I think I am a City Mouse

Urban development and sustainable city planning caught my eye recently. And I am only scratching the surface of a very exciting evolution in what could be the most significant solution to climate change and resource scarcity, in both developed and developing countries. I am hoping to use this space to help organize what I am learning and thinking, and to invite discussions on this highly complex topic. (Read: this is to warn you that it might be a fluff piece. My mind is all over the place right now. But I do want to know what you think!)


Right now, about 50 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this will increase to 80%. What that means is: the number of people residing in cities will increase from 3.5 billion to 7.68 billion in less than 4 decades (assuming that the world population will grow to 9.6 billion in total, according to the UN)! Where are people going to live? Will the healthcare system and transportation network be able to support the needs? Where will cities find the funds for the necessary infrastructure, especially if the cities face the risk of more frequent and intense storm surges and flooding? This subset of questions points to a bigger web of serious challenges – and opportunities for careful planning and investment in the national and international agenda. Urban issues are all encompassing because they are inherently multifaceted, and linkages between the energy, water, transport, air pollution, health, education, housing and you-name-it require cutting-edge analyses, that need to be constantly updated and developed. Am I starting to sound boring? My point is, urban development is important (and interesting!) for the prosperity of the nations and the well-being of the population, given the staggering trend I just mentioned.

Another source of inspiration is a book by Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, who argues that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. That is no small claim! Besides being a delightful read, his book, Triumph of the City, has also captured my attention by highlighting the centrality of human interactions and innovations that is made possible by our proximity to each other in cities. Where do you find the best restaurants, museums and theaters? Cities. Where are the offices of big companies and banks located? Cities. Whether it is the impact of productive peers (you run faster if you are competing with someone, for example), or more effective communication in face-to-face interactions, we cannot deny the value of proximity to other people. What does that mean when we think about policies that incentivize or disincentivize the movement and connection of people?

That same question is addressed by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, from a design perspective. He spent 40 years studying how modern cities shape human interactions, and how the human needs for inclusion and intimacy should be seriously considered in how cities are built. His work has been used by the New York City Department of Transport to transform streets and public space that most of us remember and notice. One of the key elements of the face-lift is the creation of public spaces, in parallel to the bike lane, in the area between Times Square and Herald Square. Not only did that ease congestion and improve air quality, it has facilitated the interactions between people, and between people and their spaces.


I realized the common thread that runs through things that intrigue and excite me is: people. It’s all about the people and their relationships. As incarnational beings and stewards of this planet, our flourishing is critically determined by cities and spaces, more than we realize at least. Where we live, work, worship and play matters, even with the advancement of technology. (I personally think face-to-face interactions and online communication complement each other, but they don’t substitute for one another. The latter definitely does not replace the former.) What are your thoughts? Do you like the city you live in, and why? Does your faith affect how you see your city, or space, or urban policies?


11 thoughts on “I think I am a City Mouse”

  1. Wanna hear your thoughts on this but I think the greatest mistake in urban policy is feeling like we need to accommodate cars. Transportation has a huge effect on your experience of the city and relying heavily on cars reinforces consumption of the city, rather than participation and community-building.

    The concentration in cities is surprising – what is the rate of suburban growth? I figured more people are trying to get out of cities (at least for residence) then stay in them.

  2. Yes the most unfortunate cultural phenomenon that the West has exported is car-oriented planning. Up til a few years ago, NYC had no data on pedestrians but only on cars! (“You only measure what you care about.” said one Gehl architect. So true.) So as developing countries grow in income, we are expecting car ownership to rise and air pollution to worsen. The automobiles in developing countries are especially old and poorly designed…but people just love cars. it’s a lifestyle aspiration and status symbol. Raising awareness isn’t enough to solve this problem – but taxes and better technology will help, I think.

    Suburban growth, esp. in the States, is partly a product of bad policies. Examples are: home ownership is a sacred cow (just look at the tax incentives); places with temperate weather and the highest livability do not build up and therefore have affordable housing prices (think demand and supply in cities in Cali); gas price is artificially low; schools tend to be better in the suburbs because the public school system in cities is so messed up; etc. People leave the cities because they are disincentivized to stay.

  3. Thanks Ivy. Reading your article and then your comment made me think of something that’s near and dear to my heart: privacy, and its unfortunate (ironic?) tendency to lead to unhappy isolation. What are your thoughts about urban settings that increase privacy vs. our need for “inclusion and intimacy” (ex. cars are great for privacy, but also isolate you from those around you). What is the Christian value system for privacy but also intimacy in a city?

    Also, what does it mean about us as humans if the common perception that “people in cities are lonelier despite being around more people” is true? Is that a problem inherent in cities, or with the way cities are designed?

  4. Good questions, Han-wei! Hard ones too. I hope I will have better answers in a few months but let me take a stab now. People in cities feel lonelier…but what is the reference point? are we comparing them with those in the suburbs(or college), or their expectations? If we are looking at pure demand and supply, cities have no shortage of people, all kinds of people, people with all kinds of skills and interests and backgrounds. It shouldn’t be hard to find some kindred spirits. But the problem is one of information, access and matching – some cities make it harder than others. For example, commute in Beijing is notoriously long and difficult. If you spend 90 minutes standing with crowds on the metro every day, you will have very little energy or time to socialize or to get to know your neighbor (or your family for that matter). People can live under the same roof but not share life together in any meaningful way. Land use/zoning laws/building codes make a huge difference too. If an area is restricted to residential use only, with no parks or coffee shops or museums, it’s harder for people to hang out even if their proximity should have been convenient. Some cities harness their strength – density – really well; and some miss the boat.

    In a similar way, I think some cities are designed in a way that space is used more efficiently (or have better policies) such that housing is not exorbitant and therefore people will be able to afford private space, without sacrificing the benefits of the public space. Right now I am able to balance my social evenings with my “introvert weekends” (my roommates call them “grandma days”) because housing is affordable and I can retreat to my room, and because I live close to museums/zoos/coffeeshops/restaurants where I can meet up with others. When I miss the suburbs and driving, I miss the comfort, the silence, and the freedom. But I think I also miss feeling in control: being in control of my schedule, what I think about or not having to think about when I am in my space, who I can just not deal with for a while, etc. Obviously people have different temperaments and some need more space than others, but I also know that I have to think harder about how I am called to die to myself in those choices too. I won’t go as far as saying I have figured out a Christian system of navigating the tension between our need for privacy and our need for intimacy…but those are some very preliminary thoughts. In many ways, this is an age-old tension we wrestle with when it comes to understanding our independence and interdependence in community. the next book on my list is written by a pastor for a christian audience so that will give me some insights i hope!

  5. Great discussion, guys.

    As a Californian, I like my space. I’m sure others in my hometown of San Jose do too.

    You can have strong communities even in a somewhat car-centric city like San Jose. Many factors enter the picture. Balance is key.


  6. That’s definitely true, Long. I can speak from personal experience too! But it doesn’t take away from the fact that cities are more efficient than suburbs, in terms of the use of resources and carbon footprint/resident. Driving and space are really wonderful; but not without its costs (on common good).

    In terms of community, it is still easier to reach people, especially pools of talented people, in cities than suburbs. There are advantages to dense and walkable urban centers than suburbs can’t beat. Check out recent talks about the urban shift in the U.S. start-up economy: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2014/03/urban-shift-us-start-economy-one-chart/8749/ The Silicon Valley model may not be the most ideal.

  7. Great conversation starter, Ivy. What I’ve noticed about the city and the migration towards it is that all we know and recognize about human tendencies is manifested: all the glory and all the shame. By glory, we see cities become hubs of thought, communication, innovation, and community. By shame, we see segregation, isolation, and disparity. In everything that you are mentioning, do you see those same things applying to the inner city? Because the trends I am finding and hearing about in many cities are policies encouraging gentrification (which is not necessarily bad, but definitely leaves room for exploitation or unfair practices). This blog is populated by young aspiring professionals (such as yourself!) that make the city fresh and vibrant, but what are your thoughts of the implications of “urban explosion” on those who have been in the city for a long time and may not have a lot of financial flexibility to cope with radical changes to infrastructure driven by a different demographic?

    1. haha I was afraid someone might bring this up, Dave. This is a very, very complicated topic, with no lack of examples all around the world. I am tempted to address it in my next blog post but I will share this line of thought that piqued my interest: the poverty we see in cities and inner-cities are actually evidence of the opportunities. Why would people move otherwise? We have seen some of the most genius innovations in the slums of Rio and Mumbai, where many families rise above poverty in cities. That’s no excuse for bad and unfair policies though. One of the reasons why I find the trend of urbanization alarming, is that the poor will suffer and get stuck in the shame of cities. The people you are talking about often end up being the losers in the change. (that’s why development organizations are pushing for socially inclusive growth!) Some cities, like Paris, are happy to keep the cost of living high because they don’t want homeless or poor people to mar the face of their beautiful and prosperous city. The poor have no share in the glory of places run on that philosophy – which means, cities where rule of law is absent and will of people unimportant, might forcefully displace the poor population, or disregard their existence and needs in the process of city planning (Ironically those places need the resource efficiency of cities the most). On the bright side, the city mayor could eventually realize that a city of two tales is not a good city, and decide to serve the needs of the shadow demographic by honoring their rights. I am blanking out on examples now but will look for them actively. In the mean time, please feel free to share specific examples, questions and thoughts!

      1. Many of the benefits of living in the American city are partly due to the fact that many Americans just don’t live in cities, period. There are alternative arrangements: urban, suburban, rural, small town, urban suburb, etc. These help reduce the congestion, poverty, and social friction problems that you might see in densely populated cities like Mumbai (Bombay).

        Several cities out West (e.g., Seattle, Denver, San Jose) are finding the “happy medium” between the endless sprawl of L.A. and the concentrated madness of N.Y. Both cities no doubt are wonderful, but not everyone wants either one or the other. Again, some balance is key. While cities may encourage greater community and innovation, there’s something to be said for personal space and freedom, which are things we often take for granted. Great ideas can incubate in isolation also.

        Again, thanks for the article and response, Ivy. You’ve certainly sparked a really cool discussion on a topic everyone has to deal with every day. I’ve only checked out this blog very recently, but I commend you guys for carrying on the discussion on forming a Gospel-centered worldview post-Princeton.


      2. Thanks for the comment Ivy (and Jerms too). This is a hot topic (as it has always been), but consider Amy Chua’s book on the “Triple Package” or whatever. In it she compares people of poverty across various cultural norms. I haven’t read the book, but it effectively claims that certain cultures equip people from poverty to thrive when given the opportunity… while implying at the same time that others do not. It was controversial when first published because it almost seemed to imply a form of racism. However, it is also reflective of perspectives from those like Paul Ryan and his comments on how there is a certain culture in the inner cities that engenders poverty.

        While I don’t agree with their fundamental perspectives as to how or why this is the case, there is a distinction between America’s inner cities and others in the world (in fact there is even a distinction within cities in America). What I have found is the characteristic of despair, something that is difficult to differentiate between but certainly prevalent in my community as well as many others.

        It is best summarized in the anecdote told to me by my housemate. He described a conversation from an intern who had come to Wilmington’s inner city to work from Uganda. This volunteer said (paraphrasing a paraphrase): “When I first came to this country, I was angry. I came from a country in poverty, where we were poorer than many people here [in the city]. I was wondering why God had called me here. But after two weeks, I realized why. People here are like the walking dead. They have no hope; they live in despair.”

  8. Resonating with David Chen’s comment. In many ways, I think that living in community in a way that promotes the flourishing of all requires dying to our preferences not only in terms of private/public space, but also in terms of the kinds of people we get to know. In my mind, this is a more fundamental issue that our cities are a more macro reflection of. It’s awkward to relate to our neighbors and hang out with them if they are of a very different socio-economic or cultural background. And often, our lives are structured in a way that we wouldn’t naturally interact with people very different with us in these ways.

    Enter: CHURCH.

    This is why I hope to see our churches come to more faithfully reflect God’s Kingdom.

    What if the banker and the person on welfare were able to sit next to each other in the pews – or in adjacent plastic folding chairs – and together worship their father in heaven, who is no respecter of status, wealth, position?

    What if the educated and uneducated person could sit together and read Scripture together and discuss it? And pray together, being mindful that God is less interested in how intellectually-precise our prayers are theologically and more interested in our giving him our hearts together?

    What if the white, 45 year old family man, the asian yuppie 27 year old tech-entrepreneur, the 65 year old single latino middle-school teacher, the 34 year old black pastor, and the 15 year old high school student could get together at a church’s men’s group to pray for each other?

    Seems to me like the way we navigate space in the city, our choices in where and how we live, will be deeply affected if our churches looked like this.

    I know I took the topic off-course a bit, but I do think that looking at it from this angle helps us to see the organization of our cities & neighborhoods from a different angle that is important if we want to get a sense for what seeking the shalom of our cities really looks like!

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