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Tuesday
Jul052005

Faith & Urbanism

 
"A church...can be the cornerstone of an entire neighborhood...the catalyst for good development all around. That is IF they build so that there is not a field of parking isolating the faithful and their campus from the surrounding neighborhood."


One of the sessions at this year's Congress for New Urbanism was "Religion and Civic Art," featuring Rev. Eric Jacobsen (author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom), and Professor Phil Bess (Notre Dame).

Eric presented the idea that we, as urbanists, should engage churches in their own language -- explaining in very Christian terms why they should care about good urban design. Phil presented some historical context, and some better-than-average examples of new churches integrated into urban streetscapes.

During the Q&A, however, I pushed the discussion toward the very pragmatic - why should urban planners care about churches?

In his book, Eric Jacobsen does a good job of explaining why churches should care about cities and urban planning as relevant to their mission. But, urban designers should care about churches, too! Churches are large social institutions, which manage large parcels of (untaxed) real estate, construct monumental buildings (architecturally worthy or not) and influence opinion. Historically, they are an important part of the built environment. Large churches have the opportunity to make a significant positive contribution to their physical neighborhoods. Or not.

When large churches have extensive land holdings (my church owns 40 prime acres), their single-use parking, retention, and ballfields are valuable, untaxed real estate. Mega-churches, at least, are often interested in the development of their own campuses, providing parkland, bookstores, coffee shops, senior housing. It can be argued that in a better-designed community the church would not need to provide these amenities. However, it can also be argued that a church that is planning on building these amenities for themselves can be the cornerstone of an entire neighborhood...the catalyst for good development all around. That is IF they build so that there is not a field of parking isolating the faithful and their campus from the surrounding neighborhood.

My clients at Faith Community Church, in Noblesville, made a very conscious effort to be the center of the neighborhood. They are located in a designated "Village Center," and we planned their site for eventual expansion right up to the sidewalk. The multipurpose room looks out onto community greenspace. Their main entrance and future tower are on axis with the street entry to the Village Center, and their playground and volleyball pit are available for community use.

P.S. - One participant asked "When did churches start building ballfields?" My succinct reply: "When cities stopped building them."

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