Great cities need leadership, resources and spirit

October 22, 2010 - Ray Pennings

By most measures, the city, which has just elected a freshly minted mayor and council is doing well. The Calgary Foundation's 2009 Vital Signs report showed a city becoming a better, safer place to live and the City of Calgary's Centre City Plan is a roadmap for a vibrant core. It has room for the growth of commerce, condos, shopping, arts and entertainment, pubs, restaurants. It satisfies the senses and without question is a fine document -- a dynamic template for a city with great aspirations.

Yet a critical element -- one found in all of the world's great cities -- has been overlooked. The Centre City Plan leaves no room for the growth of faith institutions to serve the 40,000 additional residents expected to fill its core.

What are the consequences of this in terms of brick-and-mortar space as well as program delivery? If city living is intended to meet the wide range of its residents' needs, isn't spiritual nourishment among those? If the plan makes no reference to the need for growth of the faith institutions, what will flourishing in the future be like? Can a great city exist without nurturing its most deeply held beliefs?

Cardus, a think-tank that studies social architecture and which has undertaken similar work in Toronto and Hamilton, has now completed the first of a multi-phase undertaking designed to answer these questions. We have conducted an audit of the physical infrastructure that supports the work of faith communities in the Calgary city centre. The existence of structures like churches, mosques, and temples speak to the fact that worship has been part of what it means to be human since the beginning of time. Faith communities, just like arts and business communities, have impacts on citizens whether or not they participate in them.

This is what we have discovered and some of the questions we hope to address in the next phases of our work.

There are 25 spaces devoted to worship within the boundaries of Calgary's Centre City. They range from historic Christian churches, to a Buddhist Monastery, to spaces provided for Muslim Friday prayers. There are no synagogues, mosques, LDS, Hindu or Sikh temples.

The spaces that do exist are in some cases used by multiple religious communities. They are networked with each other, with governments, non-profits, and businesses to provide a vast range of social services. The religious communities in the downtown core are responsible for the creation of significant levels of social capital in volunteer hours, charitable activity and infrastructure serving the needs of the underclass.

Additionally, churches offer a wide range of services which aren't specifically religious, nor necessarily aimed at the poor, but contribute to the arts, physical fitness, language learning, job search and skills enhancement.

The precise impacts of limiting the participation of faith institutions in these areas will be the subject of future work but it is clear that without the Mustard Seed, Salvation Army, Inn From the Cold, Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS), Neighbourlink, FaithLink, AA, NA, and other groups using religious spaces in downtown Calgary, the city core would be a very different place. One does not have to be a believer to recognize that institutions of faith have -- if nothing else -- sociological value as incubators of social virtues.

Calgary's historic churches played a significant role in the establishment of the city, its character and its culture. St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church was built in 1883 in East Calgary, was later moved and renamed Our Lady of Peace before finally becoming St. Mary's Cathedral. Knox United Church (originally Knox Presbyterian) was built in 1883, Cathedral Church of the Redeemer by the Anglicans in 1884, and Trinity Lutheran Church in 1889. Over the years, other venues were added to reflect diversity and include worship spaces for francophones, Hungarians, Ethiopians and Eritreans, Vietnamese, Hispanic, Chinese and other Asian communities.

Beyond the spiritual, the Cardus work shows these congregations provide a vast range of services to the wider community, including language instruction, food and clothing banks, addiction recovery groups, work with the homeless, the unemployed, single mothers, HIV patients, temporary housing and social assistance. These spaces are also used for music concerts, performing arts, marriage counselling and child care for those who live, work in or visit the downtown core.

As the makeup of Calgary's downtown residential population changes, so too will the need for worship spaces to reflect those changes. Adding 40,000 residents means there will be a need for space well beyond present capacity. The extent to which the current Centre City plan creates a disincentive to diversity within the core will be a matter for further study. It's also a conversation that needs to engage us all.

Posted in Cities. Linked to Cardus' Social Cities research project.

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Originally Published

date: October 20, 2010
publisher: Calgary Herald