A Review of
The Embrace of Buildings:
A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods
Paperback: Calvin College Press, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Review by Erin F. Wasinger
When I moved a few years ago, I joked that I only knew my way around the city if all routes started at my front door. I saw my home on the map as if it were the center of a bicycle wheel, each spoke pointing to a different destination: store, church, schools, library. Until I internalized the city’s layout, each trip functioned as if the world revolved around my garage.
Many of us view our environments that way, much to the detriment of communities, Lee Hardy argues in The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods. A certain flavor of the American dream envisions a well-manicured lawn in suburbia, a fence separating the yard from the neighbors’. Hardy is as Copernicus, reminding readers that our enclaves aren’t the centers in our individual universes. Instead, he invites us to imagine ourselves orbiting a shared space: our cities.
Though more academic, The Embrace of Buildings is a natural next-read for those who wish they could read Slow Church (IVP Praxis, 2014) or The New Parish (IVP, 2014) again for the first time. As Slow Church and The New Parish stoke conversations about relationships that flourish in placed-based ministry and rooted living, The Embrace of Buildings considers the literal avenues for those relationships to happen. How do the buildings, streets, sidewalks, public transit, and amenities create or hinder community building? Why does it matter that a church is rooted in a neighborhood instead of on a few acres near the interstate?
Hardy isn’t nostalgic for bygone days, by the way. In fact, he’s quick to dismantle the facade that resembles something from a mid-century TV show: a housewife in heels, a paper boy on a bike, a car in every garage. Hardy leads with succinct histories of discriminatory housing policies, Christians fleeing cities’ “evil influences,” and the plots to design cities around the automobile.
The book succeeds because Hardy is a philosopher, not a historian. He holds up a mirror and asks us to consider what’s missing from the reality those factors created.
For instance, a dominant feature of our suburban enclaves is a lack of diversity, by race, ethnicity, and class. The problem is our wealth isolates us from others, especially others in need, as Christine Pohl writes in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. It’s hard to be a good neighbor to people in need if we’re not actually their physical neighbor. When Christians left cities in droves, we lost the vision of living in proximity with others. Instead of “a shining city on a hill,” Hardy writes that “we’ll settle for a house with a yard and the porch light on.” Worse, Hardy writes in his strongest chapter about what leaving urban areas has meant for the church. “Where is the church?” he asks (emphasis added).
Since the 1950s, congregations have been leaving the cities for suburbia, where their parking spaces wrap around the building because cars are the only practical way to get there. Inside these buildings are less-diverse groups of people, too. We self-select churches not based on whether we can walk there, but based on how professional the music, worship space, or kids’ areas are. Hardy calls these churches “private lifestyle enclaves,” where people who believe the same things gather in safe and insular environments. Hardy’s tough questions drill down: how can your church be more focused on its neighborhood?
City planners, architects, and civil engineers may find the book a banner under which to stand. Especially for those who find their built environments difficult to navigate and without character or consideration to the environment, Hardy offers a finer vista.
Those of us who aren’t paid to think about city features, though, will find in the book an invitation to look around at the places where we live and worship. I did. When I’d finished The Embrace of Buildings, I walked my neighborhood, focused on components of the book Hardy contends are most important. It is compact and defined by boundaries, but no gates — check. I passed the bus stop and followed the trail around a city park; Hardy would call those two features and the sidewalks under my feet more positive characteristics. Same, too, of the brief conversations with a few neighbors. There was the convenience store where I sometimes walk to pick up bread or milk — a win because mixed-use is a crucial component.
But in continuing my walk around the neighborhood, I passed a public elementary school. Very few children from my neighborhood attend that school, opting instead to enroll in schools outside the district or at charter or parochial schools. Hardy mentions that schools are community unifiers and obvious common spaces. And, to be fair, school choice is far beyond the scope of The Embrace of Buildings. However, as Hardy paints pictures of complete, walkable neighborhoods, there rises an objection — or at least a pause — for some of us. Schools can act as a micro example of the macro self-segregation we experience as adults. Urban neighborhood schools are where families are prone to live “above place.” That phrase, borrowed here from Slow Church, gives a name to the disconnect of living in one zip code and working, playing, worshiping, shopping, and going to school in another. One doesn’t have both feet in the neighborhood: those feet strive to be elsewhere. The bicycle-spoke illustration works here: families drive from home to a school of their choice, often passing several schools on the way. I wonder, how do people develop pride of place and a sense of democratic ownership for urban public schools if most of our children don’t attend them?
Thus, more careful exploration of how the physical school buildings in our neighborhoods matter to us as Christian parents — and to churches — would help paint a more complete picture of holistic living in situ.
Hardy considers other topics in as much depth. Data and common sense meld to illustrate threats to our health and environment caused by living in the suburbs and outlying areas. More time in more cars on congested roads does the earth no favors. Plus, driving in the suburbs creates more risky situations for humans, too — especially for teen drivers. On gentrification, he offers a couple possible ways to keep neighborhoods economically diverse.
For a slim book (Embrace of Buildings is about 150 pages long), the content is enough to provide a balance between taking stock of our surroundings and envisioning a future. He’s able to ignite the imagination for better, different ways to live beyond suburbia — for individuals and churches. By suggestion, if not coercion, Hardy leaves the reader with a single, familiar question: how then are we to live — and where?
Erin F. Wasinger writes from Lansing, Mich. Coauthor of The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos, 2017), she loves talking about loving our neighborhoods, supporting public schools, and other hard things at yearofsmallthings.com and erinwasinger.com. On Twitter and Instagram: @SomeWonderland.