In our individualized society, an institution tends to be viewed as an accumulation of the individuals who compose it. The church, for example, is seen as a group of like-minded individuals who meet together to have their religious needs met.
There is more to any institution than what it provides its members. Institutions have a place in society, and their existence also affects those who are not members – the broader community. This report focuses on that connection between the Church and the City, with a particular focus on urban renewal.
This White Paper is designed for at least two audiences:
1) Municipal, community and business leaders. We want to challenge you to understand how important the institution of the church is to the social and economic health of your cities; and
2) Leaders in faith communities. We want to challenge you as well to see far-reaching opportunities for mission in the context of economic and cultural urban vibrancy.
We hope this report spurs further interest, discussion and research into the relationship of the church to urban renewal. The church represents, we believe, vast and untapped opportunities for the academy, business and government spheres to explore in their shared goal of restoring their urban landscapes.
We hope you enjoy and find value in this report, and we welcome your feedback. As a think tank, our task is to provoke conversation and discussion, with a view to developing new solutions to existing problems. I am confident that this document will accomplish that mission.
Vice President, Research
Work Research Foundation
Introduction: Posing the Contemporary Problem
Will Wright, one of the founding partners of the Walnut Creek, California-based Maxis Software, helped to rewrite the manual on how to make computer games. His highlysuccessful “Sims” franchise – including the hit game SimCity, and the recent best-seller spin-off The Sims – doesn’t quite fit the orthodox computer gaming mould. A SimCity player spends all his time tending to the needs of a growing city. There is no actual criterion for victory, and the game could go on forever.
When Wright originally pitched his idea, game publishing executives didn’t anticipate a significant market for such a unique gaming concept. They doubted Wright could produce a viable, sellable product. (Keighley) But the huge success of the “Sims” franchise has clearly established a popular new genre, pioneered by Wright. Evidently a lot of gamers enjoy being caretakers of virtual populations.
The comparison can only be made in the loosest sense, but this investigative report is meant to speak to the same type of unfilled niche. Our purpose here is to explore the role of established religious communities in local economic development and renewal. We work on the assumption that what people ultimately believe influences how they live their lives, how they invest their money, and how that finds expression in the institution of the church.
Before SimCity is left behind in the introduction, it can be used to illustrate why this investigation is valuable. The game is designed on the premise that the economic strength of a city is contingent upon balancing the demands of citizen’s residential, commercial, and industrial interests, as well as providing good access to basic civil services. Schools, police stations, water towers, and hydro lines all need to be built, and land needs to be zoned. All of this is for the purpose of making sure the city remains economically vibrant – in a word, healthy.
Now, the original game, SimCity Classic, did not include churches among the buildings spontaneously generated in response to the player’s zoning decisions. In the game’s substantially-improved second edition, SimCity 2000, a nondescript church was included among the residential building set. Interestingly, the third installment, SimCity 3000, eliminated churches from game play again.
In the long run, however, the presence of churches matters very little in the game. In the overall structure of game play, the spiritual or religious concerns of the simulated citizens have no role to play. The question that begs to be asked is this: Do churches, or established religious communities, have a role to play in an actual human city?
Today’s urban planning departments, business development communities, and city governments are uncertain as to what to do with churches. Again, SimCity bears this out.
Trying to grant their gamers as much control and playability as possible, the SimCity production team allows users to design their own buildings for in-game use.1 There are internet communities devoted to sharing thousands of user-developed buildings, a few of which are churches. But a problem arises for intrepid designers when they have to categorize their church in one of SimCity’s predefined categories. They can be defined either as “Residential,” or under the generic category, “Other,” neither of which are satisfying.
The same shortsighted urban planning language can be seen in current economic development and urban renewal trends. The language of civil and business leadership fails to express adequately the important functions served by church communities.
Vision 2020, The City of Hamilton's Long-Term Development Plan, Includes Almost No References to Churches
This is not to say that businesses and governments have no dealings with churches. As this report will show, this is demonstrably false. Not enough care has been taken in choosing language to classify urban landscapes. While it is true that language defines reality, it also has the ability to hide reality. The present language of urban planning and economic development fails to comprehend the vital role played by churches in urban centres. Or, when attempts are made to classify established religious communities, their descriptions are impoverished and their public roles reduced to “limited social services providers.” Lacking the language to express the true character of churches, we miss significant opportunities to better understand the realities of urban life, and to better serve the needs of our cities.
The city of Hamilton, Ontario will be used as a case study. The portion of Hamilton that will draw all of our attention is bounded by provincial Highway 403 to the west, the brow of the Niagara Escarpment to the south, the shores of Burlington Bay to the north and the city boundaries of Stoney Creek to the east. This can generally be described as the urban centre of Hamilton, or the downtown. Within these boundaries more than 140 active churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are found. The risk of ignoring such a significant presence in Hamilton’s long-range urban development plans is considerable.
The vulnerabilities and inadequacies of language become ever more apparent in the context of grand visions and strategies. VISION 2020, the city of Hamilton’s long-term development plan, includes almost no references to churches. One reference is found in a forty-two-page document, “Vibrant, Healthy, Sustainable Hamilton,” with a single sentence referring to the “need to support the role of spirituality and morality in embracing and supporting VISION 2020” (Planning and Development Department, 2003, 18.). This is the only even oblique reference to faith communities we have discovered in Hamilton’s plan for urban renewal. VISION 2020 gives us no reason to think about faith communities as institutions with a vital, ongoing role to play in the city’s growth and health. Rather, it uses the language of privatized faith – faith that is left on the kitchen counter before leaving for work in the morning. This report challenges such assumptions, arguing that an accurate understanding of the city depends on broader and more reflective language.
The terms “church” and “established religious community” have been used interchangeably up to this point. While the focus of this report will be on churches, it is important to consider faith communities generally. Indeed, the many incarnations of the Christian church in Canada as an aggregate claim a much longer history than any other established religious community. Jewish communities have also existed in Canada for quite some time, but always in relatively small numbers. Recent years have seen other faiths, including Islam and Hinduism, establish themselves following immigration to Canada by members of these faith communities. Keeping these general considerations in mind, this report contends that churches and the communities of faith that form around synagogues, mosques and other places of worship best reflect the ideals of the New Urbanist movement. The focus, however, will remain on churches.
A gradual shift in scholarship since the mid-20th century towards what might be called a fuller understanding of humanity will be discussed in Part I from a number of different fields including sociology, economics, and urban design. In Part II, how well this shift in scholarly perspective accounts for the everyday experience of community leaders in Hamilton, Ontario. Finally, the report will consider what the findings mean for the future of established religious communities in other urban centres.
Changing Horizons in Scholarship
In very recent years, there has been an effort among circles of scholars to recover a more human perspective on how life should be lived. Leading thinkers are considering anew the importance of community, and are finding a place for faith and spirituality in public life. Urban planning departments in cities across North America are putting the ideas of New Urbanism to good use, while economists are investigating social, human and, recently, spiritual forms of capital. As will be shown, the church possesses a unique capacity to draw these two different modes of thought together into a productive relationship.