At Cardus, we believe cities and related communities are the future of our lives together. They are settings dense in social interactions, very complex in their functions, and very difficult to change. Historic and contemporary observations strongly suggest that cities are central to a flourishing citizenship, but they can also impair our full participation. This contradiction is part of the great challenge of cities.
We recognize that our social infrastructure—the patterns of relational interactions—reflects our physical infrastructure. Social institutions, such as faith communities, are an essential link within the complex relationships between people, culture, and the physical spaces where people live.
The Social Cities program at Cardus is organized around two orienting questions: What makes a good city? and How do we get there? There are many ways in which the Social Cities program is pursuing answers to these questions. The City Soul project, of which this City Soul Explorer Toolkit is a part, shares that pursuit and focuses—in particular—on faith communities and city planning interactions.
The purpose of the City Soul project is to strengthen city planning through increased contributions from faith-based institutions. City Soul facilitates this by enhancing communication, understanding, and collaboration between faith communities and city planners. Faith communities rarely interact with city planners except when problems arise over issues such as zoning and parking. City Soul moves beyond this by facilitating the exchange of knowledge between these groups in a more enriched way. The initiative also provides direction for faith-based organizations (FBOs) to work collaboratively on community and common good initiatives.
City Soul has been developed through initiatives in a variety of cities including Calgary, Edmonton, and Cambridge (ON). Every city and community is unique, but in many cases they can make use of common resources such as those provided in City Soul Explorer. City Soul Explorer outlines a way in which the often distinct worlds of planning and faith-based organizations can be brought closer together. This in turn will add to the social capacity of city, towns, and communities.
Learning on the Way
Rather than wait to the end to capture the challenges encountered and mistakes made, it seems prudent to place them here, near the beginning. Hopefully it will inspire you to face the difficulties as part of the exciting opportunity that this form of city building can take. It may also help to see that although your own setting is unique, it shares dynamics common to other places. These lessons arise from reflection and from the direct input of a wide range of stakeholders and participants over our years of work in local communities.
Faith-based organizations and city planning departments are often stretched to the limits in terms of what they are committed to deliver organizationally. They may be understaffed or constrained by various organizational dynamics. At the same time, there are people in these settings who aspire to much more. The challenge is to find them and then provide pathways for those with higher aspirations to grow and make a greater impact.
There is a significant need for key faith and planning leaders to carry the process forward. General interest is good but not sufficient for the changes that need to happen. It can take considerable time for this to happen and we have often had to invest in many and wide-ranging meetings for this to be possible. When key local leaders change or fade, there is a corresponding decrease in impact. Because the changes
envisioned by the City Soul work are long-term, these leadership dynamics are extremely important. We have not solved this challenge. What you learn in your own attempts may be a great service to the rest of us.
In most communities and cities, the FBO landscape is fragmented. Most FBOs are accustomed to limited collaboration with other FBOs (even within their own traditions) and may find only temporary cohesion when a larger external threat arises (a zoning change that threatens their status or the spectre of losing their tax-free status). There often exists some cooperation between ministerial associations and some community service groups, which may serve as a starting point, but we have learned that we can’t underestimate how difficult it is to find a coherent organizing point for the FBO community.
Given the above lessons, one challenge is finding a way to talk about “what time it is” (or the general climate, welcoming or not) in terms of the cultural position of FBOs concerning the wider society of their communities and cities. It does not appear likely that FBOs will simply disappear. In some places they are growing, as religion is taking a more significant public role in global and local events, and the role of religion in human culture is increasingly recognized as a permanent feature rather than a temporary state. How should we talk about this changing religious climate? Unfair stereotypes and assumptions about religion are common in the media. Most news about religion is negative, while the contribution of religion to our common lives is significantly positive. There is work to be done to connect FBOs and city planners in the midst of these challenging dynamics.
The dynamics of FBOs and planning are also part of the wider landscape shift from human to technological solutions. Smart cities, data collection, complex analysis, and other techno-bureaucratic solutions are often given unthinking acceptance by citizens. The role of religion can seem antiquated by comparison. FBOs need to look to their right and left to see other groups, including non-religious groups, who are gaining ground in community organizing, neighbour-to-neighbour connecting, and other forms of common good support that can offset these other solutions. The ability to do that varies widely across the FBO landscape.
Practically, the matter of who pays for the development of these new elements of social infrastructure is critical. Where will the investment of time, learning, and convening come from? There are creative ways to begin to bridge these gaps, but the creativity quotient often poses a challenge to interested parties. Key leaders can help to steward these dynamics, but resource needs will have to be solved.
There is a learning requirement for the use of some of the tools. While it isn’t a high barrier compared with other challenges, we have learned that even modest obstacles can impair a fledgling effort. Development of a wider network of resources that can span from one city or community to another will be part of the solution, but it is important to recognize that processes that are obvious or seem simple in one setting can be opaque and complex in another.