Religion and Urban Planning: Challenges and Possibilities

November 8, 2019

Urban geography has featured markers of religion from ancient to modern times, with places of worship often playing central roles in the geography and life of towns and cities. Sacred buildings such as temples, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques define city skylines, provide spaces for the faithful to worship, and serve as centers of community outreach. As the share of the worldwide population living in cities and the proportion affiliating with a religious tradition are both projected to increase by 2050, religion will certainly continue to shape urban life and the built environment. The future roles and responsibilities of religious communities in urban planning, however, remain uncertain.

Religious communities face a number of challenges when it comes to urban planning. American faith groups of various backgrounds have experienced difficulties in the zoning approval process, even with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law meant to prevent zoning discrimination against religious groups. Other congregations, confronting changing patterns of service attendance, have sold their sacred buildings to be repurposed as restaurants, inns, and even places of worship for other religions.

Active involvement on the part of faith organizations and religious communities in urban development and city planning has presented promising results. Some U.S. churches have led efforts to create affordable housing by converting unused buildings into rent-controlled apartments. In the favelas of Brazil, evangelical churches provide essential social services such as healthcare and education to community members who do not have access to state-run programs. African megachurches have even constructed bona fide cities with schools, power plants, and transit systems. In spite of these benefits, some theologians have argued that religion remains in large part ignored in contemporary urban planning theory, such as the New Urbanism movement. The possibilities of better integrating religion and urban planning thus remain largely uncharted. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How should religion be considered in urban planning? How can religious communities work to promote sustainable urban development? What role can religious groups play in responding to gentrification? How have competing notions of religion and secularism affected urban planning? How should religious freedom concerns play into the regulation of sacred buildings?

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St. Paul's Cathedral in London.