Placemaking and a pandemic: How walking can help you pastor better

Have you ever walked in your neighborhood, across a campus, or through a park and noticed a worn dirt trail that runs tangential to the main sidewalk? Perhaps you’ve taken these yourself, adding your own prints to the unofficial path. In the world of urban design, these informal foot trails are called “desire paths.”

Desire paths occur when even the most talented urban designers fail to integrate the nuance and specificity of the local environment into their plans. It is easy to design from “above” and forget to put feet on the ground to account for the everyday, lived experiences of people. And, it turns out that human beings are selective about where we walk. The paths we choose are contingent on factors like comfort, safety, efficiency, and intrigue. These are not elements directly perceived on maps or achieved through isolated designs on paper. They require a fine-grain view of the fuller story, an intentional eye and active engagement in the rhythms and particularities of places and people. Good design shapes places around the tangible needs and desires of people, reflecting attention and adaptability to these details on the ground.

Desire paths and the Christian life

Just as with good urban design, effectively carrying out our biblical calling to seek the welfare of the city requires learning the desire paths of our places. We need to orient ourselves within the narrative of our particular place to do this well. We must physically enter into the stories on the ground and understand the lived nuances of our particular neighbors if we are to identify what constitutes goodness and health for the local community and work toward that end.

From the beginning, the Bible gives us cues in this direction. God designed us as embodied creatures, made from the dust of the very place in which our story happens. What’s more, the first question God asks of humankind is: Where are you? In that moment, God was not actually wondering where Adam and Eve were hiding out. He knew where they were; he was asking them to orient themselves in relationship to their place and to him. And, the truth is, though they had yet to consciously know it, they had just entered into exile — a place of disorientation and disconnection from God. Yet, in his mercy, God walks to meet them in that place. There, his first act is to care for their bodies, to seek their welfare through the provision of physical coverings.

We see the same pattern throughout Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. Again, a place of disorientation where God’s presence and mercy manifests through tangible provisions of food and water. In response the Israelites set cairns and altars to mark the places where God showed himself faithful, orienting themselves to particular places within the larger narrative that is at play.

Seeking the common good of our neighborhood

We are still living in exile, awaiting the full restoration of our place within the larger narrative of God’s redeeming work in the world. In the meantime, as followers of Jesus we are called to orient ourselves to our particular places in order that we might demonstrate the truth of the gospel to those around us for the common good. In this regard, walking our neighborhoods is a simple and deeply faithful act. As we put feet on the ground, we discover our particular place and enter into the lived stories of those with whom we share sidewalks. This is the first step in pursuing the welfare of those we encounter in our places. By it, we begin identifying the desire paths and shaping what it means to truly seek the good of our neighborhoods and our cities.

Too often, we easily follow the path of implementing church programs from “above” and are discouraged when no one shows, or enthusiasm quickly dwindles. Like good urban design, good neighborhood outreach necessitates engaging with a street view in our particular place. Meeting the needs and desires expressed by the people in our particular places requires patience and adaptability. Recognizing and listening to the desire paths being trod by the people in our particular neighborhoods commands a humble and attentive heart. Remember in Micah 6:8 we are called to walk humbly.

So how can you — whether you’re a pastor, church member, or community leader, better know the “desire paths” of your community?

4 practical ways to learn your neighborhood

1. Plot out a 1/2-mile radius around your home and/or your church. This will be a 7-10-minute walk in each direction.

2. Commit to going on a walk in each direction at least once a week.

3. Draw a map that captures places and people you observe. Add to it as you go each week. Annotate your map:

  • In blue, highlight or mark physical features that bring you delight (such as gardens, public art, lovely homes, or vibrant gathering spaces).
  • In red, mark features that are challenging to navigate or that make you nervous (such as difficult street crossings, tired or abandoned buildings, or expanses of parking lots).
  • Draw a star on two or three parts of your neighborhood where you see opportunities for merciful encounters with others. Where do you see the need for God’s reconciliation or evidence of grace?

4.  Ask questions such as:

  • Who is present in this neighborhood? Who is not present?
  • Do the types of housing and uses that are present allow for healthy integration of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds?
  • What places are in need of enhancement or restoration?
  • What values are represented by the places and people in the neighborhood?
  • How many neighbors do I know by name?
  • Where are there opportunities for neighborhood gatherings?

During this year of pandemic, walking our neighborhoods has become a prevalent exercise. This is a great opportunity to faithfully orient ourselves in our particular places. Use this time to observe the desire paths of your community and hear the stories of your neighbors. Challenge your church members to do the same. Share what you learn. Ask God to give you clear vision for how you can tangibly seek the welfare of the particular places and people who inhabit your local story.

Topics: Church and Ministry, Mission & Outreach

About the Author

Sara Joy Proppe is the founder of Proximity Project, which seeks to empower churches to connect their mission and their story to their physical place in the neighborhood. Through Proximity Project she provides resources and consulting services that spark creative ways for churches to embody their mission and leverage their property for the flourishing of the local community, whether it be through placemaking or real estate development projects. She writes and speaks nationally on the intersections of urbanism, theology, and design for dignity. She is the co-host of The Embedded Church podcast.