Finding a place for God in the city

- in Calgary -
The newest downtown office building now rises above all others, the crescent-shaped building called The Bow. When completed next year, civic leaders intend it to be more than a symbol of Calgary’s economic power. The hope is that it will lead a revitalization of the east side of downtown, where a new office tower hasn’t gone up for 25 years. The Bow will be a Calgary landmark to be sure, but what kind of downtown will it preside over?

St. Patrick's Cathedral is a decorated Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral church in midtown Manhattan.

AFP, Getty Images

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a decorated Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral church in midtown Manhattan.

What constitutes downtown development was the subject of an innovative report released here last week by Cardus, a think-tank that seeks to bring the Christian tradition to bear on our social architecture, as they put it. (Though I am a senior fellow at Cardus, I was not involved in this project, except to promote its launch.) The “Calgary City Soul” project asks a simple question: Are places of worship important in downtown development?

Visions for downtown usually include office towers, high-end retail, residential buildings and space for parks and culture – libraries, museums, opera houses, theatres and art galleries. In recent years, for both commuting and environmental reasons, a desire has emerged to increase downtown density, so greater attention is now paid to how more people might live downtown. Where will the schools be? Will there be markets in walking distance?

A few years back the City of Calgary updated its City Centre Plan, laying out what would be needed over the next decades if Calgary were to add as many as 70,000 people to the city core. It was the type of comprehensive planning document that is massively influential – and rather dull. But the folks at Cardus read such stuff and noticed that places of worship were totally ignored in the planning process – not even mentioned, except as a heritage conservation issue. Perhaps it was thought that none of the new downtown residents would be churchgoers. Or more likely, that whatever the churches had to offer would not contribute to downtown development. The Calgary City Soul project (www.cardus.ca) argues that such an oversight was a critical failure.

“Beliefs may be private or personal matters, but the institutions that nurture them have long been and remain public and part of, not apart from, the secular society represented by governments,” the report argues. “Faith institutions have long played a critical role in the social fabric of vital cities. The effectiveness and efficiency of these institution’s social services often surpasses what can be delivered by government agencies, owing in part to the very localized and socially embedded nature of the service delivery represented by faith institutions.”

Without the churches downtown, who will look after the suffering on the streets? The same day the Cardus report was released, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was at a morning faith breakfast, speaking about the critical role of religious institutions in the city’s homelessness project.

The data gathered by the report make it clear that faith-based institutions of social service are critical in Calgary, as they are in many other cities. Often it is the church shelters and programs which are the last resort in an emergency.

So it makes good civic sense to plan creatively for churches, synagogues, temples and mosques downtown. Megaprojects like The Bow will bring a lot of new investment downtown, but precisely these new office, retail and residential projects – most of them high-end – drive up the cost of being downtown. Churches are not great revenue generators, especially downtown where populations are transient and the physical plant is likely old and expensive to maintain. Without a vision that makes room for religious congregations downtown, the forces of “renewal” will slowly squeeze them out. Good social policy attempts to keep them in.

Yet it is more than just good social policy. Religion downtown is not just about caring for the bodies of those who are on the streets. It is about the soul of the city. A city that has no room in its heart for the things of God is simply a less human city. Busy and productive it may be, but lacking an essential purpose and a deeper meaning for all the work.

The grandest street in the world, Fifth Avenue in New York, features the noblest of human culture – the New York Public Library – and the rather crass Trump Tower – within a few blocks of each other. But were it not for St. Patrick’s Cathedral between them, the whole street would be impoverished. The skyscrapers are not the only things that should point the human spirit toward the heights.