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Why Suburbia Really Is Affecting Your Spiritual Life

Why Suburbia Really Is Affecting Your Spiritual Life

Eric Jacobsen, author of 'The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment,' says place matters for human flourishing.

It's rare to find a pastor who is attuned to how "place" informs human experience and community. But a discerning pastor can know more about this than most city planners, if they are attentive to the particular shape of the lives of their congregants and their community. Enter Eric O. Jacobsen (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary), a pastor of 14 years, the last 5 as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma. "I am not a trained architect or urban planner, but an ordinary pastor who has always lived within walking distance of my church," he says.

Jacobsen's 2003 "break-out" book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Brazos Press), used the tenets of New Urbanism to help Christians recognize the value of local churches in local neighborhoods. Jacobsen calls his newest book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic), a "more mature reflection" on the subject.

"I've lived almost my whole life in mixed-use neighborhoods where every house looks different and you could walk to the store to get milk or to a coffee shop," he says. "I live in a small city . . . with my wife, four children, and eight chickens. All of our kids can walk to each of their schools."

In his interview with researcher Joseph Gorra on behalf of This Is Our City, Jacobsen demonstrates how Christians might think about spiritual formation as it enfolds in particular spaces.

What do you mean by the phrase "built environment" in the subtitle of your book?

The built environment is the physical setting of the public realm—literally the space between the buildings.

We don't pay much attention to it because the spaces between strip malls, fast-food joints, and big-box stores don't work very well as public spaces. They are set up for the efficient movement of cars. When we go to older American or European cities, or walk around neighborhoods that were built before WWII, we get some sense of what the built environment can be.


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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Howard Freeman

October 18, 2012  5:08pm

As a native New Yorker who grew up over a pizza parlor, I loved the analogy of the pizza pie. That said, as a kid, I would always eat all my meatloaf, then all my mashed potatoes, then all my beans. I inhaled it. (Consumed it, you might say.) My father, a "foodie" I realized once I was old enough to know what a foodie was, always ate his food in a relaxed fashion, with ample time for conversation, working around his plate from entree to side to side so that no single course/dish was consumed before the others. Thanks for the interview. Very encouraging to see this issue getting attention. (Am also reading Jacobsen's book on Kindle. Check it out--it's good.)

Laura Tokie

October 11, 2012  6:21am

Vanessa, I am with you. I live in an area historically used for farming that now includes some development. I believe place matters, but this place (ruralurbia?) doesn't include cookie-cutter houses and Applebee's. It does include some neighborhoods and suburbs-style housing. I'm glad people are considering place, and see value in living where they can walk to school, work, church, and market. I would enjoy that too, but I'm not interested in moving at this time. I see value in our "built spaces" being vast: filled with gardens, pastures, and woods. This opportunity to be in daily contact with the natural world has a positive impact on me spiritually, as God reveals Himself in creation.


October 09, 2012  11:58am

My question is, what about the American population that lives in rural areas? I find that these conversations tend to orbit around suburbs and city living, without really addressing the many people who live in the country. That is where I am from and because we live on farms and are sometimes miles from the nearest town and church, we drive everywhere. So, if this is a concerning element of suburban life, is it also concerning for rural life? In the country, people love to have space and cannot stand the thought of being so close to their neighbor as to see into their windows. Personal space is valued, but so is community. So, I am just curious to know how and if the particular concerns that are voiced here apply to rural living. Thoughts?


October 09, 2012  6:57am

GK: I would like to visit your parish. Are you by any chance in Southern California?

cynthia curran

October 07, 2012  9:17pm

Well, a lot of burbs that are older now have minorites while some large cities like Portland and Seattle are known aa white places. Take Carson Ca about 70 percent minority and Portland ORegon only 20 percent.


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