We Built This Suburb on Rock and Roll

It goes against all conventional wisdom – and a whole lot of church planting books – to say that the future of church planting is found not in the cities, but in the suburbs.  It goes against all of the planning that many churches and church planters are undertaking to say that the world is becoming more suburban rather than more urban.

It also goes against -most importantly –  our desires and prejudices.  Such desires and prejudices are confirmed by book titles such as “Death By Suburb” and long-cherished statements such as this by urbanist Lewis Mumford (no relation)…

a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances…”

Ugh – all that uniformity.  All that sameyness. All that “inhabited by people” nonsense. You can almost see Portland shrinking back along its boundaries at the very thought of such taint.

We have a convenient biblical theology of the city also. Hey, anyone remember that funky verse in Jeremiah somewhere about seeking the welfare of the city? And of course we have a city coming down out of heaven at the end of the age, of which a Trumanesque suburban hell is the counterfeit.  But we also have a convenient popular theology excoriating the suburb too, in the hell of CS Lewis’s shadowy grey town in the Great Divorce.

Anyone who is a mover and shaker moves to a city because that’s where things happen.  That’s the place from which culture emanates.  Besides whoever heard of a suburban hipster – it’s a contradiction in terms! Of course, there is truth to the fact that culture emanates from the cities – but let’s fact it, not all cities in this hyper-modern era, merely a select few whose scope is simply colossal.  Do we really believe that the average medium-sized city in say Australia or Canada is primarily an exporter rather than an importer of modern western culture?

The truth about suburbia goes against all the things that church planting movements have held dear these past few decades.  Strangely, however, it does not go against the statistics.  The numbers are in, and guess what? The world is becoming more suburban.  A fascinating article in the most recent edition of The Economist entitled “A Planet of Suburbs” simply crunches the numbers, maps the flow from rural communities, and explores how large companies are moving, not further into cities, but further out.

And where does this article begin?  In India.  One of the countries, apparently, where the rural areas are emptying into the cities. The Indian author of the piece begins in his birthplace Chennai and widens his scope all the way out – to the vast sprawl of middle class suburbia that has taken over from the city centre, replete with vast tracts of two storey houses wedged tighter than Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers. Three bedroom places, all with covered driveways and self-proclaimed “Balinese-style” decor. It’s a north-coastal suburban West Australian’s dream.  The only homage to “real India” is the cupboard near the door for Hindu gods. Yeah I know, pretty gauche hey?  Why don’t they display their idols in the driveway like all the self-respecting suburbanites in the Western world do?

The shift to suburbia is occurring rapidly.  The author observes that in the decade 2001 – 2011, the population of Chennai city grew by 7%.  That was outstripped however by the growth rate in the vast suburban centre outside Chennai – Chengalputta, which grew by a whopping 39%.  Most of the spread to the ‘burbs is due to the shift of jobs. Oh, and the availability of cars.  The more well-off, the less likelihood of getting around on a bicycle and the increased likelihood of getting around in a car – in India at least.  In Fremantle it’s the other way around, although the average 1950s white-walled tyred retro bicycle in Fremantle costs as much as a car in India!

But how about this for a stat? Doesn’t this show how cities are actually growing?:

“The World Bank calculates that, between 1998 and 2005, the number of IT jobs within 25km of the centre of Chennai increased by 27%”

Pretty good huh?  But that’s around half the percentage increase in the 25km to 50km outer ring of suburban Chennai.  And in high tech manufacturing the city actually lost a quarter of its workers, whilst the suburbs gained 23%.

There isn’t enough space to explain how the author extrapolates this outwards to the rest of the world, but the figures are telling. And so are the stories.  Turns out, despite Mumford’s sneering comment, people actually like living in suburbs.  They actually like living with people similar to them.  And let’s face it – the fact that you live in a city crushed up against people who are very different to you does not necessarily make you more accommodating, more inter-racial or more anything – in and of itself.   Except perhaps more committed to privacy.  We’ve lived in an English inner city street of terraces, and people who live close to each other invent new and interesting ways to avoid each other.  Just because you buy your fresh produce from the local market, walk past people of vastly different sexual predispositions to yourself, and regular bump shoulders on the Tube with architects, lawyers and film-makers does not mean that you are “doing radical community!”  Besides, any recent state or federal election in Australia has demonstrated that cities are not becoming more diverse but, if anything, more uniform, moving increasingly to the political left and only ever in that direction over the past few decades.

Of course there are notable exceptions to the population trend – Tokyo being a prime example.  The population there is growing more rapidly 10km from the centre in, than it is further out.  But major negative factors such as an ageing, shrinking population that requires closer proximity to essential services, smaller, more manageable places to live for old people, and falling land values are central to this shift.  Not exactly the church planter’s best working conditions one would think.

I am going to post further reflections on this in a few blog posts time (after my “The Year That Was” post that is coming up). I particularly want to explore what suburban church planting might mean as the suburbs get bigger, further out from major centres, and make changes, such as clustering around mini-centres that offer many of the conveniences of a city, often the “feel” of a downtown area, without the attendant hassles (and by “attendant” I do mean you Mr Parking Attendant!)

Talk soon…

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