WORLD Magazine recently featured TSW staff member Christopher Leerssen, who was interviewed on the built environment and building community. The article is on the magazine’s web site and is also reprinted below.
Man about town
Interview: Urban planner Christopher Leerssen sees caring about the built environment as one way Christians love their neighbors | Mindy Belz
“As a Christian architect I try to reflect the order and the creativity of our ultimate creator—to somehow point to hope and faith and many times humility through our edifices,” is a straightforward statement of purpose from prize-winning architect Christopher Leerssen. The Georgia Tech graduate specializes in architecture both vertical and horizontal, serving as an urban planner in Atlanta with expertise in designing infill and urban mixed-use developments around the Southeast.
Planning communities, he says, should include a biblical expression not only of beauty but also justice and mercy, where justice can be a sidewalk and mercy a bench for the homeless.
WORLD: What makes for a great community?
LEERSSEN: Some folks would say that community is only people, and I would agree partially, but I would also forward that the form or shape of the place will influence and affect how great that community can be. Truly beautiful, lovable places have both a visual loveliness and an experiential charge to them.
I would say what makes for a great community is a respect for the human. It comes from an understanding, written or unwritten, that we are image bearers of a Divine Creator. From that knowledge stems great people places: places of worship, discourse, learning, and market.
My view of greatness entails well-roundedness. While rare, a free democracy is paramount; greatness cannot come on the backs of others.
WORLD: How do you translate those abstract ideas into concrete reality?
LEERSSEN: I am certain that participating in public life is a must for believers, and if there isn’t that sidewalk or park or space where people rub shoulders, either start one or move to some place that has a real community.
Also, when the time comes for a vote on community plans and zoning, don’t be afraid of people different from you (smaller houses) or of density (apartments). A compact urban form is necessary for an ecologically sustainable future and fiscally, a dense city is easier to service, police, and beautify.
WORLD: How does the design of traffic flow patterns and streetscapes advance the kingdom of God?
LEERSSEN: Traffic can either give or take away time to be with other people—family, strangers or otherwise. And streetscapes and their sidewalks are the bedrock to good public space—they are the glue that holds diverse neighborhoods together.
WORLD: Are big-box stores and mega-malls then unbiblical?
LEERSSEN: No, not really. They certainly serve a purpose in commerce; however, their deleterious impacts on community, traffic, other businesses, and the environment should not be overlooked. As with any business you should ask if the manner in which they deliver the product is ethical and in line with what you believe. We all can display a slick form of greed when we price shop to an extreme. Price warring has resulted in shopping centers that look like they dropped from outer space—they are entirely auto-oriented and far from a beautiful or uplifting human environment.
WORLD: You have said, “A powerful tool for the spread of the gospel is lost when our public realm is dismantled.” What do you mean by dismantling and what can be done to reverse it?
LEERSSEN: Dismantling the public realm starts with building inward-looking, privately focused developments, be they single-family homes with garages at the street or gated apartments, all linked by roads that have no sidewalks. Or take the schools that are only accessed via automobile, fenced in and off limits, having no real connection to their surrounds and engendering no other public activities at any time of the day.
Where do religions have their greatest impact? Dispersed through the countryside or in the network hubs where new ideas and change are a given? Where did the early apostles go—to the outskirts or to the center? Reversing our inward-focused mindset entails loving to be with other people at the park, on the way to work, at the school. Loving to know your neighbors and to have the opportunity to serve them is paramount to spreading the gospel.
WORLD: Is there a specific role for churches in this process? Do churches resist civic engagement as “not direct ministry”?
LEERSSEN: Certainly, churches and their buildings should be less clubby, private affairs and more of that common ground for “the Church” proper to interact with the outside world and skeptics. Churches could open wide their doors by hosting art shows, financial seminars, offering mercy, and musical performances—invite the public in and create that haven for public discourse.
Churches are also buildings. Congregations must have a very good understanding architecturally how their master plan contributes to the fabric of the community. The church could regain some of her stature and prominence in our communities if congregations would locate and design their site in such a way to be less insulated and boring.
Many churches these days, when expanding their facilities, look for the 10-20 acre site on cheap land with good access (Sound like a familiar story? Think big retail). This ensures the church is only accessible by automobile and probably nowhere near any preexisting human activity in the community—it’s no wonder we’ve lost some of our connection with the world.
The better scenario is to look for the spot near some nexus of human energy and build a church which fits into that context. The really exciting hybrid of that positive scenario is when churches also play developer (likely through a partnership of sorts) and add housing or major mercy facilities into their master plan.
WORLD: Since Atlanta is your hometown—and to many a maze of overbuilt freeways and endless shopping meccas—how do you interact with locals to improve your own public realm?
LEERSSEN: Hotlanta—the city too busy to hate. Its energy and youthfulness are intoxicating, but from a planning and architectural standpoint we’ve grown inebriated with our success and grown too fast. It really is a fantastic laboratory to test out various patterns of building a city: solid intown neighborhoods with transit, walkability, historic properties, and decent retail; first-ring suburbs that are for the most part imploding due to an exodus of fleeing families and downward real-estate values; second-ring suburbs that seem to do OK but are stiflingly boring; and the exurbs, which is a horse farm next to gated cul-de-sac that could go on quite literally till Tennessee. Frankly, due to our abuses of the land, we are returning back to time-honored principles of city building.
We all have to help locally, and for me that means serving on the board of my neighborhood and chairing our zoning committee. There very local decisions about density and design and streetscapes are made as we negotiate with developers and landowners. I attend planning workshops and interact with the process, and many times end up angling for the rights of the poor, the elderly and car-less.
My family also sits on our porch a good bit; we take walks and are available for neighbors. We make use of our parks and sidewalks and trails so that we can enliven and reinforce the idea of being with other humans. We walk to dinner, to shopping, and to transit, saying hello usually to more than one neighbor. Once the coffee shop opens up, we’ll be there, too. We don’t watch a lot of TV—we’d prefer to interact with ruddy faces, not glowing ones.
WORLD: What can fellow Christians do to improve the growth of their communities in meaningful and practical ways?
LEERSSEN: Be more mindful of the physical spaces around you—begin to ask yourself some questions about the places in which you dwell. Are your daily places those where you have the opportunity to interact with other image bearers? What does your commute do for you? Are you active in your neighborhood—allowing you to more fully know and love your neighbors? Is your church active in its (maybe the same) neighborhood? Community is both physical and nonphysical, but God gives us the capacity to dwell in and improve both.