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Pennings: City hall shows willingness to nurture faith

You will never win by fighting city hall, or so the saying goes. Sometimes, you don't have to.

The city is not only listening regarding the Cardus Calgary City Soul report and recommendations released in October—it is acting on them and we anticipate a public process early in 2012 that will fully engage and recognize the vital role that faith communities play in the formation of our civic esthetic.

To recap, Calgary approved its new Centre City Plan in 2007. It envisions a city centre in which 40,000 or more additional residents will contribute to a vertical, high density, vibrant core of the city.

Yet, in spite of the reality that every week enough Calgarians attend places of worship to fill the Saddledome 20 times over; that a significant proportion of the core services in our city rely on faith communities, and that places of worship continue to perform essential roles in the lives of so many of us at the defining moments of our lives ("hatch 'em, match 'em and dispatch 'em"), the document was silent on institutions that sustain and cultivate people's most deeply held beliefs.

The oversight in the city plan was not part of some grand anti-religious conspiracy.

The public consultation notices went out and representatives of faith institutions had the opportunity to participate. Some did. Others were intimidated about municipal planning processes and the technical jargon that so often accompanies it. Some were not sure that stepping out into the public arena wearing a faith label was the wisest thing to do; religion had become unfashionable.

On the city side, the faith dimension is easily overlooked. It tends to be considered something private rather than an integral part of the cultural conversation. Fifty years ago—even 30—when Calgary had a more homogeneous religious profile, it was easier to know who to talk to and how to frame your language.

Today's multicultural and multi-faith makeup challenges us all, in that we realize how little we know and understand about each other.

Throw in the increasing number oblivious to the idea that there is something more to the world beyond that which we can see, and the whole discussion is easy to avoid, particularly if you are the city staffer tasked with trying to find appropriate legal language.

Cardus, a think-tank engaged in the study of social architecture, and our senior fellow, Peter Menzies, found the vocabulary to bridge this gap and the social significance of this conversation. Our recent report, Calgary City Soul—Phase II, released in October, included concrete recommendations for amending the city plan to recognize the ongoing importance of faith and faith institutions.

Beyond strategic statements of intent, this needs to translate into interpretation of bylaws, parking regulations and other practical planning tools so that churches, temples, mosques and synagogues can thrive where people live and not be forced to live in sterile environments on the city's physical and metaphorical margins.

Since the release of our report, we have heard from several faith groups with municipal issues that go beyond the Centre City Plan. The particulars are not the point: but it is clear the discussion is expanding and we will continue to follow it and facilitate as needed.

And we have also heard from and met with city officials who have embraced the issue. The issue has clearly been acknowledged as real—vital, even—and our sense is that there is a genuine desire to engage in ongoing dialogue with faith communities. We understand a public process will be initiated as early as February 2012 that will get faith communities engage in the hard grind of how best to amend bylaws and regulations to meet their needs.

The days of a monolithic religious culture, if it ever existed, are certainly over. Recognition needs to be made that we live in a pluralistic city where people of many different faith traditions need to live in harmony. That will not be achieved by being silent about faith and its contribution in terms of architecture, the arts, social services and as incubators of social virtue.

It was never our intent to "fight" city hall. But the city we live in and that shapes our shared public spirit 20 years from now, is the city you plan for today—no matter how hard the grinding of bureaucratic language can be. Faith has always been a part of Calgary's civic history and esthetic. The path appears clear for it to continue that tradition into the future.

Linked to Cardus' Social Cities research project.

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