Many of us have been mystified by the observational prowess of Sherlock Holmes. We all have our favorite actors who played this legendary character, from Robert Downey Jr. in the movies to Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC television series. What is it that captivates us about Sherlock Holmes? It is his innate ability to deduce and unpack so much meaning by simply observing.
At the beginning of every semester, I tell students in my classes that studying and understanding cities is “first of all a visual sport,” as urban historian Sam Bass Warner notes in American Urban Form. Whether we’re talking about the Pre-Columbian city of Cahokia, or walking along the heavily gentrified neighborhood abutting North Williams Avenue in Portland, we can learn to apply our Sherlock Holmes powers of observation. You see, everything around us is communicating a value system. We simply need to pause, take a mental note, and discern not only what values are being communicated, but what they mean.
Throughout the semester, we map different neighborhoods as well station ourselves at various intersections, counting not only how many people we see on bicycles or pedestrians, but other things like ethnicity, gender, if they’re wearing helmets or not, and so on. We then debrief the data. What does this mean? What does it communicate about this neighborhood?
In their book, Planning to Stay, Morrish and Brown note, “Physical features are the tangible resources that expresses a neighborhood identity
influence its values, and shape its social and economic structures.” In other words, neighborhoods are not neutral in their communication of values — what one observes reveals much.
Listed below are 10 easy ways for you to exegete your city (or neighborhood), guided by questions:
- What value system does the built environment communicate? Are the buildings deteriorating? Mixed-use? Set back from the road? Do the buildings cater towards a specific demographic, socio-economic grouping, or ethnicity?
- How does the built environment shape the way people live in the neighborhood? Cities are the containers that influence the life and culture of the people, and shape the urban experience.
- How old are the buildings? When was the neighborhood built? One can learn to discern communities built before the car, during the streetcar era, or with cars in mind.
- Walk into a few of the stores and businesses. Who are they marketing their products to? For example, what does the presence of a Whole Foods communicate when it is placed in a gentrifying neighborhood, where before it was classified as a “food desert”?
- Who do you see out walking? What is the observable demographic breakdown? If you were to return in the evening, is it the same or different? This is often more helpful than formal demographic reports.
- How are people getting around? On foot? Cars? Bicycles? Public transit? This could reveal the innate walkability of a neighborhood or its car-dependency.
- Where do people cluster together? What draws them there? Can you identify a natural gathering place, whether a park, plaza, business, or street?
- What drew people to this neighborhood? This moves beyond simply observing, but is discovered through conversations with homeowners, business owners, and renters. Often times, people move into neighborhoods based on cultural affinity, shared values, and even political affiliation.
- Where do you observe hope? Conversely, where do you observe brokenness? How are those revealed in urban form? Like a fever is a symptom of an internal illness, what we see can reveal what is both helpful or hurting in a community. This could be a new community center in a low-income neighborhood, or a burned-out and neglected building that attracts criminal activity.
- Where does the church need to get involved? This could range from a tactical urbanism intervention project, a church opening up their parking lot to host food carts, planting an urban garden to provide fresh vegetables for the neighborhood, advocating safe routes to school so children can bike and walk safely, and much more.
The point of these questions is to (a) learn to be even more observant of your neighborhood, and (b) to ultimately spur you into some kind of action. The rest is up to you.
Sean Benesh is a church planting strategist for TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission). For further reading, you can pick up Sean’s book, Exegeting the City: What You Need to Know About Church Planting in the City Today.