All posts by Ivy Lau

Ivy got her B.A. in Public and International Affairs. After spending two wonderful years on staff with Manna, she is now part of a team working on green growth and climate actions in an international development organization. She is interested in learning about vocation/calling, politics of religion, sustainable cities, poverty, and whatever inspires her to start a new research project. (Yes she gets a tad bit too excited about too many things.) Ivy loves seeing God's reconciling grace in everything - even things without a silver lining.

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!)

WHY IS THIS MY NEW OBSESSION?

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.

WHY SHOULD A CHRISTIAN CARE ABOUT THIS?

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?

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From a prisoner to a watchman

“We have therefore, in the power of God, a look-out, a door, a hope; and even in this world we have the possibility of following the narrow path and of taking each simple little step with a “despair which has its own consolation” (Luther). The prisoner becomes a watchman. Bound to his post as firmly as a prisoner in his cell, he watches for the dawning of the day.” – Karl Barth

A lot of people move to D.C. to make an impact. Whether it is through research or advocacy, in the government or a non-profit organization, we are involved in the “change business.” We want to eradicate poverty, end human trafficking, and ensure equal access to water, education and healthcare for all. We take pride in the purpose and meaning of our work, but if you talk to any of us, you will recognize the disappointment, frustration and fatigue in our voice too. It is not uncommon for an idealist to turn into a cynic.

You can be cynical about everything, if you think about it. Those of us privileged with high education have the natural knack to question the progress, impact and potential of any plan or program.  We are critical of people’s competence and motivation too. The Oxford Dictionary defines a cynic as someone who “questions whether something good will happen or whether it is worthwhile.” Will victims of genocide ever recover and heal from trauma? Can government officials be trusted to use the foreign aid properly? Will we ever find solutions to the challenges of the refugee crisis and terrorism? It is not hard to understand why change agents burn out and lose heart.

Bertrand Russell has famously said, “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” There is something very right and profound about recognizing the limits of human capacity and the pervasiveness of sin. It is good and important to have realistic and sober expectations. After all, you can only keep your smiles on for so long if you run on the fuel of false hopes or an inflated view of human capacity to direct the course of history. There will be mistakes, failures and setbacks in the process of change – it is only wise to make some allowance for them. But does that justify hardening your heart to the possibility of change?

The problem of cynicism is that it often masquerades as wisdom. Soren Kierkegaard describes it well: “there is a shrewdness which, almost with pride, presumes to have special elemental knowledge of the shabby side of existence that finally everything ends in wretchedness.” The seductive power of cynicism lies in its allure of cleverness. It offers a kind of security from what Stephen Colbert calls “a self-imposed blindness” and “rejection of the world that will hurt or disappoint us.”(He’s so much more than a hilarious comedian!) I am not arguing for naiveté or even optimism. But I do think that Christians ought to look beyond the tragedies and wretchedness of this world to the promise and hope of receiving the pure gift of New Jerusalem. We just don’t know in full how the Spirit works all things together.  If we really believe that God is present and active, and that He will bring New Heavens and New Earth, we can labor to serve the Kingdom even if our efforts might not bring the final consummation.  We can make a difference without having to save the world. We can bear the pain of loving the world without giving in to defeat and paralysis. We can be brave, and take the risk of being disheartened, and learn something along the way.

I recently transitioned from campus ministry to international development. In my work on green growth and poverty reduction, I feel very privileged to see God’s heart to restore all things in more concrete details. I know the greenhouse gases will not vanish from the atmosphere because of the op-eds, videos, workshops and grant applications I helped to produce, but I trust that these small steps will lead to some mitigation and adaptation measures in some countries. We might never find evidence or resolution for a lot of the moving pieces, but I am very encouraged by the productive dialogues we have with government, and the economic models that are becoming more sophisticated and useful. We do not have absolute control over how long-lasting our impact will be, but we can focus on this season that is entrusted to us and let God surprise us. When I was in campus ministry, I knew I could not solve my students’ problems or force their growth. But I celebrated every moment when someone started to love the Word, when he or she prayed for humility, when relationships reconciled, when communities cried with those who mourned. That was exceedingly beautiful to me, because I saw the power of God made perfect in our weaknesses. Similarly, even though I know that New Jerusalem will not result from incremental gains of human efforts, I believe we can start walking towards it, in whichever policy space we are in and celebrate the victories that God wrought in his power and might.

Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends a lot on a person’s temperament, but it also depends on the discipline of the heart to choose hope over cynicism. I hope the grace of God will reorient us from being prisoners to watchmen, waiting for Him with joy, humility and hope, and that this blog will be a feast of the foretastes of the Kingdom, and a net catching glimpses of shalom.

Ivy graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in Public and International Affairs in 2011. She is interested in learning about vocation/calling, politics of religion, sustainable cities, poverty, and whatever inspires her to start a new research project. (Yes she gets a tad bit too excited about too many things!)