How Should Religion Be Considered in Urban Planning?

By: Chris Ives Chris Elisara

November 8, 2019

Religion and Urban Planning: Challenges and Possibilities

Peter Berger famously declared that “far from being in decline in the modern world, religion is actually experiencing a resurgence…The world today is as furiously religious as it ever was” [1]. Any observer of cities in the Global South would be quick to recognize the importance of religion in shaping urban life, but even in industrialized, Western cities commentators are increasingly recognizing a “post-secular” reality. Yet what is the relevance of this for urban planning, and how should urban planners grapple with religion in their land-use decision-making?

We suggest that while faith-based organizations do share many similar traits to other civil society organizations such as community-action charities, lobby groups, or “friends-of” groups, they also possess several significant qualitative differences. Commonly such civil society organizations tend to revolve around a specific place, topical issue or need. In contrast, faith-based organizations—particularly formalized religious institutions such as mosques, churches, and temples—revolve around a deeply held set of beliefs, values, and practices with long histories and projected futures. Perceptions of and actions for the city spring from these underlying commonalities. Below we explore briefly the implications that a deeper understanding of religion and religious organizations may have for how planners and designers can engage with religious sites, consider religious perspectives on urban landscapes, explore the potential of faith as a vehicle for urban transformation, and participate in emerging initiatives for explicitly recognizing religion in urban planning and policy.

Formal religious sites—such as churches, temples, cathedrals, and mosques—are places of great spiritual significance. They are often also centerpieces of community cohesion around which many urban residents’ lives revolve. Further, such sites often contain vestiges of green space and natural features in otherwise grey urban landscapes. For this reason, religious sites can and should be incorporated more seriously by urban planners and designers into the urban fabric. Strong religious environmental and community ethics means that partnership for the common good is also possible with religious organizations for public-private green space design. One example of the potential for this is a recent project by University of Nottingham master of architecture students, led by Dr. Nicole Porter. Ten students were invited in 2017 to imagine the future design of a new Church of England site, Trinity Church Nottingham, which had begun to meet in a former 1920s auction house building selected for this purpose by the diocese. Reinterpreting the monastery typology of seven key spaces (chapel, cells, refectory, cloister, scriptorium, chapter, and garden), the students drew on principles of biophilic design to embed their plans within landscape features such as watercourses and street trees. (See, for example, “An imagination of the Trinity Church Nottingham site, Nottingham UK” by Isabella di Tora and Alexander Douglas). In doing so, urban design was used to connect the church building to the community’s vision for a flourishing city. Similar ideas have been picked up elsewhere in the world, such as the Century Church project.

Another way in which religion can be considered in urban planning is through recognition of different lenses through which landscapes are viewed. Ecosystem services have become a dominant paradigm of urban ecosystem planning and management. However, spiritual values of urban nature have received scant attention in both research and practice. Such values are intangible, non-instrumental, and often grounded in personal experience of place. Spiritual values connected to urban ecosystems also can carry with them responsibilities or practices, for example a requirement to tend to a burial site, or to steward a natural habitat for its representation of creation. Such a perspective differs greatly from language typically used in urban planning such as benefits, assets, or service provision units. 

Given the scale and magnitude of the present environmental crisis and the need for cities to lead in bringing transformative change for sustainability, religion has great potential in enabling such change. Religion, defined broadly, encompasses beliefs, values, worldviews, practices, and institutions across multiple scales. It therefore has potential to influence not only pro-environmental behavior, such as low-carbon lifestyle choices or landscape stewardship, but also the deeper values, beliefs, and worldviews that underlie such behaviors. Most religious traditions promote ideals of self-restraint, love of neighbor, humility, wisdom, and justice, far above the “goals” of western capitalist societies that encourage material consumption, economic growth, and individualism. Moreover, religions and religious communities are stubbornly committed to communities and places, thus they intentionally operate on a long-term timescale. In these ways, religion can function as a powerful, long term, and under-explored “leverage point” for effecting system change for sustainability.

Recognition of the importance of faith-based perspectives in urban planning is beginning to grow. A number of key initiatives have begun to emerge in recent years. Notable examples include the ecumenical Congress for New Urbanism Members Christian Caucus (CNU-MCC), Citizens UK (a community-led urban action initiative with a large proportion of faith-based organizations), the Centre for Building Better Community in Australia, amongst many others. Furthermore, faith-based organizations are being given a voice to speak into international policy platforms on cities. Following the first UN-Habitat “Faith-Based Urban Thinkers’ Campus” in Singapore in 2017, a series of meetings are being held around the world in 2019 to gather religious stakeholders to engage with the New Urban Agenda. As the principal document setting out a global response to emerging urban challenges around the world, it is essential that the importance of religious perspectives is recognized. With the aim of the New Urban Agenda being to create cities that are safe, livable, sustainable, resilient, and just places for all their inhabitants, communities of faith are among the best positioned organizations to enable this vision to be realized. We are both involved in organizing the upcoming “Urban Thinkers’ Campus” for UK, Europe, and North America, to be held in London on November 23–24, 2019. Those interested can still register.

Urban planning challenges are more pressing than ever before. Yet a greater integration of religion and faith-based perspectives may enable cities to be planned and designed to meet these challenges and help create cities that flourish.

  1. Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 2.
Opens in a new window