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What Cities and Churches Can Learn from an Urbanist’s Vision

Houses of worship are experiencing a great emptying, becoming disconnected from their communities as congregations shrink. Jane Jacobs had some ideas that could help churches and their cities thrive.

Jacksonville's Cathedral District
A rendering of the Cathedral District in Jacksonville, Fla., centered around five houses of worship and being redeveloped into a vibrant neighborhood. (Cathedral District-Jax Inc.)
Houses of worship are emptying out, from denomination to denomination and coast to coast. While Christian faith institutions have been asking the question WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” — municipalities may need to ask another question: WWJJD — “What would Jane Jacobs do?”

In her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the late urbanist noted four factors especially important for making cities come alive:

Mixed uses. City centers “must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.” Houses of worship often are single use, reserved for religious services and faith education and sometimes related mission activities.

Small blocks. “Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.” Houses of worship often violate Jacobs’ recommendation of short, walkable blocks and vital building edges. Huge church parking lots remain empty most of the time.

Aged buildings. Great cities need “buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.” Houses of worship are often among the oldest buildings in town. Some communities were built around the original churches.

Density. Great cities need “a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there.” Houses of worship are often among the least densely occupied structures in town over time, with influxes of people one morning, and sometimes one evening, in a week.

Churches and other houses of worship are emptying out for a number of reasons. According to a Gallup poll, as of 2020 less than half of Americans identified themselves as members of faith congregations, down more than 20 points over the past two decades. Beyond that, the Internet means that congregants can attend services held anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world. The result of this great emptying is a colossal mismatch between sizes of properties (large) and sizes of congregations (small), and the resulting erosion of a house of worship’s finances.

Moreover, houses of worship often become disconnected from their communities not only physically but also programmatically and spiritually. As the Rev. Thomas E. Frank, dean emeritus of Wake Forest University and principal of Heritage Conservation Carolina, wrote, “Congregations become as protective as homeowners, anxious not to scratch the new flooring, fearful of strangers coming to the door, welcoming people but only friends and family. The private-property mentality spins a web of assumptions around houses of worship just as tight as any other kind of building.”

The primary responsibility to make a house of worship a part of the community, instead of apart from the community, lies with the faith institutions themselves. But they are notoriously resistant to change. Clergy study religion in divinity school, not real estate and community development. So responsibility often falls to municipalities to encourage change, but a municipality’s rules of engagement often don’t make it easy.

City laws — zoning ordinances, building codes, subdivision regulations and historic preservation laws — often mitigate against reimagining or redeveloping a house of worship for any other use. Property tax policies often encourage over-eager assessors to smother a project with large new tax bills before it can even get started. And while many cities long for more housing, especially affordable homes, NIMBYism often makes converting houses of worship to this or other uses lengthy and litigious.

Examples of Success

Yet here and there are examples of the Jacobsean model succeeding, in part because of city government cooperation:

Centre St Jax, an Anglican church in Montreal, now hosts other church groups along with the original congregation while providing space to a number of other organizations, including an agency serving immigrants, another that operates a food bank, and even a circus cabaret and circus school. The center was developed by the Trinity Centres Foundation, which now works with other faith institutions throughout Canada.

The Village @ West Jefferson in Louisville, Ky., a property of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, is a new 30,000-square-foot mixed-use office and retail development in the historic Russell neighborhood. The project was overseen by the United Church of Christ Church Building and Loan Fund.

The Cathedral District in Jacksonville, Fla., is, as its name suggests, an entire urban district set up around five houses of worship. The district is being redeveloped into a vibrant neighborhood where diverse residents can live, work and play. The project, the brainchild of a city councilmember and an Urban Land Institute technical assistance panel, is governed by a community not-for-profit organization.

Some cities are taking it a step further, designing their own programs to help houses of worship succeed at reuse and redevelopment. Atlanta and San Antonio have launched initiatives to partner with houses of worship on developing affordable housing. San Diego and Seattle have embraced policies specifically authorizing faith institutions to develop higher densities of affordable housing.

Several cities have contracted with not-for-profit groups or private consultants to convene “cohorts” of several houses of worship, leading them on a step-by-step process toward reuse and redevelopment. And the California Legislature is considering a bill that would allow faith institutions and nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their land by right, opening up tens of thousands of acres to a form of development sorely needed in that state.

Embracing Jane Jacobs’ Model

So what can congregations do to embrace a Jacobsean model of houses of worship? What sorts of actions can municipalities encourage?

Convert single-use faith properties into true mixed-use developments. In addition to hosting initiatives to provide social services, faith properties should seek out social entrepreneurs and profit-making businesses as partners. Housing is another obvious potential use; affordable housing can help meet a house of worship’s social agenda, while also providing income and activity.

Break up the large blocks that faith properties create. Allow use of the parking lot more than one day a week and resurface it to host a playground, picnic area, labyrinth or events like public markets, art fairs and musical performances. Build on the parking lot. Tear down unnecessary fences so neighbors can use the church grounds. Turn a graveyard into an educational experience.

Preserve historic properties. Don’t fall behind with maintenance. Tell stories of the history of the church and the community through murals and interpretive exhibits.

Flood the property with people. Rent the sanctuary out to other congregations, especially growing groups from immigrant communities. Rent out surplus space for meetings, offices and retail. Redeveloping the real estate into mixed use including affordable housing will add life 24/7.

Why not just let struggling houses of worship go belly-up and sell the properties to private developers, who can let the market decide future uses? Sometimes that may be the best result, but faith institutions add much to many communities. Partners for Sacred Places, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, identified that the average urban congregation creates more than $140,000 per year in economic value through the contribution of volunteer time, space at below-market rates and donations to community programs. And in cold real estate markets, the private-sector market may not readily embrace empty houses of worship; the director of planning in Gary, Ind., reports more than 250 empty churches in that city of 69,000.

We need a new model for houses of worship, one that allows our faith institutions to survive and our communities to prosper. The notion of a single-use, impenetrable, inactive structure needs to be replaced by a new model: mixed use, accessible, high density. The alternative will be for houses of worship to wither and die, and for municipalities to lose out in the process.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Rick Reinhard is principal of Niagara Consulting and associate at the Lakelands Institute. He served public-private economic-development partnerships and city governments for 30 years before working as an administrator for the United Methodist Church.
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