Chris Elisara is a visionary educator dedicated to raising up Christian environmental leaders. Chris is clearly motivated to help churches engage in caring for God's creation. He and his wife Tricia founded the Creation Care Study Program (CCSP) and the Center for Environmental Leadership, which now partner with over 30 Christian colleges and universities in the U.S. The program equips and helps Christian communities and leaders to act on their creation care convictions.
In this podcast Chris talks about the massive growth in the world of urbanization. The reality is that if cities do not plan for this expansion then poverty and slums are the result. That in turn impacts the environment and people's lives. Chris addresses how Christians caring for Creation impact all of this and how we can be the incarnation of Jesus in this inevitable future.
Paul Dzubinski and Steven Spicer host this edition of the Creation Care Missions Podcast. Below is the full text of talk that Chris Elisara gave at the Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission conference.
Introduction: Humans are Becoming an Urban Species
So the Gospel and the Future of Cities: A Call to Action, is actually a statement that I'll get to later. And if I was as good as Ed Brown, that statement would be on one piece of paper on your tables, but it's not that short. So I'm going to talk a little about that when we get to the end. But, the first thing we need to know is what's happening with cities. There's a transformation that is happening right now that is very, very profound. Essentially, within the next thirty years, we are going to become an urban species. So in the next thirty years, what's going to happen? We're going to go from about half the human population living in cities to about seventy-five percent of us living in cities in thirty years. So we are becoming an urban species within our lifetime. This is a transformation that has a huge impact on creation care and mission and I'm just going to put it out there for us. So the statement is actually a response to that.
Video Segment: Mega Cities
In 1950 New York and Tokyo were the only so-called mega cities – cities with more than ten million inhabitants. By 1980, these were joined by Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Osaka. In 2010, there were over twenty mega cities spanning almost every continent. Today, there are thirty-two mega cities. Urbanization is happening faster than at any time in human history. Asia accounts for over half of today's mega cities. By 2013, nearly nine percent of the world's population will live in forty-one mega cities. But it is in Africa where some of the most rapid urbanization will take place in the future.
The Scale of Urban Growth
What is a mega city? A mega city is a large community of people. Ten million living in an urban environment. Ten million. So, in Africa for example, by the year 2030 there is going to be about ten mega cities. Now some mega cities that are mega cities now are going to go from ten million, the projection is, to about 20 million. That's a big city. So that's what we are talking about. Most of the growth of mega cities will be in Asia or Africa—about ninety percent of it. What does this mean spatially? It means about one million people, right now, are moving from rural to urban every week. That's equivalent to the city of Austin. All the needs of a city of Austin. Now that's not all in one place, of course, but it's essentially equivalent to building the city of Austin every week. It's the capital of Sierra Leone. It's Birmingham, every week for the next twenty to thirty years.
This is a transformation that's happening that we need to wrestle with and understand. If you think about it, what that means is that everything you see built around us right now, we are going to have to build the same amount again in thirty years. So we need another Los Angeles, another Austin, another Sierra Leone. Every stick of infrastructure that you see out there, we are going to have to build again in thirty years. Another way to think about this is, over millennia – it's taken us that amount of time to build what you see today, right? So in thirty years, what has taken us millennia to build, is what we are going to have to build. Do you get the picture? That is a huge challenge.
City Design and Our Ecological Future
Number wise, here's a recent study (2017-18). It's a study of fifty countries, seven different sectors, and five regions. The G20 study said this actually equates to ninety-four trillion dollars. Ninety-four trillion dollars of infrastructure. And that's only in fifty countries. We have over one hundred and twenty-nine. That's only seven sectors. It doesn't include housing. We're talking about transformation that is really staggering. So the statement I would make, and I am not the one making it up, I am just repeating it, is this: "Our ecological future, and thus the future of human civilization, will depend on how our cities develop over the next thirty years." I will repeat it again. "Our ecological future, and thus the future of human civilization, will depend on how our cities develop over the next thirty years." But you could look at that the flip way, or vice versa. How civilized we are over the next thirty years will determine how sustainable and just the cities we need to build will be, which will determine our ecological future.
So under this context, design matters for the creation. People have built cities, designed cities, architects, planners, developers, the good developers, they are using ideas that are consistent with ecological principles. So the scheme on the bottom there is what's called an urban transect that mirrors ecological transects. So good design for people, as we know, has to cohere with the creation. Peter put out a great example yesterday of the wetlands and the city and they had to fight to get that in the right order, right? The problem is we have to fight for that. But I want to talk about stitching up creation care and working with planners, architects, designers to make cities cohere for wellbeing of place and wellbeing of people. So the city is not necessarily evil, bad. It is actually an opportunity for us to apply our faith holistically to making that city cohere with our ecological principles, our spiritual principles, and values. And it can be done. One message about this I want to say, is that the city is not just a backdrop for doing our creation care work or our mission work. Actually the city is really important, and it's made by people like us. So let's not abdicate that to the backdrop where we do work. Let's bring it into the midst of working together. It's really, really important.
Theological Reflection on Cities and Place
I want to put another theological piece into this mix because we have a theological way of thinking about cities that is often overlooked. This passage comes right after God picking up the dirt and breathing into that dirt, and making life. This is Adam from adamah. And immediately after it says, "And the Lord God planted a garden." That's a place. That garden is a place and there He put the man whom He had formed. The point here is this, that I want to stress: Katharine, Peter, and others have talked about the amazing creation that God put together for life, but I want to take another closer step to us and say the creation is actually a place. It's a home. It's a village. It's a town. It's a city. You cannot be a human being outside of being in place. What this Scripture says, I believe, is that we are "in-placed beings." Place matters. And another way to think about this, the biblical story goes this way: we were created, we were in-placed in a garden. The fall is dis-in-placement. And now post- reconciliation, restoration, post-Easter, we are now working with God to be re-in-placed in creation. The people that really think about place are planners, designers, architects, and developers. So that is another arc to the story that I want to put out there for you to consider.
Which gets us to, what do we say about this massive global transformation that's happening? Well, we didn't start our statement in thin air. We actually started with reflection on the Cape Town Commitment that said, "We must love our cities as God does with holy discernment and Christ-like compassion and obey His command to seek the welfare of the city, wherever that may be." So when we gathered together at Habitat III, for the Gospel and the Future of Cities Summit, we were there having Christian conversation in light of Cape Town Commitment, but at Habitat III, every twenty years the world has a conversation about the future of cities. So this was the third one. We have a stake. We are concerned about the cities so Christians need to be in that conversation convened by U.N. Habitat. We were there and we developed this statement. And the very first conviction that we had was, when we looked at what is happening, "Concern for all forms of human urbanism, be they large aggregates such as cities, or small aggregates such as towns, villages, or neighborhood, truly is a Gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ." Cities are not—they can be—bad. Cities, if we apply our Gospel outlook to them, can be good, if we work to make them good.
A Call to Action: Urban Shalom
So our call to action is a call to urban shalom. It's a call to urban shalom. We talk a lot about shalom as it applies to creation, but how does shalom applied to cities work? So based on our convictions—you have to read the whole statement—we call the whole church in dependence on the Holy Spirit—it's God's Word, we are collaborating—to respond radically and faithfully to love and care for places, cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods worldwide as participants in, and agents of, God's shalom for the transforming love and power of Christ. So we're talking about an urban shalom connecting with ecological creation care. And some of the principles of urban shalom in our statement are these: "Urban shalom is a vision for the city. It invites a fresh call to discipleship. Shalom for the city embraces equity and security. Shalom in the city embraces diversity. Shalom in the city cares for creation." Now these are all in our statement. There is a little paragraph that goes with them. Urban shalom involves urban design. Urban Shalom engages in the public sphere for the common good. And we work in relationship and collaborations with others. It's good. It's coming along.
And in the statement we have some practical stuff because, like I said, the world is having a conversation about this. We came to it, and so what happens is after three years, we get to Habitat III and the distillation of some great ideas come out and we said in our statement, we should be aware of those. There is a lot of good stuff there. So, some of those ideas for Habitat III that became a government agreement, called A New Urban Agenda. There's ten of them. There's five listed. Read the others. And then there's also some other great stuff. There's the Charter for New Urbanism. Design principles for how to make cities cohere with urban shalom. And the canons of sustainable architecture and urbanism. Those are some ideas.
But I want to point us to some other real exciting things that are breaking out. There is a gathering community of people that are coming together now to work on urban shalom. There's an Urban Shalom Society that's right there. It's a network of Christians that are focusing on urban shalom and all the different dimensions. Then there is the New Urban Parish movement. If you are not familiar with the New Urban Parish movement, that is a great movement. It calls Christians in a place to be faithfully present in that place with their neighbors. And, when you are faithfully present in a place with neighbors, then you do take the whole of that neighborhood into consideration when you care for it, which includes some of the physical design urban aspects of it.
In Africa, you know, you have a planning department here in the United States. It's expensive and it's a long process. If we're going to go through this rapid urbanization that is happening, they are going to have a lot leaner, low cost, but effective and efficient tool kit if you are going to get in front of this migration to cities. What's a slum? A slum is an unplanned community, right? So, planning helps put places and people together in such a way that it is good for the creation and for the people. So we need a toolkit in Africa where a whole lot of urbanization is happening that is going to be effective and quick. So we're working with the Prince’s Foundation and New York University. And there is a little tool kit right there. Six steps. So that's an example.
And then one of the members of the Urban Shalom Society is Pastor Jacob Bloomberg who is in Hanoi and he conceptualizes this as Love Hanoi. And I got to meet some people doing something like Love Chicago, Love LA. Thinking about cities holistically—people, place and the creation. So there are people that want to grab our hands as people have been working in creation care who are urban focused people.
And together, the last thing I'll leave you with, is this prayer that is at the end of our statement. And the statement, by the way, has been endorsed. We released at the World Urban Forum, the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February. People are coming together. The good thing about us Evangelicals is that when we understand a need we do respond. But I do want to say that we're going to respond knowing, as it has been pointed out already, that it's God's work. It's God's work. We leave it in God's hands, but are going to be faithfully present in the city caring for creation and people. Pray this through, get the statement, and join Micah Global, Lausanne, Christian Community Development Association, and many other leaders that have signed this statement and are starting to work it out in their ministries. Amen.