What do churches have to do with urban planning?

Sara Joy Proppe is a member of Strong Towns. We're excited to include her as a contributor, writing with a particular focus on engaging faith communities in the development and planning processes in our cities.

I am convinced a significant opportunity exists to (re)orient churches to ask the “nascent” questions regarding our built environment. For example, a church may currently ask, What kind of construction will city regulations allow? While the nascent question begs, What kinds of space does our city need? What if the plaguing question changed from How much parking does our church need to How can we meet parking needs without creating an empty lot for the rest of the week?

Proximity Project is an initiative working to bring churches in the Twin Cities into the city development and planning conversation, to help them think deliberately about being better neighbors through the bricks and mortar of their neighborhoods. Historically, cultural institutions such as churches, universities, hospitals, and fraternal organizations have been significant contributors to the fabric of our cities, serving as hubs for nurturing community well-being and acting as the social glue for otherwise disparate individuals living in proximity to one another. In fact, the physical lands on which many of these institutions are located are often the geographic city centers; reiterating their important communal role. In our sprawling and auto-oriented cities, however, that centrality has substantially faded.

As a church member, I am particularly concerned with how churches fit into this modern American landscape. Churches have tended to follow the way of suburbanization, particularly with the mega-church movement. Many are built on the edge of town with large seas of parking lots to accommodate their congregants living miles away. A half hour drive to church has become similar to commuting to work or school, and no one blinks an eye.

I would argue this works against the biblical doctrine to love our neighbors. While churches petition congregants to love their neighbors, the amount of time driving and seeking social activities outside the local neighborhood (and, usually at the church!) lessens opportunities for knowing and, in turn, loving neighbors. Aside: this is not just endemic of church communities. The car has given most Americans the capacity to choose friends and seek entertainment far from the proximity of their neighborhoods. However, with their call to love neighbors, I contend that churches ought to be at the forefront of stewarding local neighborhood spaces and places surrounding their four walls for human flourishing. The question becomes: How does a church participate in the built environment for the good of its neighbors and, really, for the good of a church, itself?

Source:  Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

This question must be addressed because the reality is the suburban growth model is experiencing diminishing returns. Churches located on the periphery are likely not sustainable as suburban centers become more vacant and infrastructure deteriorates. Moreover, people are moving back to the city. Churches are going to have to give stronger consideration to the values of the urban mindset, particularly as they relate to features of the built environment such as public transit, walkability, bikeability, affordable housing, and green space. Additionally, many churches in the urban cores are located on valuable land. Pressure to develop this land is only going to increase. These churches will need to know how to effectively participate in the city development process.

In short, I believe that churches represent an undervalued and untapped forum for educating a significant audience about the built environment and its relationship to community flourishing. Where else on a weekly basis do this many people come together who believe that it is part of their calling in life to love their neighbors? In the Twin Cities Metro Area alone there are more than 3,000 churches with over 800,000 people in attendance.

Many churches are active in the good work of loving their neighbors. For example, a study done in 2010 by the Partners for Sacred Places and the University of Pennsylvania found that 12 churches in urban Philadelphia contribute approximately $51M annually to the local community through educational programs, direct spending, and catalytic impacts such as employment assistance, recovery and abuse prevention programs, and community development. That is no small number.

What if churches recognized the importance of neighborhood public space? What if churches were at the city planning and development table?

But what if they knew how to do it better? What if they understood how zoning, parking, and roads impact people’s lives? What if churches recognized the importance of neighborhood public space? What if churches were at the city planning and development table?

The Social Cities Research Program based out of Cardus, a Canadian think tank, explored this question and found that faith-based organizations play a unique role in city planning because they have a level of interaction with the planning process that spans across issues of parking, zoning, land use and heritage. They also discovered that many of these institutions simply needed to be better educated on how to enter the planning conversation.

Proximity Project is educating churches in the Twin Cities on these issues and giving them the tools necessary to strategically engage the built environment. I believe the implications of living out a theology and its manifestations, or lack thereof, in the built environment are deep and wide, and I hope to elucidate some of these relationships through my contributions to the Strong Towns blog. If you’re a churchgoer, I’d encourage you to challenge your comrades on these ideas as well.

All photos by Rachel Quednau unless otherwise noted.

Sara Joy Proppe works by day as a Project Manager in real estate development in the Twin Cities where she oversees a variety of mixed-use and multifamily historic and urban infill projects. In her free time, she is developing Proximity Project to educate and activate churches to be stewards of the built environment. She loves to write and speak on the connections between theology and our design and use physical space. You can find her on Twitter @sjproppe and @proximityproj