Reflections on visioning in the secular world

The City of Madison recently released a draft of its Downtown Plan, which is supposed to set the framework for the next twenty-five years of development. An overview of the current state of the planning process is available here.

The vision for the process is:

Downtown Madison will be a flourishing and visually exciting center for the arts, commerce, government and education. It will be a magnet for a diverse population working, living, visiting and enjoying an urban environment characterized by a sensitive blending of carefully preserved older structures, high-quality new construction, architectural gems and engaging public spaces– all working together and integrated with surrounding neighborhoods, parks and the transportation system to create a unique environment for the community, County and region. (Downtown Advisory Report, July 2004)

What strikes me in the documents that have been produced so far is in fact, the lack of vision and the lack of attention to larger cultural, economic, and environmental trends that may profoundly shape the next twenty-five years. For example, higher education is undergoing a transformation unlike anything seen before. The crisis of affordability and the rise of technology will undoubtedly affect the University of Wisconsin as it is affecting smaller schools across the country. But the current state of the downtown plan takes none of that into consideration. It seems to presuppose a stable environment in which Madison will grow and develop incrementally.

Having reflected on meetings in which the plan was discussed, and being involved presently in a great deal of thinking about the future of Grace Church, I’m struck by the different tones in the two processes. It may be simply because I’ve not heard the kind of dire warnings in the secular sphere that we know about in the church as a whole, and in particularly at Grace Church.

But to envision a future in twenty-five years means thinking outside the box in all kinds of ways. I’m reminded of the futuristic imagining of the future during the 60s–The Jetsons, for example. We’ve come to realize that much of that was silly, but at the same time, the technological advances and cultural changes that have occurred were unimaginable. To vision the future five years down the road is one thing. It’s going to look a good deal like it looks today. But twenty or twenty-five years in the future? Who can imagine? And how can you plan for it?

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