Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Space for Faith - Urban Planning and The Church

New Westminster’s Child and Youth strategy is a good first step in developing plans and policies to make the city more inviting for families to live.  Two of the tenets the strategy identifies are Belonging and Inclusion.  Historically, one of the key community connection points for belonging and inclusion was the local church.  As a bad Christian, I was curious to see how the city had accounted for the needs of the local communities of faith in its community and related plans. 

Reviewing the official documentation finds scant mention of churches, temples, or other houses of worship, despite a healthy collection of them in the city.  Reviewing five community plans, the only real references I found to houses of worship were in reflection of their heritage value for the downtown churches, or in the context of South Asian ‘culture and diversity,’ as with the Sikh Temple Sukhsagar in Queensborough.  New Westminster is not alone here, Vancouver did just the same in their West End plan.  Despite several vibrant, active churches in the west end, how those churches and members fit in to the plan is not discussed. 

Holy Trinity Cathedral - Parish Founded 1859
So how is that oversight going to play out in the coming years?  Looking at the census data for New Westminster paints a picture that probably surprises no one. 

Religious Affiliation
City Total Population
Other religions
No religious affiliation
Total Religious

As of 2011, roughly 61% of city residents are claiming a religious affiliation.  It strikes me as odd that the city planning documents generally ignore the potential needs for some 60% of its population.  Particularly given that even as the proportion of religious residents shrinks, due to a growing population the absolute number of religious residents is still growing.  Metro Vancouver growth projections show New Westminster having ~102,000 people come 2041.  If the current rate of religious affiliation holds through then, then another 22,000 people will be looking for places to worship and fellowship.  Even if the rate drops to 50%, that’s still 11,000 more adherents than today.  Where will they all go?

We have some idea from what has played out in the city and regionally in recent history.  The two most visible signs of this are the leasing of commercial spaces by churches and the suburban style mega-church.  According to the zoning bylaws, churches are permitted in CM-1, or Commercial/Industrial zones, or Institutional zones.  However, we have examples such as Five Stones Church or the Redeemed Christian Church of God setting up in straight commercial spaces. 

Five Stones Church in the heart of downtown New Westminster
Now there are some benefits to siting churches in commercial zones – they could share parking with the nearby businesses that don’t need it on weekends, it’s generally transit accessible, it draws more people to the area in quieter times, etc.  They churches can minister to people who are working in the area.  They’re closer to many of the people in need that they should be serving.  But it’s clearly not what’s intended by the zoning laws as they stand.  And shouldn’t the city actively consider the benefits and costs and then manage it instead of letting the chips fall haphazardly as they do now? 

Being a developed, compact city, the mega-church has not really come to New Westminster.  Calvary Worship Centre at the foot of 12th Street is probably the closest thing we have going to a "mega-church", and from what I can tell they just took over an old Legion building, and being reasonably centrally located have fewer of the issues associated with mega-churches.

But large churches in other cities contribute to sprawl (you can argue if the zoning restrictions contributed to that too) and have a regional draw, taking local residents out of town.   I would rather have our residents attending local churches helping local people deal with local issues that see everyone scatter on Sunday. 

Historical churches have additional issues.  Several churches in New Westminster were built around the turn of the (previous) century.  There weren’t as many cars around then, so the churches were easily accessible for the folks living in the area.  But over time, development has pushed homes out from these churches.  How do they maintain accessibility to their adherents?  Needs have changed, regulations have been strengthened - are these churches able to keep up to date and relevant while still complying with local bylaws?

Also absent in the 1900s were seismic codes.  Holy Trinity Cathedral has started the process to develop some of its property, the proceeds of which will be partially used to upgrade their cathedral to modern standards.  My church is amidst the same process right now.  How should the city handle these kind of developments?  Many of these churches are on the historical building register – should the city be providing more active support to maintain the heritage value of these buildings?

As discussed at RethinkUrban, churches hold geographically central locations, and as such are often in the midst of the city’s social issues.  Why are they not being included as stakeholders in the urban planning?  I don’t believe it’s ill will or malice – in every church-city interaction I’m aware of, the city has been unfailingly helpful.  I think it’s more that communities of faith have failed to keep up with how development and planning engage with the community theses days, and make their voices heard.  As the planning process has become more conversational, we as people and communities of faith have failed to join in that conversation. 

One city that has tried to change this is Calgary.  After Calgary developed its City Centre plan, a group of faith organizations recognized the issues discussed here and took action.  They took inventory of the faith communities in the area.  They studied the role those institutions play in the city.  They proposed discussion and changes to the city.  This led to amendments to the City Centre plan last year.  While most of the changes were simple recognition of the roles faith organizations play, there is value in that recognition.  It also brought in a policy to recognize the role both faith and non-faith based institutions have in promoting social stability and assisting community members in need.  

New Westminster Councillor Jonathan Cote was gracious enough to speak with me about this, and what he said was encouraging.  One, the city is already involved with a number of churches in terms of services for the homeless, new immigrants, and other people in need.  Working with such groups is already in the Official Community Plan, and the city intends to continue.  This is a natural point of contact, as the missional side of the church and the government both have similar goals in protecting the vulnerable in our community.  

Two, the city tries to be accommodating when churches and temples come to the city with their planning and development needs.  The city recognizes that many of the buildings were built a long time ago and do not suit current needs, and is willing to work with the churches in terms of variances and zoning to help them update their facilities to meet the needs of their congregations. 

Three, the city also sees the churches working to partner up and more fully utilize the assets within the city, for example having multiple services run by different organizations in the same church building.  I've seen signs of this on many churches in the city.  Will this accommodate 10-20,000 more people?  I don’t know, but it’s a start. 

Four, Cote recognized that in the overarching planning, there may be some gaps in recognizing and accounting for the spiritual needs of the city’s residents.  This is particularly the case given the significant growth in immigrant populations which can bring very specific religious requirements with them. 

Finally, we spoke on how communities of faith can make their voices heard. The Official Community Plan (OCP) is being updated, and there are a number of ways to be involved.  The update of the OCP is a great opportunity for people of faith both as individuals and communities to provide input to the city on how the government and communities should support each other. 

From the OCP website,
“The updated OCP will provide a renewed vision for New Westminster, and the regulatory framework to guide growth toward that vision.
The OCP will contain policies on housing, parks & open space, arts & culture, heritage, energy, utility services, transportation, well-being, hazards, economy and environment.”

Do faith and spiritual needs belong in there?  I believe they do and will be saying so through the channels provided.  If we as communities of faith come together to present a common vision on this, Councillor Cote also said there may be other opportunities for such a group to be heard.  I would encourage all people of faith in New West, both as individuals and communities, to participate in this process and let the city know how you believe faith should be shaping our city.  

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