In the past two weeks, my email inbox has been bombarded with the annual “Black Friday” deals purported by retail companies across the United States. The market appeal to go out and buy, buy, buy the day after we are encouraged to meditate gratefully on all we have is so paradoxically absurd that I prefer to not give any energy to it. Strong Towns has made strategic use of this peak consumer demand day for exposing how much physical space in our cities is unnecessarily devoted to parking since many lots remain nearly half empty even on Black Friday.
What does this exercise tell us? We are raising a generation of consumers to which even our zoning codes cater. We want unlimited options. We want the cheapest prices. And, we want convenient access to all of it. Give me liberty or give me parking! I fear we have chosen parking.
While the dichotomy between liberty or parking is a little silly or extreme, I would argue that the ubiquity of parking has, in fact, covertly robbed us of some freedom. Allow me some time to connect these dots. First, by designing and developing space specifically for our cars we have personified our value of choice over charity. When I use the word charity here, I do not mean good-will donations to social causes. Historically, the word charity was derived from the Latin word “caritas” a translation from the Greek word “agape”, which more wholly means an unconditional love for others. C.S. Lewis expounds on this virtue:
[…] Charity for our neighbours is quite a different thing from liking or affection. We “like” or are “fond of” some people, and not of others. It is important to understand that this natural “liking” is neither a sin nor a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue. It is just a fact. But, of course, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous … The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did.
Here is the modern condition: The car affords us more power to choose our “neighbors.” With access to ample roads and parking we, being creatures of comfort, will naturally choose to surround ourselves with only those people (and things) we like; in turn, we rarely have to practice charity. Initially this feels very liberating.
However, the dwindling of charity has enormous consequences for our social order because it is a foundational element for our flourishing. It is the virtue that enables us to show kindness to strangers and enemies, to forgive others, and to be more fully ourselves. It is the operating safety net for a bunch of human beings who have differing opinions and beliefs and are admittedly jerks to one another quite regularly. Charity colors the world with humaneness. Unfortunately, more than ever, I believe this election season has exposed our epidemic lack of charity. People talk past one another. Broad generalizations are made. Civil discourse is non-existent. Hate has become part of our daily rhetoric. We have forgotten how to practice charity. And, as we are witnessing, the flip side is the plague of polarization, which will quickly destroy community.
The practice of charity happens when we live within limits. Operating in proximity to people we do not naturally like or necessarily agree with requires us to exercise the kind of love of which Lewis writes, if we want to preserve any level of civility and happiness in our personal and communal lives. These limits are also what afford us the freedom to be more fully ourselves because, when we understand that charity is part of the modus operandi, there is space to have differences, to mess up, and, really, to be human. That does not mean I am allowed to be a complete jerk to my neighbor, but it does mean that if I am, there is room for reconciliation and civility – the extending of charity. Freedom is found where differences can exist and quarrels can happen without the risk of hatred and oppression.
In addition, as a Christian, I believe the Church is the most responsible purveyor of charity, but choice has undermined this virtue within this circle as well. David T. Koyzis, in his article The Death of the Parish: A Motor-driven Ecclesiology, notes:
Near universal automobile ownership has made Christians of virtually every tradition into consumers of perceived spiritual goods. … Everyone becomes a seeker and churches are compelled to attract potential members by whatever means necessary. Why? Because no one has to show up, after all. They can easily drive past the nearest church building and find another congregation that better meets their subjective needs.
He goes on to ask, “[W]hat if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighborhoods?” While important questions, this framework suggests that new churches might have the option to forgo those parking lots. I have read too many zoning codes to know that even churches are beholden to parking minimums that work against this philosophy. There is room, however, to get creative with parking lots (even without an overhaul to the zoning code)! I know of a church in North Minneapolis that leases the parking lot of a liquor store, which is closed on Sundays, to meet its parking needs. There are also opportunities to utilize parking lots for community services, such as this church in Seattle does for homeless people. Or, churches could turn their parking lots into community plazas for use during the week.
In conclusion, though parking is not the root of our systemic lack of charity, it acts as a contributing factor, unconsciously etching away at our freedom. Its domination of our landscape illustrates that we have designed our cities, adopted our zoning codes, and facilitated investment models to promote values of unlimited choice and access, mistaking these values for true liberty.
(Top photo by Jake Melara)