Thinking About...Built Environment

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Innocently enough, last week I was reading an article on CityLab from The Atlantic. I really must have been trying to avoid work because the article was about road lane widths. But I was intrigued by the writer’s impassioned rationale as to why city streets (in comparison to interstate highways) should be no more than 10 feet wide, despite the prevailing practice of states and counties to engineer streets with 12 feet wide lanes. He explained the error of this approach saying, “They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment.”

Human behavior is impacted by its environment. Simple, right? Intuitive. Basic. But maybe so basic that we often miss its import. Maybe so intuitive that we fail to think through the spiritual implications of the fact.

The physical environment of high speed interstates means wide lanes are the right design decision because drivers typically set their speed based upon posted speed limits. But on city streets drivers set their speed according to a different calculus. They ask ‘Do I feel safe?’ and then answer that question based on cues provided by the built environment, including an assessment of how wide the lane is.

If all of that is true for drivers on city streets, what are the implications for people in relation to God? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that what is true for driving is also true of worship? People condition their behavior based on signals received from the built environment. That means Christians should reflect on how the spaces in which they gather affect their worship. For a generation reared through a misinterpretation of Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman that the faithful worship “in spirit and truth”, such a reconsideration will be both challenging and vital.

Worship Monday through Saturday

On a larger level, we must acknowledge that while Christian worship is particularly focused on the weekly corporate gathering, it also, more generally, involves all of life. To that end, Christians ought to recognize the shaping influence of built environments in their neighborhoods and cities, not just their sanctuaries. We need pastors and Christians asking questions about the built environment of our daily lives on Sundays and on Mondays through Saturdays.

I’m glad to know of some Christians and churches that are beginning to appreciate the impact of built environment on human behavior. Last week I also read a short piece from a pastor in Salt Lake City who is asking: “What is the role of the church in city planning, the development of cities, and transportation development?” We need more pastors and Christians asking questions like that.

Daily Rituals

A third article I read this week surfaced similar themes. Although less focused on the givens of the built environment, it explained how our daily rituals shape us. Writer Jamie Smith says, “We must remember that anything we do repeatedly, all of our daily rituals—from habitually checking emails and Facebook, to intentionally praying and reading Scripture—shapes the kind of people we are.”

Smith suggests that the habits formed by the physical artifacts surrounding us will determine our very character. Built environment shapes behavior. Repeated behavior, in turn, shapes who we are. When read together, these articles encourage us to become more attuned to our built environment--from the spaces we use for worship, to the technologies that dominate our homes, to the cubicles that cocoon our professional work.

(Photo by Ron Cogswell)