Life Between Buildings, famed Danish architect and urban design consultant, Jan Gehl, describes the role of public space as “an opportunity to be with others in a relaxed and undemanding way.” Gehl, wisely, keeps the focus on function as he describes these as spaces where people can walk, sit, and talk. Also notably, he refers mainly to outdoor spaces. In a similar way, another pioneering writer on the topic, Jane Jacobs, points to city streets as being the prime location where people can meet. In writing of sidewalks, she states, “they bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion.” The important thing that both of these authors share is an emphasis on public space relating to the public – meaning other people. However, as Jacobs rightly notes, it is the possibility of bringing together strangers that truly constitutes public space. Intimate relationships – friends and family – are the domain of the private; it is the potential for encountering strangers that makes the public realm functionally distinct.
It is this foundational aspect, the bringing together of strangers, that makes public space so important while also so difficult to achieve. It requires that these spaces be open enough to hold diverse or even competing worldviews without being controlled by one. If a space becomes co-opted by a singular interest group or demographic, it will lessen the potential for strangers to come together. That means that public space must remain, as Ali Mandipour puts it, “outside the boundaries of individual or small-group control, mediating between private spaces and used for a variety of often overlapping functional and symbolic purposes.” A properly functioning public space is one that can hold and give life to multiple meanings from many different groups. This speaks to the democratic nature of public spaces as being inherently political but belonging to no particular political ideology. It is why the critical theorist Nancy Fraser advocates for the idea of multiple publics rather than speaking of one single, overarching public interest. Her work rightly acknowledges the inherent tensions in thinking too idealistically of the public sphere in societies where there are class, gender, and racial divisions. As long as there is a dominant class or culture that advantages some while disadvantaging others, public spaces will always be at risk of doing the same. Thus, a truly critical reflection on public space must consider the way society chooses to design it.
Designing Public Space
To design something is to make certain choices about it; choices that are guided by values, ideologies, social structures, and personal motives. What this means is that design is never neutral. While artists may be able to put their work into the world with the intention of letting people interpret it however they please, designers are burdened with the ethics of responsibility. Their work is not meant to be interpreted, it is meant to perform a specific function. This means that a designer’s main responsibility is to the users of their design.
Designers of public space share in that ethical burden. Every choice they make about what a space looks like, how much seating is available, how hospitable it feels to those with physical disabilities, how many bathrooms are available (if any), are all ethical choices. Margaret A. Somerville, professor of bioethics at Notre Dame Australia, talks about how architects help build the long term psyche of a society through the symbolic choices they make in their design.
Architecture builds walls. If we accept that architecture also sets symbolism for society, we need to ask not only, What is architecture walling in and walling out in a material or tangible sense? but also, What is it walling in and walling out in a symbolic sense in any given case?
This is essential when critically reflecting on public space. As we talked about earlier, at the core of understanding public space is the public; and it is in the design process that a decision is often made - sometimes unintentionally - around who exactly that includes and who it does not. Somerville’s point is that when decisions like this are made that exclude certain members from public spaces, as a society we are also symbolically excluding those members from our collective understanding of who makes up the public. Just as our public spaces reflect our values, the decisions we make around them go on to entrench or shape those values for the future. Palmer writes, “the word public means all of the people in a society without distinction or qualification.” We might add, without discrimination as well. The choices we make during the designing of public space says a lot about the sort of strangers we are comfortable to encounter.
Sometimes exclusionary design is an attempt by city officials to try and make a space unattractive to certain segments of society that they deem undesirable. This might be based in fear; fear that having those “undesirables” around may decrease property values or increase crime2 Other times this sort of exclusion is done because those leading the process fail to seek input from those who aren’t representative of the dominant culture, thus ensuring that the space functions primarily for them but not others. Somerville notes that “good ethics depends on good facts; and good facts depend on adequate input from a sufficiently broad range of persons.” It is a failure of design to not seek the opinions and feedback of those who are meant to use the space. It becomes unethical when we intentionally exclude those voices in order to benefit others at their expense. It then becomes a matter of justice when those who are excluded are further marginalised and cut off from important resources as a direct result of our choices. Former professor of urban planning, Martin Wachs, suggests
Justice […] deals ultimately with fairness and especially with regard for those who have less power and recourse to the control of resources than do others. Policies and plans must be attentive to distributive consequences and especially to impacts on those in disadvantaged positions.
Designing public space is an ethical decision-making process that speaks to a society’s wider values on the sort of people they value; and, as we will see in the next section, these decisions have a profound impact on those who are excluded.
As stated, public space has to do with function; and function is a design decision. The way we design our public spaces matters to everyone who uses them; but they matter more to those who rely on them. Vulnerable people3 rely on public space in ways that others do not. This is something that is often missed in conversations around planning or development, as those from the dominant culture often think only of their own interests. Many vulnerable people rely on public spaces because they don’t have access to the private alternatives that others do. Take recreation as an example, private options include gym memberships, backyards, sports and hobby clubs, cottages, and more. Most of these private options require money, connections, or even the free-time that many vulnerable people don’t have access to. Studies have shown that young people from low-income communities use public parks more frequently than those coming from affluent areas; yet, there are fewer parks in those communities per acreage. Another example is information, something necessary for learning or participating. With so much information now online, many communities are downsizing their libraries. However, decisions like that hurt the people who perhaps lack certain technical skills or even access to a computer or the internet. Libraries also offer spaces for groups to meet in, free classes, places for kids to play, and access to other support services. When budgets are decided solely by members of the dominant culture, these broader uses are often overlooked because they aren’t relevant to their lives. It’s not enough to fund these things only in affluent neighbourhoods or in certain, more desirable areas of a city because proximity matters for public spaces. Many vulnerable people, such as children, the elderly, or those with limited mobility are more tied to the places that they live. Again, this is something that is easily overlooked when decisions are being made by people who move around cities in their own cars or with other relative ease.
There is a further, less obvious role that public spaces play for vulnerable people; they are used to build important relationships. By their very nature of being public, these spaces offer visibility and networking opportunities for people who are otherwise invisible to the rest of society. Consider how, in more urban settings, many poverty stricken individuals sit or lie in the midst of sidewalks or plazas. While part of this may have to do with opportunities to earn money through panhandling, a more powerful function is the way it creates visibility of their need and can be used to build important relationships with support workers and other caring members of a community. Similarly, libraries and parks can be spaces where kids, seniors, disabled folks, and anyone of any socio-economic class or diverse background can come together and make their voices and stories heard by the rest of society. This is why many writers draw the connection between public spaces and democracy. The significance of public space to the wellbeing of vulnerable people cannot be overstated. When a society closes or limits access to its public spaces, it effectively erases them from the public eye.
The role that public spaces play for vulnerable people is most often pronounced in the midst of crises. In his book, Palaces for the People : How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, Eric Klinenberg references the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. He writes that during that week, 739 people died as a result of the record breaking temperatures. As Klinenberg looked for patterns around where deaths occurred across the city, he noticed the role that social infrastructure, what he refers to as the ‘physical places and organisations that shape the way people interact,’ played in the survival of more vulnerable communities. He writes,
When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and c collaboration among friends and neighbours; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Social infrastructure is crucially important because local, face-to-face interactions – at the school, the playground, and the corner diner – are the building blocks of all public life.
A recent example of this was the way in which the work of community groups and other grassroots initiatives helped pull Brampton, ON out of a state of emergency in the early part of the COVID pandemic to become one of Canada’s most vaccinated communities. In times of crisis, when those in power so often abandon marginalised communities and other vulnerable folks, it is these networks of ‘social infrastructure’ that determine their survival. The vital role that public spaces play in nurturing and expanding that infrastructure cannot be ignored.
We began this study by considering the relational gap that exists between the church and the vulnerable members of society. Hopefully, what has been established is the way in which properly functioning public spaces can be the location where such relationships might be forged. The question becomes how the church might play a role in ensuring that public spaces continue to function in such a way that they continue to serve vulnerable people. A starting place is that churches need to cultivate holy imaginations for their communities. This means thinking beyond the way we’ve been conditioned to imagine church. Palmer writes that, “any act that helps people recall their commonality is religious in the sense of helping to rebind our life together.” Churches need to think outside of their current structures and programs in order to imagine new ways of helping their communities build common lives together. We cannot be limited by the mistaken assumption that getting more people to attend our churches should be our only goal. Cultivating a holy imagination means rethinking what being the church in our context can look like. Thus, the church’s mission should not be about entering into public spaces in order to pull people out of them, it should be joining with others to liberate those public spaces to become locations of the in-breaking kingdom of God.
One way that churches can participate in the liberation of public spaces is by advocating for good decision making during the design process. As we previously explored, these decisions often reflect the values or political agendas of those in control of the process. They can make decisions about public spaces that negatively impact vulnerable people because no one is speaking up on their behalf or advocating for them to have a seat at the table. Sometimes this can mean just getting planners to not do certain things. On the importance of good seating in city centres, William H. Whyte remarks,
It takes real work to create a lousy place. In addition to spikes and metal objects, there are steps to be made steep, additional surveillance cameras to be mounted, walls to be raised high. Just not doing such things can produce a lot of sitting space.
As stated, exclusion is most often done by design; the more that the church understands the way these decisions impact vulnerable people, the better they can collectively advocate for inclusivity to remain a priority.
Another important way that the church can participate in the liberation of public spaces is simply by using them. This may not seem all that profound, yet in many communities, these spaces are terribly underused because of private options and people’s busy schedules. Parks, libraries, walking trails, city plazas, free clinics, community welcome events; how often does the church support and participate in these spaces? When we don’t use public spaces we send the message that they aren’t important, which justifies budget cuts. If the churches want to protect public spaces, using them is a great place to start. However, use has the added benefit of also forging those important relationships that have been so central to this study. By using public spaces, the church will begin to overcome that relational gap between them and members of vulnerable communities. Importantly, this can’t be conceived of as a one-off outreach project; it requires long-term presence. Jacobs, writing about how trust is formed on city sidewalks by
Many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level – most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone – is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need.
One of the most missional things that a church can do in a community is to simply use public spaces on a regular basis, paying attention to what is going on there, and to slowly let relationships form.
Finally, the church can help liberate public spaces by inspiring others to act on behalf of the more vulnerable people in their community. As we said earlier, exclusion happens because choices are made that erase those people from our public consciousness. By advocating for public spaces in planning and using them to keep them open, the church will be playing a role in keeping the vulnerable in our midst. As the church builds important relationships with them, and, perhaps begins to take up their causes, this will hopefully inspire other people around them to join in. Gehl notes that this is another key function that public spaces play, they help form how we live together.
When someone begins to do something, there is a clear tendency for others to join in, either to participate themselves or just to experience what others are doing. In this manner individuals and events can influence and stimulate one another.
Often, when faced with big problems, people don’t know how to act. It sometimes takes one person running towards the fire with a bucket of water to inspire others to do the same. By cultivating that holy imagination and getting outside of their buildings and programs and into public spaces for the sake of long-term presence, the church can show the whole community what proper shared life together can look like.
Learning to theologically reflect on our contexts is a skill that the church needs to reclaim. If we want to live more meaningfully in our daily experiences, we need to be able to increase our awareness of how we might join God in the liberation of our cities and neighbourhoods. God’s concern for the vulnerable is an invitation for the church to help pick up their cause within the communities we live in. As we critically reflect on the role that public spaces play for the vulnerable, we can discover meaningful ways to advocate for their wellbeing. This requires the church to understand the importance of public spaces for vulnerable people, to support them through advocacy and use, and to inspire others in the community to join in. In this way, the church can become for the vulnerable true spaces of liberation.
It is, of course, necessary to note that those methods did not work even then and the church in the West has a lot of decolonising and atoning to do as a result of those past (and recent) actions. ↩︎
Fear like this is necessary to interrogate as it often is entirely unfounded, based in prejudice or misinformation. Knowing how to combat that fear will be an important part of liberating public spaces. Gehl suggests that overwhelmingly, “good places are largely self-policing.” ↩︎
The term vulnerable people is doing a lot of work and perhaps needs a bit of a clarification. I am choosing to use it to refer to people (both individuals and communities) who are susceptible to harm, abuse, or exploitation. The reasons for their vulnerability are myriad and beyond the scope of this paper to discuss. I am, however, including those who face socio-economic difficulties because of their class, race, gender, age, disability, or other circumstances beyond their control. ↩︎