The Relationship between Urban Design and Charity

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In American cities, helping the poor cannot be such an organic, spontaneous decision, because such behavior has been designed out of our cities. American suburbia emerged because rich people wanted to avoid the poor, to put them out of sight. This philosophy of avoidance is what gave rise to single-family homes, minimum lot sizes, fences, garages, backdoors, setbacks, barely-funded public transit systems, and automobile infrastructure. In many ways, it’s what perpetuates poverty in many of our cities.

American cities, with their philosophical emphasis on individualism, privacy, and financial maximization, make it difficult to identify the needy and to build authentic, mutually beneficial friendships with them. Simply put, it is difficult to meaningfully engage with the poor because the design of our cities steers us away from them.

Seeing* the poor among us and helping them is not only a matter of right thinking, it is also a matter of proximity. The Good Samaritan helped the beaten man because he saw him, he could get to him. In many cities, proximity has been designed out of our experience; we embrace dispersal instead. Most American cities are segregated by income level, making authentic interactions between citizens of various socioeconomic levels nearly impossible. And with our prioritization of driving, it’s easy to get around without ever seeing a poor person, let alone a poor neighborhood.

As a result, well-intentioned Good Samaritans are forced into one of two options: either uprooting themselves and their families and moving into poor neighborhoods (perhaps unintentionally sparking a cycle of gentrification) or visiting the invisible poor in their communities one to two times a month to volunteer. Truly effective solutions to American poverty begin in consistent presence, yet our neighborhoods are designed to make this kind of presence impossible.

This comes at a cost to both parties. For the poor, it cuts them off from friendships outside of their immediate context of poverty, eliminating an essential step to improving their situation. For the religious, the risk is growing weak in charity, a critical habit of many faiths.

So, where does this leave us?

For a Christian, true compassion requires right theology and intentional theopraxy—but our theopraxy is often determined by the design of our cities. Conversations about the future of our cities and our neighborhoods should take this into account. Will we continue to orient our decisions around dispersal and escape, or will we embrace proximity and integration?

*Caveat: By seeing, I don’t mean literally seeing, I mean seeing in a way that makes it possible to know what to do. So often, the working poor are isolated in our cities, stuck in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, excluded from the rest of the city. These are the invisible poor. The visible poor are those we see panhandling and loitering, often struggling with addictions or mental health conditions that make it difficult for a would-be Good Samaritan to know how to help.

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