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Sometime in 2008, most demographers would agree, we crossed a historic threshold, one that is meaningful to Christian scholarship. Until then, and since the earliest days of civilization, the bulk of the world’s population lived in rural areas. Even at the turn of the 20th century, only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. But the 1900s were marked both by migration to cities and by the wide-spread initiation of demographic transition—characterized by decreased mortality rates and, in some places (largely colonized countries of the Global South), continued high birth rates—that accompanied industrialization. The rapid urbanization of the 20th century has culminated in an early 21st-century watershed. According to the United Nations Population Division, 3.2 billion people now live in urban areas.1 For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s humanpopulation calls the city home.

Urban growth rates remain high. Worldwide, urban populations are increasing at nearly 2.5% per year.2 Given the relationship between industrialization and urbanization, it should come as little surprise that the fastest-urbanizing regions are Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where urban populations are increasing at more than 3% per year.3 In Asia and Africa, a dwindling rural majority is migrating at astonishing rates to cities and informal urban settlements, some of which seem to spring up overnight.

Urbanization rates in these areas of the world show few signs of slowing down. Demographers predict that urbanites will exceed 70% of the world’s population by 2050.4 And the entire net population growth of the world over the next 40 years is supposed to be absorbed by cities.5 But this growth will not be distributed evenly ,as cities of the 2/3 world are expected to absorb the bulk of the increase in population. Whether in burgeoning peri-urban slums around places like Rio, Nairobi, and Mumbai or in new cities built seemingly from whole cloth in China,6 the plurality of the future population will live in cities of the Global South.

Such trends motivate considerable attention to the city by planning and policy communities, as well as by scholars. But population and urbanization, together, do not account for the contemporary significance of the city. The city also has special importance to the processes of globalization. While some suggest that globalization marks the end of geography’s relevance, others note that such an analysis elides the importance of place and materiality,7 suggesting that dispersed but integrated global economic activity requires high concentrations of advanced financial and producer services, privileging particular locales according to structural bias, “deep economic history,” site, and the ingenuity of local agents.8 According to such analyses, cities emerge as engines of regional and global economic growth. In fact, World Bank studies show that 40 of the world’s top 100 economies are cities.9 Cities serve as nodes on formal and informal, licit and illicit, global circuits—for example, financial circuits or even human trafficking circuits—and serve as “command and control centers” for the global economy.10 Some cities, such as Los Angeles and Shanghai, are articulated more robustly to these circuits than are others, such as Nairobi or Phnom Penh. Far from Thomas Friedman’s flat world, as Richard Florida has suggested, the world is “spiky.”11

It is difficult to overestimate the presence and influence of cities in the world.12 From the global economy to global ecology, cities make the world. More than 90% of all foreign exchange transactions occur in fewer than ten cities. 75% of these occur in just four: New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Even on the margins of the cash economy, purchasing power is determined largely by transactions occurring in these cities. 80% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions originate in urban areas. Even the landscape of the Antarctic is shaped by what happens in cities. The whole world consists of an ex situ urban landscape. As environmental historian William Cronon writes, “We all live in the city.”13

Scholars from several disciplines have taken note of the city’s role in the shifting architecture of global relations. Sites for the convergence of what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai describes as “the physics of globalization,” cities are loci of both centripetal and centrifugal forces that shape economic, political, and cultural conditions.14 Political scientist Neil Brenner traces the emergence of urban policy as a mechanism for state restructuring and the subnational as an important scale for the same.15 And as urbanist Julie-Anne Boudreau suggests, we are witnessing the urbanization of global politics. Boudreau writes of “the centrality of urban politics in a global era,” citing four forces that have “urbanized” the global political process: 1) decentralization and increased intergovernmental relations; 2) conventionally municipal policy interests moving to the national and global scales and conventionally national and global policy interests moving to the local scale; 3) there-scaling of civil society activities; and 4) the continued territorialization of the policy-making process.16 Geographer Allen Scott suggests that the “locational foundations” of a global cognitive-cultural economy “reside preeminently in large metropolitan areas.”17

But emerging preoccupations with the presence and influence of the city in the world, as important as they are, risk missing dynamics of the city. While in situ urbanism cannot be divorced from the world beyond the formal boundaries of the city any more than ex situ urban landscapes can be divorced from the city itself, by making the city our unit of analysis, we may not notice some important developments in the urban landscape proper. For example, arguing that the global city attracts a “creative class” of culture-makers, Florida fails to note emerging inequalities attached to the simultaneous growth of a low-wage service industry.18 While the polarized, or dual, city once predicted by many urbanists to emerge from re-structuring for a service economy has not materialized, most scholars still note increasing urban inequality.19 Scholars argue that such inequality is integral to the function of restructured cities and that it manifests itself across a wide range of phenomena, including urban environmental conditions.20 Contemporary cities house some of the most polluted, toxic, and otherwise unhealthy and inhospitable inhabited environments in the world. And the risks of such environments are distributed often along familiar lines of race, gender, and class.

Two contemporary urban forms, the megalopolis and the slum, illustrate most starkly the tragedy and triumph, the promise and peril, of the city. While fewer than two dozen cities boast populations of more than 10 million people, their number is increasing. These mega-cities present distinctive challenges and opportunities to urban planners and policymakers. At the same time, more than one billion people—and by some reports close to two billion people—live in slums, informal urban and peri-urban settlements that ring many cities of the Global South. Indeed, slums could be called the “1/3 world.” While we should recognize the resilience and inspiring ingenuity of such communities, we must attend to the structural inequities that lead to such vulnerability.

From the financial districts of New York, London, and Hong Kong, to the manufacturing centers of Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Seoul, to the slums of Nairobi, Mumbai, and Rio, our future is an urban one. This should be of great significance to Christian scholars. The Christian mission to make known the gospel of Jesus Christ should issue in Christian scholarship regarding our urban world. As historian and missiologist Andrew Walls has noted, Christian scholarship thrives in the company of Christian mission. Christian mission requires the kind of lively Christian scholarship that produces “deep translation” of the gospel into the context of the hearers. “Periods of active mission need to be periods of active scholarship.”21 If our task is to participate in the mission of God to bless all people,22 then we must understand those people and the places in which they live. Along with Boudreau’s urbanization of global politics, we must have the urbanization of Christian scholarship, and that across the disciplines.

Despite the urgency of the task and though the city has been a persistent motif in Christian scholarship through many centuries, Mark Mulder and James K. A. Smith of Calvin College discern an anti-urban bias among U.S. evangelicals. Even active urban ministry and missiology may betray a misunderstanding of and alack of appreciation for the positive aspects of urban social relations. Mulder ’s and Smith’s article in this issue is an important step in the direction of critical self-examination that must precede fruitful engagement.

Lee Hardy, also of Calvin College, reaches back more than one hundred years to nineteenth-century England and the United States in order to identify an earlier spirit of urban engagement. In his article, Hardy explores the religious origins of Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” planning movement, one of the most influential planning schools of the past two centuries. Contemporary evangelicals may have much to learn from the gospel-inflected engagement narrated by Hardy.

Finally, David Wang, Professor of Architecture at University of Washington, draws upon the work of French reformed theologian and social theorist Jacques Ellul in his critique of a contemporary garden city legacy. Highlighting the technical impulse in the design fetish of new urbanism, Wang calls for authentic participation in “city-making”—that is, “participation that transcends technique.” Such authenticity will be essential to vital Christian engagement with the city.

As important as these three contributions are, this theme issue barely scratches the surface of the contemporary urban question, or of Christian perspectives on the city. So much work remains to be done. Many important questions remain for Christian scholars to explore. Following the leads of Mulder, Smith, Hardy, and Wang, let us work together toward a greater understanding of and engagement with our urban world.

Cite this article
Noah J. Toly, “Introduction to the Theme Issue: Christian Perspectives on The City”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 409-413


  1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2008).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. 6John Friedmann, China’s Urban Transition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2005);Thomas J. Campanella, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means forthe Rest of the World (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).
  7. Andre Drainville, Contesting Globalization: Space and Place in the World Economy (New York:Routledge, 2004); Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine ForgePress, 2006); Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, Lon-don, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  8. Sassen, Cities in a World Economy; Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo; KlausSegbers, ed., The Making of Global City Regions: Johannesburg, Mumbai/Bombay, Sao Paulo, andShanghai (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 2007).

  9. From presentation and conversation with Daniel Hoornweg, Lead Urban Specialist at theWorld Bank, at the 50th Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association (February2009, New York, New York). Hoornweg noted that the study included nations, firms, andcities, measuring the size of firms according to revenues and the size of nations and citiesaccording to purchasing power.
  10. Sassen, Cities in a World Economy.
  11. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, New York: Picador,2007); Richard Florida, Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live theMost Important Decision of your Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008); Richard Florida, “TheWorld Is Spiky,” Atlantic Monthly (October 2005).

  12. The phrase “presence and influence” has its origins in the work of Jacques Ellul, The Mean-ing of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

  13. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton &Company, 1991). See also Timothy Luke, “‘Global Cities’ vs. ‘Global Cities:’ Rethinking Con-temporary Urbanism as Public Ecology,” Studies in Political Economy 70 (2003): 11-33.
  14. Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 21-47. For other uses ofthis centripetal and centrifugal organizing logic, see Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: FromMedieval to Global Assemblages; Noah J. Toly, “Transnational Municipal Networks and GlobalClimate Politics: From Global Politics to Global Governance,” Globalizations 5.3 (2008): 341-356; Noah J. Toly, “Cities and ‘the Physics of Globalization:’ Conceptualizing the Relation-ship between Urban Environmental Politics and Global Environmental Politics,” presentedat the 50th Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, New York, February 16,2009; Noah J. Toly, “Cities and the Global Environment,” in Keeping God’s Earth: Creation Careand the Global Environment in Biblical Perspective, eds. Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, Forthcoming).
  15. Neil Brenner, New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2004).
  16. Julie-Anne Boudreau, “The Centrality of Urban Politics in a Global Era,” presented at the2007 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.
  17. Allen J. Scott, Social Economy of the Metropolis: Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism and the GlobalResurgence of Cities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  18. See Richard Florida, Who’s Your City and “The World is Spiky.”
  19. For predictions of a polarized ‘dual city’ emerging from restructuring for a global serviceeconomy, see John Mollenkopf and Manuel Castells, Dual City: Restructuring New York (NewYork: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992); C. Hamnett, “Social Polarization, Economic Restruc-turing, and Welfare State Regimes,” Urban Studies 33.8 (October 1996):1407-1430. For litera-ture ambivalent about the possibility of a strictly dual city, see S. Fainstein, M. Harloe, and I.Gordon, eds., Divided Cities: New York and London in the Contemporary World (London: Blackwell,1992); Peter Marcuse, “Dual City: A Muddy Metaphor for a Quartered City,” InternationalJournal of Urban and Regional Research 13 (1989): 697-708. For a recent reconsideration of theliterature, see Alexander J. Reichl, “Rethinking the Dual City,” Urban Affairs Review 42.5 (May2007): 658-687.
  20. See, for example, Doreen Massey, World City (Malden, MA: Polity, 2007).
  21. Andrew F. Walls, “Christian Scholarship and the Demographic Transformation of theChurch,” in Theological Literacy for the 21st Century, eds. Rodney Peterson and Nancy Rourke(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 166-183.
  22. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

Noah J. Toly

Wheaton College
Dr. Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics and International Relations, Director of the Center of Urban Relations, and Director of the Aequitas Program at Wheaton College.