Theology for an urban world (2) the rise of the city

Seeking the city without foundations: theology for an urban world

The Rise of the City

In the first post we looked at David Smith’s sketch of the conflicting forces at the heart of the city: on the one hand the city as a place of freedom, creativity, prosperity, employment, opportunity, human flourishing. On the other hand, the city as a place of alienation, loneliness, injustice, violence, despair and human fragmentation.

Chapter 2 looks at the inexorable rise of the city in the 20th Century – and how the advance of the city is a deeply ambivalent development.

The 21st century will see a completely unprecedented global wholesale transition to urban living. The move to the cities is accelerating. Smith quotes some UN stats:

– in Europe, North & South America, West Asia – it has exceeded 50% and will be 80% by 2020.

– Africa, Asia and the Pacific started later, and will reach 50% early this century.

In Africa, the shift to the city is happening at breakneck speed. Old colonial cities like Lagos, Kampala, Nairobi, Salisbury, built and dominated by European elites,  are now being engulfed in a ‘tidal wave of migrants’ seeking to share in the prosperity so ostentatiously displayed by their former colonial rulers. In less than 50 years cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Khartoum have grown by over 5 million each.

[Just watching the news tonight, the world’s population has now reached 7 billion. Looking at one country, Zambia, its population of 13 million today is set to treble by 2050 and reach 100 million by the end of the century]

Such growth highlights the ambivalent nature of the city. It is the place people choose to go – offering some hope of a better life than rural subsistence in a traditional culture. But it is also the place of unimaginable poverty and social breakdown.

Tale of Two Cities: Smith chooses two cities to tell the tale of modern urbanisation:

And no place better is the ambivalent nature of the city seen than in the new sleek city-state of Dubai. Where, hidden away a few miles from glittering skyscrapers, malls, pleasure resorts and man-made islands, are thousands of semi-slaves who have built this utopian rich-man’s playground. This is a consumerist fantasy vision of the city. And as Smith notes, it is profoundly unsustainable (hey it has ice rinks and winter wonderlands in a 50 degree desert…) 

Chongqing in contrast is an anonymous megacity of 31 million people in China (where there are over 90 cities with over 1 million inhabitants). Smog chokes the air, 10s of thousands of peasants continue to migrate to the city every year. Vast numbers are destined to live in squalor and poverty.

A 1993 UN Report said that almost 1 billion people were urban slum dwellers and if present trends continue, one third of the world’s population will be living in urban slums within thirty years.

So to the theological question of how should Christians think of the city? Smith notes that Christians often jump to mission and to alleviation of poverty – good and essential things but if divorced from an urban theology there will little or no confrontation with the forces that have created that poverty and inequality in the first place.

So Smith makes some proposals and will unpack these ideas in the book:

– engage with traditions of theological reflection in urban settings throughout the history of the Christian movement

– dialogue with scholars working in a range of academic disciplines related to the city (geographers, sociologists etc)

– draw on wisdom and insights of those Christians who are living in conditions of poverty in slums across the world. [And it is a remarkable fact that scholars from different disciplines have noted the importance of the church as a seed of hope in the vast city slums of the global south (especially Pentecostalism).]

– listen afresh to the Bible and its response to the rise and influence of the great imperial cities of the ancient world

– travel in hope

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