Spark spoke with faculty member Mark Bjelland (geology, geography, and environmental studies) about his recently published book, Good Places for All. The book is part of the Calvin Shorts series from Calvin Press. You can find more information at calvin.edu/press.
Spark: What inspired you to write this book?
Bjelland: When I arrived at Calvin University in 2013, I was overwhelmed by the many students, alumni, and colleagues who were deeply invested in making their communities better places for all. I got to teach students who had taken Lee Hardy’s “New Urbanism” course and were on fire for city planning. When the Congress for the New Urbanism held its national meeting in Detroit in 2016, there was a large gathering of Christian architects, housing developers, and city planners, many from Calvin University, who wanted to connect their faith with their work as place-makers. Within that group, there was a hunger for books offering Christian perspectives on places and place-making. That’s when I decided I needed to write this book.
Spark: If so many Christians are already involved in doing good work in our communities, what new perspectives did you hope to offer?
Bjelland: Well, you are certainly right that individual Christians and faith-based groups are doing amazing work. So, one thing I suggest in the book is that everyone find a way to join in the ongoing work of faith-based affordable housing providers like Habitat for Humanity. But where I felt I could contribute was in helping readers better understand the underlying systems and structures that shape our places. If we want to cultivate good places, we need to know how laws, housing markets, local government, finance, and territorial boundaries shape our communities.
Spark: What can a reader expect to find in the pages of Good Places for All?
Bjelland: They should find an easy-to-read book, stripped of academic jargon thanks to editor Dr. Susan Felch. I focus on what I believe are the key elements of good places. Good places have public gathering spaces and transportation systems that work for everyone. In good places, boundaries don’t isolate people or hoard resources. Finally, good places provide everyone a safe place to call home.
Spark: How does Good Places for All fit with other Calvin Press books that attempt to help us better understand and care for places?
Bjelland: There is something about the Reformed tradition that takes seriously the everyday lived expressions of the Christian life, whether in education, politics, farming, or city planning. I counted three other recent Calvin Press books that address caring for places: Lee Hardy’s The Embrace of Buildings, David Warners and Matthew Heun’s edited volume Beyond Stewardship: New Models of Creation Care, and Mark Mulder’s Congregations, Neighborhoods, Places. My hope is that people will read all four books in dialogue with each other.
Lee Hardy’s The Embrace of Buildings makes the argument for dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. I share Hardy’s vision for better urban design, but in Good Places for All I ask questions about who gets to shape and live in such planned communities. Beyond Stewardship asks how we humans should understand our relationships with non-human creation. In my chapter in Beyond Stewardship, I argue that we should shift the focus of our stewardship work to place-making and place-keeping in the communities we call home. Mark Mulder’s Congregations, Neighborhoods, Places aims to help churches understand the forces that produce inequality so they can better care for their neighbors. In Good Places for All, I encourage Christians to extend that love of neighbor into zoning codes, local politics, and housing policies.
Spark: The release of the books you just mentioned seems to suggest that Christians are rediscovering the city and the importance of place.
Bjelland: Exactly. Theologians are writing on the importance of place in Christian ethics, pastors are rediscovering the parish model for ministry, and popular Christian writers are reflecting on place, homes, and hospitality. Quite a few Christian Reformed congregations in Grand Rapids’ inner city have noticed their younger adult members moving into neighborhoods that previous generations left behind as they departed for the suburbs. For those congregations that have embraced their urban location, the command in Jeremiah 29:7 has become a mantra: “Seek the welfare of the city.” That phrase even shows up in Calvin University’s Vision 2030 statement calling for a “Reformed Christian faith that seeks understanding and promotes the welfare of the city and the healing of the world.” My goal in Good Places was to help readers understand how cities work to help inform their work of seeking their city’s welfare.