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Institutions of faith help define Calgary

Since the dawn of civilization, the physical and social architecture of great cities and societies have been defined by their institutions of faith.

From the ancient pyramids of Giza and Teotihuacan, Malta’s Hagar Qim, Greece’s Temple of Afea, King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, Medina’s Quba Mosque, Petra, Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, Delhi’s Chhatarpur Temple, Wat Arun in Bangkok, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Basil’s in Moscow, St. Patrick’s in New York, Marie Reine du Monde in Montreal through to the Salt Lake Temple, institutions of faith have been at the physical, social and metaphorical hearts of our cities.

The goal of sacred architecture, according to architect Norman Koonce, is to make “transparent the boundary between matter and mind, flesh and the spirit.”

The question posed by the results of the Calgary City Soul Phase 2 study being released today by Cardus — a think-tank dedicated to the study of social architecture — is whether that tradition will be relegated to the city’s suburbs or whether it will have the opportunity to evolve within the city’s heart. Further, unless the city amends the Centre City Plan, it appears unlikely that the increasingly large numbers of new Calgarians who subscribe to faiths other than Christianity will have the opportunity to establish their communities within the civic core.

Undertaken through a contract with the Arlington Group — an established urban consultancy — the Calgary City Soul project was conceived following a one-day Cardus seminar in September 2008. At that time, it was noticed that the City of Calgary’s Centre City Plan — a comprehensive and visionary planning document designed to attract an additional 40,000 to 70,000 residents into the civic core — had overlooked any current or future role for institutions of faith.

It was then, and remains our belief, that this was not done through intention, but through oversight, perhaps due to the extent to which faith has been — incorrectly — privatized. Beliefs may, indeed, be private or personal matters, but the institutions that nurture them have long been and remain public and part of, not apart from, a secular society.

The benefits of faith cannot be contained by the physical walls of worship spaces. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that faith communities serve an important role as a catalyst for volunteering, charity and caring for neighbours.

The marginalization of faith institutions is not about how we treat those who frequent them, which includes incidentally a growing minority of religiously observant minorities who are not being served by any worship spaces of their tradition within the city core. It also bruises the very soul of the city and lessens our capacity in matters as diverse as implementing an emergency plan (for which worship facilities and volunteer networks have historically proved critical) to the range of arts and cultural events that Calgarians enjoy.

In an address to the Yale University School of Architecture, Toronto’s former poet laureate, Pier Giorgio di Cicco, put it this way: “The principles of sacred space are: the elicitation of wonder; the imperative of stillness; the benevolent connotation of forces that nurture, gentle and release.”

“The onus in the 21st century will not be diversity of culture,” but “diversity of spirituality. . . . It will behoove the architect, the planner to design public space that mediates the spiritual instinct to communality and transcendence. The communing of streetscape, landscape, building, skyline enjoins the citizen to commune with projects and entities and re-establishes trust with others. . . . The effect of architecture and space on the entire person, in the advent and presence of other persons is universal. It gentles the civic creature. It can gentle disparate cultures and peoples by the vocabulary of the sublime, bringing them to the point of awe, gratitude and mutuality by shared space, making such space sacred.”

These are the structures that nurture people’s most deeply held beliefs, sanctify their lives’ most vital relationships and comfort their deepest pains and most profound sorrows. And, even for those who do not share their faith, they act, as the Arlington Group’s report for Cardus articulates, as incubators of commonly held social virtues. Similar to the esthetic influence of the arts on a community, their impact on the culture that surrounds them is felt and is of benefit to even those who never, or rarely, enter them.

The full report, available on the Cardus website, confirms that, as C.S. Lewis said, “the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of non-members.”

We at Cardus are, therefore, recommending that city council amend the Centre City Plan to reflect our civic leaders’ understanding that institutions of faith exists as part of – not apart from – a truly secular society.

Linked to Cardus' Social Cities research project.

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