Faith Communities Can Help Build Vibrant Neighborhoods

Communities of faith stand in an important position to support vibrant, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. And in recent years, some have stepped up to the challenge at a variety of different scales.

For those of us who deal with the design and development of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods, it's clear that there is a critical link between the built environment and human flourishing. The spaces and places that we design, build, and inhabit have an effect on our ability to live well in community with one another. On a basic level, given our human nature as social beings, the design of our places should maximize opportunities for positive face-to-face interaction among all members of a community on a daily basis.  The reason for this is simple: it’s difficult to ignore others’ humanity when we come in contact with them as a part of our daily lives.

In this way, the physical conditions of our neighborhoods can help or hinder our ability to develop those individual virtues that enable us to become the best versions of ourselves, to live well in a community, and to care for our neighbors.

Walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods—in their best form—strive to provide these physical conditions. These places facilitate face-to-face interaction among neighbors. They provide safe, convenient, and active public recreational spaces for children and families from all backgrounds. They offer a variety of dignified, safe, and attainable transportation and housing options with access to daily needs for all people regardless of their economic means or physical capacity. The list goes on.

Consequently, the various social, economic, environmental, and human health benefits that walkable, mixed-use places can provide often align directly with the core tenets of many religious institutions—whether it’s social justice, environmental stewardship, dignity of the human person, or community well-being and the common good.

In recent years, I’ve connected with a number of faith-based institutions in my own community of Tulsa, OK, that have engaged in creative endeavors within their own neighborhoods at a range of scales that could be used as models for other faith-based communities that have become conscious of this connection and want to do more.

Here are 4 ways faith communities in Tulsa are making their neighborhoods stronger:

1. Providing Public Gathering Space

On the simpler end of the complexity spectrum are the community-building efforts of the Catholic parish of Christ the King.

Playground at Christ the King Parish, Tulsa, OK

Playground at Christ the King Parish, Tulsa, OK

Located in a shoulder neighborhood just east of downtown Tulsa, Christ the King operates both a church and a parochial school.  As such, the church maintains an adjacent fenced-in playground and recreational field. Seeing the need to share this amenity with its neighbors, the church has for many years made this play space available to the entire community outside of school hours. This simple act has resulted in the church being the provider of a much needed public recreational space for the neighborhood, one that enables families and children of all backgrounds the chance to positively interact with each other on a daily basis.

Sunday Coffee & Doughnuts at Christ the King Parish, Tulsa, OK

Sunday Coffee & Doughnuts at Christ the King Parish, Tulsa, OK

Christ the King has also ventured into tactical urbanism—even if they might not call it that—staging what I like to call “pop-up coffee and doughnuts.”  Two years ago, the church decided to move their Sunday after-church social gatherings from the private space of their adjacent community hall to the public space immediately outside the front doors of the church.  The results of this have been twofold. Firstly, participation at these gatherings has skyrocketed; and secondly, the front steps and sidewalk of the church on Sunday mornings have become an incredibly lively gathering space, showcasing the vibrancy and welcoming nature of the parish as well as illustrating the important role that active and safe public space has in supporting community life.

2. Sharing Culture Through Food

The second example comes from the Jewish community of B’Nai Emunah Synagogue.  Like many religious institutions, B’Nai has a commercial kitchen within its facility that went largely unused more hours than not.  Seeing this as a potential opportunity, the rabbis at B’Nai started the 17th Street Delicatessen, a pop-up Jewish deli that takes place one day every month at the synagogue.

17th Street Delicatessen, Tulsa, OK.  (Source:  17th Street Delicatessen )

17th Street Delicatessen, Tulsa, OK.  (Source: 17th Street Delicatessen)

The impetus for the deli came from a desire to create a place for a diverse community to gather, interact, and share traditional Jewish-American fare in a setting similar to those old-world-style neighborhood delis located in larger cities throughout the US. Currently, the deli has attracted both Jews and non-Jews alike from all over the region. In fact, typically around 70% of its diners are not members of the synagogue.  The positive results of the deli are many, but ultimately the deli adds a walkable food establishment to the neighborhood, which is primarily single-family residential on the blocks immediately around the synagogue.

In thinking bigger picture, this endeavor could actually be a good precedent for suburban retrofit, as churches and schools are typically some of the only non-residential uses that have been able to penetrate the single-family zones of post-war suburbs. Thus, churches and schools engaging in these kinds of endeavors could potentially provide a “soft start-up” for introducing non-residential functions into post-war suburban neighborhoods, bringing them closer to being complete neighborhoods without causing too much anxiety among existing residents.

3. Investing in Neighborhood Revitalization

The next example is a significantly larger, more complex endeavor. It comes from Crossover Bible Church. Formed in 2006, Crossover is located in the Hawthorne neighborhood of North Tulsa, an area with a median household income of just under $24,000 and a poverty rate of over 42%.

Upon forming the church, it was clear to its leaders that the church’s ministries must go beyond traditional forms of prayer and worship if it was to truly help the community overcome its various challenges.

The various neighborhood amenities provided by Crossover Community Impact, Tulsa, OK.  (Source:  Crossover Community Impact )

The various neighborhood amenities provided by Crossover Community Impact, Tulsa, OK.  (Source: Crossover Community Impact)

Thus, the church founded the non-profit Crossover Community Impact, which has created various neighborhood assets such as an after-school tutoring program, a sports association for kids, a neighborhood health clinic, a boys’ school, and—probably the most broad-ranging initiative of all—the Crossover Development Company (CDC).

The goal of the CDC is to improve the physical conditions of the neighborhood by acquiring derelict or abandoned homes, fixing them up, and selling them at an affordable rate to members of the community looking to own a home within the neighborhood.  To do so, the CDC has formed a construction company that trains neighborhood residents in the building trades and then employs them in the home renovation work.

In addition, the CDC has also acquired an adjacent 10 acres with the goal to develop a mixed-use neighborhood center to include townhouses, live-works, retail, a school, and recreational space, all within walking distance for the neighborhood's residents.

4. Acquiring Real Estate for Community Use

The Bernsen Center (formerly a Masonic Temple), First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, OK

The Bernsen Center (formerly a Masonic Temple), First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, OK

The final example comes from First Presbyterian Church, located in downtown Tulsa. Over the last 25 years, the church has in part supported and furthered its local mission work by investing in its neighborhood through acquiring, renovating, and utilizing old buildings immediately adjacent to the church facility.

In 1994, the church acquired a historic Masonic Temple across the street, which they renovated and now rent out at a subsidized rate to nine different local non-profit groups whose work aligns with the mission and efforts of the church.

Similarly, in 2008, the church acquired another adjacent building—“The Powerhouse”—which it renovated to house the church’s various youth programs and ministries.

The 8:10 Building, First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, OK.

The 8:10 Building, First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, OK.

Most recently, the church has engaged in a unique endeavor, which it has termed a “mission endowment.” Rather than investing donations earmarked for endowment into the traditional investment market (e.g. stocks and bonds), the church decided to invest this capital in its own neighborhood by engaging in a commercial real estate venture.

In 2013, the church set up a separate for-profit LLC to purchase, renovate, and manage the Avanti building, an old vacant office building located adjacent to the church. Today, the building—which they renamed the 8:10 Building—houses a number of office tenants as well as a large community space on the ground floor. This endeavor not only directly improves the district where the church is located, but when the building is fully leased, it yields a significantly greater return on investment that would otherwise have been received through investing in the traditional market.

Ultimately, faith-based institutions of all sizes and means stand in an important position to positively impact their communities by engaging in projects focused on the built environment. Hopefully, this sampling of efforts can begin to provide inspiration for other faith-based communities to become leaders in the activation of their own neighborhoods.

(Photos provided by the author unless otherwise indicated.)

About the Author


Jennifer Griffin is a practicing design professional and founding principal of J Griffin Design, LLC. She has worked in the US, UK, and Central America on a variety of projects, from small-scale renovations and additions of historic structures, to mixed-use urban infill projects, to master plans at both the neighborhood and regional scales. Her work has received multiple Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Awards. Jennifer was educated at the University of Notre Dame, from which she received both her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Architectural Design and Urbanism degrees. She also has served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, where she has taught urban and architectural design courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level while conducting research on the relationship between the built environment and human flourishing.