Noah Schumerth ’19 wasn’t planning on being a geography major. But he took one class with philosophy Professor Lee Hardy his freshman year, and it changed everything.
In that course, Schumerth was introduced to the complexities and history of urban planning. Despite not being professor Hardy’s main research area, the subjects of urban planning, design, and development had been longtime interests.
Because, it turned out, he had experienced firsthand the radical changes to urban planning in the United States in the 20th century.
A FRONT ROW SEAT
When Hardy was growing up in Fullerton, California, in the 1960s, the area was characterized by “distinct towns separated by orange groves and bean fields.” Hardy spent time at his father’s drugstore on the town’s main thoroughfare, where the lives of neighbors intersected both socially and economically.
But only a few years later, those orange groves and bean fields were replaced by the hallmarks of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, gas stations, shopping malls, parking lots. The community became less walkable as cars and highways multiplied.
Hardy’s small, local community, which had allowed for the intersection of neighbors’ lives, had changed.
“I felt somewhat traumatized by that, although I was very young,” said Hardy. “It seemed like a bad thing to me, and it was destroying many things that I thought were valuable: both agricultural land, open land, and the existing towns and town centers. There was an increasing sense of placelessness that I found disturbing, but for many years I never heard anyone worry about that.”
“It (suburban sprawl) seemed like a bad thing to me, and it was destroying many things that I thought were valuable: both agricultural land, open land, and existing towns and town centers.”Lee Hardy
Nearly 30 years later, in the 1990s, a movement emerged on the urban planning scene that shared many of Hardy’s concerns about urban development and care for place. The changes he experienced in Fullerton had been felt on a national scale, and the New Urbanism movement, as it was called, was channeling energy toward restoring the urban centers and communities that had been waylaid by suburban development. The movement’s goal was to put a focus back on public spaces— parks, streets, city centers—to improve the social and economic wellbeing of a community.
Therein Hardy found his place.
A NEW WORLD
Fast forward another 30 years, and Hardy can be found sharing that experience—and the research into new urbanism, urban planning, and public spaces that it inspired—with Calvin students like Schumerth.
“That [course with Professor Hardy] completely changed the way in which I saw my time at Calvin,” said Schumerth. “It led me down a completely different path. I started taking courses in human geography, in political science, in all these different fields that really came together and showed how complex of a field urban planning [is].”
Those courses have built off of the interest Professor Hardy sparked in Schumerth; outside of the classroom, new opportunities arose for Schumerth to put urban planning theory into practice.
The summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Calvin, Schumerth returned to his hometown to work on a project for the city.
Appleton, Wisconsin was undergoing its master planning process, and Schumerth was tasked with screening the city’s zoning code for impediments to the new master plan. He later worked as an intern in the Neighborhood Development Office in the city of Green Bay, observing the day-to-day work of city government; at the same time, he worked with the Christian Community Development Association, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging Christians in the process of redemptive city restoration.
“I have a lot of students who are interested in living in the city and working in the city and worshipping in the city, but also wondering about what that means in terms of gentrification.”Mark Mulder, professor of sociology at Calvin College
More recently, Schumerth spent the summer conducting research alongside geography and urban studies professor Mark Bjelland, who started his career designing the physical systems of a city as a professional civil engineer. Now, as a human geographer, he studies how cities work to support shared life. Together Bjelland and Schumerth are analyzing neighborhoods that have been modeled off of new urbanist philosophies and the public spaces within them.
“We’re looking at those neighborhoods to find positive elements to draw out of them, but also the shortcomings that they may have, especially regarding public space,” said Schumerth. “We also look at other examples from areas [developed] before World War II and the 1800s, other suburban movements that worked really well, to say, ‘Can we take some of these elements of these places, and can they be something to use as a defense against toxic privatism?’”
“People are trying to create more public spaces, more shared spaces to get to know your neighbors,” said Bjelland. “In New Urbanism projects, they’re walkable; people often have front porches on their houses; the houses are closer together. There’s more of a mixture of uses and there are more public spaces for people to gather. We’re looking at those public spaces and we’re comparing them with conventional master-planned, suburban neighborhoods to try to see, is there a difference? Is it more walkable or are there more public spaces? How are people using those public spaces?”
Bjelland and Schumerth’s research is part of Calvin’s cross-disciplinary endeavors in urban planning. In addition to their human geography approach and Professor Hardy’s research, sociology professor Mark Mulder has explored sociological trends in the urban context.
“When I first started teaching here at Calvin 16 years ago, [there was a lot of] hand-wringing about sprawl, that we were decentralizing and moving out and wasting resources by living in bigger and bigger houses with bigger and bigger yards,” said Mulder. “It necessarily cost a lot more to deliver the infrastructure to those places. ... What we found out was that if everyone lives that way, then it doesn’t really work. And so that was the big topic.”
As new forms of urban planning have found their way into the mainstream—putting the focus back on the city—concerns have shifted from the social and economic cost of suburban sprawl to the risk of displacement in the urban centers or gentrification.
“Now, I think more and more people are interested in reinvestment in the city,” said Mulder. “And one of the issues that comes along with that then is gentrification. I have a lot of students who are interested in living in the city and working in the city and worshipping in the city, but also wondering about what that means in terms of gentrification.”
For Schumerth, too, the issue of urban planning has morphed and grown more complex. He, Hardy, and Bjelland each cited the same tension as Mulder: making cities equitable while also making them more accessible and attractive. And Schumerth is seeing those dynamics play out in real time. Both as a Project Neighborhood resident in Grand Rapids’ Creston neighborhood and an intern at the Creston Neighborhood Association, he’s witnessed Grand Rapids’ growing population and rising housing costs taking a toll on the neighborhood.
“Wealthier people move in, bring amenities that they want to see there, the prices of the surrounding homes and rents go up, and then eventually people can’t afford it and are pushed out,” said Schumerth. “We have seen some of that displacement, especially in the southern part of the neighborhood, closer to downtown, because there’s a much higher percentage of rental units there. Just this year, four houses have gone up for rent again on our street, and it’s been because of rent increases. People can’t afford it and have to move somewhere else. That’s something we need to talk about as urban planners.”
Megan Kruis ’03, executive director of the Creston Neighborhood Association (CNA) where Schumerth is an intern, echoes that experience. She began working at CNA with Americorps after graduating from Calvin, later going on to receive her master’s in public administration from Grand Valley State University. After living in Chicago for a short time, she returned to CNA as executive director in 2017. And just in the last year, she’s witnessed shifts in the Creston neighborhood.
“There’s a woman who lives nearby, who’s been in the same house for years, paying $700 a month,” said Kruis. “Next month’s lease is going to be $1500 a month. It’s not a fancier house next month, it’s not a bigger house, it doesn’t have any more amenities. But that’s what the landlord can price it at. And it is absolutely impossible to bear that kind of increase.”
The association has been making efforts to educate community members on how to turn their concern into civic action. And for Schumerth, that collective civic action is exactly what promotes the common good in urban planning.
“That’s the beautiful part of urban planning work, that it’s collective action,” he said. “Collective action takes time, it takes energy, and it requires you to give yourself up as a sacrifice to a larger cause. But there has to be a sense that each of us is, to some degree, responsible for our neighbor. We carry each other in that [process of] community building, whether that’s at the neighborhood scale, at the scale of the individual house, or at the scale of the larger urban whole.”
Schumerth argues that larger and denser cities with stronger nets of relationships have been shown to be more economically and culturally productive.
“They bring more people into the same space, which naturally creates more relationships, less disenfranchisement, more people contributing,” he said. “And I think that’s the most important part. That’s what citizenship looks like.”
Welfare of the City
Working at the Creston Neighborhood Association, living in Project Neighborhood, taking courses with Professor Hardy and researching human geography with Professor Bjelland—for Schumerth, the city is a place to which he’s devoted much of his time, talents, and energy while at Calvin.
And it goes deeper than just preparation for a future profession; it’s about his faith, too.
“We look through the Bible and we see constant examples of God caring for cities,” said Schumerth. “Nehemiah having this grand vision from God to rebuild Jerusalem, and then Ezra coming behind him once that city-building work has been done to turn the city back to God. You see it in the way in which Jesus did his ministry. So cities have some sort of role that reflects the creativity that God has given us, the ability to bring people together in community, which God has designed us to be in. And I think we can’t ignore that.”