I am a stranger in the city. A few years in Atlanta were the extent of my city-dwelling, and the entire time I always felt a vague sense of claustrophobia at being surrounded by the concrete moat of the I-285 beltway. Living since then on a farm in the rural Midwest, I am little used to the heavy traffic, crowds and sensory stimulation of urban centers.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I traveled recently to New York City to deliver a lecture. To my surprise, I was enthralled. I marveled at the amazing diversity of people and languages. I was dazzled by the city’s architecture. I partook of its rich cultural offerings. I felt tangibly the pulse of vibrant energy for which New York is famous.
Experiencing New York made me reexamine my prejudices against urban life. The tide of history is clearly toward cities; the World Health Organization reports that half of the world’s people already dwell in urban areas, and by mid-century that figure will be seven in 10. Beyond the lights and glitter, why have cities exerted such a gravitational pull on the human race, and with what costs and benefits?
Cities arose around 12,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. The advent of agriculture created a population boom and freed many from food production to become tradespeople and merchants, who could then build and occupy cities. More recently, the rise of mechanized agriculture and urban-centered industrial manufacturing turned the tide of urban immigration into a torrent.
Beyond mere economics, I believe cities are born of two profound human needs: for the safety and security of human belonging and the equally powerful need to feel that we matter, that we have some significance in the vast cosmos. The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 seems to indicate this: Underneath the builders’ hubris, the more fundamental driver of tower-building and city-making was the fear of being “scattered all over the earth” into insecure aloneness and meaninglessness.
The irony for the inhabitants of Babel is that in the end, Yahweh “scattered them all over the earth” (v. 8) anyway. They brought upon themselves the very thing they built the city to avoid.
The same irony may be at play in modern cities as well. We hope for them to help us “dwell together as one” (Ps 133:1), but many city dwellers contend with alienation, isolation and crime. The high culture and intellectual life of cities are admirable pinnacles of human achievement, yet many urban residents struggle with cynicism and despair (just like rural people, I should note).
I returned from New York just two days before Superstorm Sandy turned it into a diluvian nightmare, sharpening this irony all the more and reminding New Yorkers of their vulnerable city’s limits. As in the Babel story, many residents were scattered from their ruined homes and felt abandoned by the city that was supposed to protect them.
When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I suspect it was because he understood the goodness and beauty of humankind that the city represented, but he also saw how Jerusalem’s inhabitants did not know “what makes for peace” (Lk 19:42). Creating cities has become part and parcel of human culture, but cities are a very recent development in our evolutionary history, and we have yet to figure out how to build them in socially and ecologically sustainable ways. If the coming decades will bring both bigger cities and bigger storms, learning “what makes for peace” in the city seems especially crucial.
Peace won’t come simply by Babel-like efforts to wall off our cities and elevate their real estate against nature’s threats. Peaceful cities also depend on healthy partnerships with the surrounding countryside, from which come nature’s gifts. City dwellers, please don’t just guzzle the energy, food, water and raw materials from rural areas and then send us back a convoy of garbage trucks. We country folks do not live on Nascar and Pabst Blue Ribbon alone, so please use our resources wisely and well, and then give us something of value in return, like compost, telecommuter jobs, easier access to your cultural and intellectual resources and even the occasional visit. With such harmony, we could all thrive. And in times of stormy trouble, we will have your back.