On Toronto’s Sidewalks: A Spirituality of Place and the Built Environment

This is a re-post of the original interview, posted on by Laura Merzig Fabrycky

SidewalkBorn in Finland and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Heikki Walden is a residential real estate agent in Toronto who blogs at City Positive, where Missio discovered his keen sense of the meaning and spirituality of the built environment and urban cultural renewal. Missio was pleased to interview him about his work.

TWI: When and how did you begin to work in and develop a passion for your field of work?

HW: I was pursuing graduate studies in history at the University of Toronto when I began to realize that I was more interested in becoming an entrepreneur than an academic. The dot-com boom was underway, and with a friend of mine, I launched an internet-based business not long before that bubble burst for us and many others. Investors pulled up stakes, spelling the end of our start-up.

But out of that apparent failure, I discovered how much I enjoyed being an entrepreneur, especially the process of bringing together creative vision, technology, financial resources, and skilled talent to create a new business. I also decided to look into work that would be more economically stable. The Toronto real estate industry offered good opportunities for entrepreneurship. The projected trends of gradual and stable growth in Toronto real estate provided reasonable assurance that there was opportunity to exercise and deepen my skills there. It helped that I also loved big cities.

To learn more of the tradecraft, I became a real estate appraiser. I inspected a wide variety of properties and managed to visit all the major Toronto neighbourhoods. Several hundred appraisal reports later, I brought my skills over to the sales side and became a realtor.

After a couple of years working in Toronto real estate, I began asking questions about the meaning of my work and its place in the city: Did my daily experience of the city have any meaning beyond the service that I brought to my clients? Was I only a functional operator helping people to obtain great locations and find good value in the city? Or was there something more to it? As a Christian, I wondered if there was any spiritual value in what I was doing. Yes, I enjoyed my work, but I didn’t know how my daily work fit with my beliefs.

I saw the opportunity to take a spring school course at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, called Sidewalks in the Kingdom: A Theology of the Built Environment taught by Eric Jacobsen. That particular course was essential to helping me connect my experience of the city with my Christian faith. Returning to Toronto, I discovered my vision of the landscape had been enlivened. From subsequent photographic tours I carried out in and around the greater Toronto area, I put together a multi-media presentation called Sidewalks in the Kingdom in Toronto. The more I understand about the built environment, the more I see it is connected to many important things in our lives.

TWI: Where do you see God’s hand in the work that you do? When have you been “caught worshipping” as you work?

HW: I make an effort to notice spiritual meaning in a city, and certainly have been “caught worshipping” in my work. Here’s an example of this based on my understanding of a city sidewalk as a kind of spiritual space. To me, the city sidewalk can be seen as a place of shared human experience and solidarity, much as one might experience in a church. Ideally, churches offer a place where people come together in solidarity and community. Even though a sidewalk is not always a friendly place, it is, in some deep way, for me, a real symbol of community, a place where the occupants of the sidewalk desire peaceful harmony, and where people from all walks of life can be side by side.  A sidewalk is a vital part of the built environment that reveals the diversity and solidarity of the human community.

I witnessed the meaning of the sidewalk when I worked at a downtown real estate office that faced directly on to the sidewalk of one of Toronto’s busiest streets.  From behind our glass wall, I could see the regular passers-by and patterns in the neighbourhood. The sheer diversity of people walking past our windows on a daily basis was truly astounding, and included people from the nearby homeless shelter and from a nearby mental health centre. On that sidewalk they and others rubbed shoulders with newly arrived young professionals who lived in lofts and condos nearby, as well as with a few high-powered corporate executives from the financial services industry who valued the convenience of the area.

And there was a heavy community police presence monitoring the activity of the street. Throughout the year we saw eager groups of sports fans parading by in team colours, singing their team chants loudly as they went. Once a year, war veterans and their families made a pilgrimage to spot a right outside our window to commemorate their fallen comrades with whom they had worked at a large farm machine factory that had now been converted into a residential loft building. We also saw families walking by, heading to the exhibition and fairgrounds, and concertgoers in the summer.  At various times all of these mixed with film crews, TV news trucks and model photo shoots. During the weekdays the workers from our office building flooded down to street level for coffee breaks and for lunch.

People from one extreme of Toronto society to the other congregated on the sidewalk right in front of our office. To witness that daily was remarkable. The sidewalk brought them all together, and they shared it without prejudice, segregation, without fear, and each one with their human dignity. For me the concept of the sidewalk is extremely rich with spiritual meaning.

TWI: Tell us why you think God cares about and has work to do within the “built environment.”

HW: The built environment is the place we live in and share with others; it’s the place we come to develop experiences of community and thereby grow more into the fullness of our humanity. A deeply Christian experience is also a deeply human experience, and therefore, it is rooted in particular locations and not based in rootless sets of ideals.

I agree with Andy Crouch that as humans we are called to be culture makers. Because culture making happens in relationship with others and not isolation, we need places where we make culture in partnership with others. The way I see it, a built environment that inhibits the task of culture making is one that needs to be re-shaped. The built environment should provide the shared places in which people can connect and develop an experience of community.

I’ve been helped in my thinking by Randy Frazee (et al.) in Connecting Church. Frazee lists five factors that are vital to the development of one’s spirituality in the context of a community: spontaneity, availability, frequency, and common meals, which are all drawn together within a shared geography. These elements support an authentic community-based experience of faith. When we combine place-based faith with ethical practices such as relating to strangers, practicing patience, kindness and tolerance, and engaging one another with civility, then we enable the flourishing and wholeness of individuals and the community. All of these locational practices and Christian virtues are part of the Bible’s core message regarding neighbourliness. This is encompassed in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) Without having the suitable elements of the built environment in place, it is difficult—if not impossible—to live out the calling of loving one’s neighbour.

As a realtor, I get to hear the basic longings of people for connection to their built environment on a daily basis. When I listen to my clients explain where and how they want to live, I often hear their own longing to find meaning in their surroundings. For example, many of my clients talk about how they are want live in a walkable neighborhood with convenient access to amenities, shopping, and public transport. They want to experience urban life and the cultural vitality that it brings: access to cultural goods such as good food, local markets, varieties of entertainment, a connection to their neighbourhood, opportunity to pursue education and learning, good relationships, a sense of connectedness, access to services, a healthy environment, and a desire for peace and freedom from fear and anxiety.

These longings are ultimately linked with concepts of community and neighbourliness.  The shape of the built environment supports and facilitates the most meaningful aspects of our lives such as access to the amenities outlined above. Because of this, the built environment is deeply interwoven into who we are and who we want to be as humans.

TWI: What place does community have for you in your life? Who are mentors that have shaped you, books that you return to, people that have made a difference to your life and work?

HW: John McKnight and Peter Block’s Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods has helped me to see that community should be based on the concept of giftedness. True community exists when individuals have a chance to contribute their gifts to the lives of others; in this way a community is enriched by the unique contributions of each person.

I’ve experienced the principle of giftedness as a basis for community in the church where I grew up. The leadership of my church took giftedness as a core principle in how they organized the church. At least once or twice a year, the church attendees filled out a “gift inventory” questionnaire. This questionnaire had a checklist of dozens of possible gifts that individuals could typically have and then invited the person to get involved in church by sharing the identified gifts and skills in the context of the church community.

This profound approach of taking peoples’ gifts as a starting point for community involvement led to an incredible amount of volunteer participation within the church. The emphasis in that community was not on one’s position or role in society, but rather on who a person was, and what they liked. This tended to upend traditional social boundaries and hierarchies. I have rarely witnessed the kind of community life that I experienced there. I believe there is a much to recommend in this particular approach to community formation and yet it is easy to neglect, especially in big cities where the population is so transient.

Improvisation has become an important theme for me lately. Until recently, Christians have tended to focus on methods and techniques so they could easily and effectively share “the truth” with others. Churches have adopted management theories and leadership and organizational techniques for helping people to connect and develop community. But now we seem to have reached an age where standardized methods and techniques have lost their sway. Many people in our society have gone from being able to accept the viewpoint that “Jesus is the answer” to one where they think “Jesus is the problem,” or at least that “Jesus-followers are the problem.” Jesus-followers are often seen to be narrow-minded and judgmental and out of step with cultural and social changes.  Society offers ready resistance to institutional Christian attempts at virtually anything.  In this “depressed” context for institutional religion, I feel there is now a freedom for the individual believer to express their own faith without reference to institutional church authorities – hence, improvisation.

Jamie Howison’s God’s Mind in that Music about the improvisational style of John Coltrane have helped me to see how believers can begin to improvise their unique faith narrative while retaining a connection to the primary narratives of scripture and the tradition of the church. The meaningful aspect of improvisation is that you are not living anyone else’s story, but only your unique story. When you get to be yourself, then you get to give all your gifts and you receive everyone else’s unique gifts. This type of living is the gateway to abundant community. The promise of wholeness, of the full expression of our capacities, is a fulfillment of who we were created to be. The world is waiting for you and me to be who we were created to be! That is integral to my vision of faith and fills me with a sense of anticipation and hope.

Be sure to check out these great posts from City Postive:

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Photos: Graham Kingsley, Steven Griffin

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