Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities with Cardus, “a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture” based in Hamilton, Ontario. He directs a new project area within Social Cities called City Soul. I spoke with him recently about this effort and how he believes faith-based organizations can contribute to the life of neighborhoods.
Q: What is the City Soul project and why did Cardus initiate it?
City Soul is an effort to explore the possibilities of connecting faith-based organizations with long-term planning in cities. This came about as Cardus sought to look for ways to encourage city leaders to place more emphasis on human factors such as social interaction, purpose, meaning, belonging—emphases that we believe foster full human flourishing rather than engineering or marketplace efficiencies that minimize costs and maximize private returns on investment. We think it is important to consider the social return on investment in cities, and that this is maximized when faith-based institutions are part of the equation.
Q: It seems faith-based organizations are already quite involved in their cities. Why is this project needed?
A wide range of social care and service-level involvement is typical of the faith-based sector, but what is more rare is involvement in thinking about and planning for the spatial arrangement of neighbourhoods and cities. There needs to be a more disciplined approach to thinking about the social infrastructure of cities, particularly the institutional landscape that includes religious organizations along with the more normal considerations such as businesses, schools, government organizations, and non-profits.
Q: What has been the response from city leaders?
So far, there has been a real interest in this type of interaction with faith-based organizations. Cites are beset today with many social challenges in their communities, and local government does not have the resources to address them adequately. Whether it is the aging population, increasing social isolation, economic hardship, the loss of the middle class, or increased globalization, the social stresses in urban centers today require that every possible resource is used to offset worrying trends by building up the social fabric of cities. There is simply a pragmatic realization that religious institutions in their varied forms are to the social fabric of cities what swamps and bogs are to the ecological landscape. Cities that are serious about attending to the various social challenges in their communities can’t afford to be snobbish about a scarce resource.
Q: Are there concerns or fears about faith-based organizations partnering with local governments?
Yes, at times, and we hope City Soul will help change current perceptions. Our contemporary sophistication and anti-religious vogue attitudes incline many to minimize the potential contributions of faith communities toward the common good. Some fear simply the mix of religion and government. However, having faith-based organizations more involved in long-term planning in cities does not require religious commitments or the adoption of a theocratic view of governance.
Q: What are the key challenges to getting faith-based organizations more involved in the city planning process?
The difficulties of connecting faith-based organizations and city structural planning are significant. Cities run with the help of highly organized, bureaucratic (in a good sense), and secular (in the sense of serving a diverse public interest) administrations. Faith-based organizations typically operate with smaller administrations, depend heavily on relational rather than formal organizational ties, and are oriented to something other than purely secular commitments. The balance required to design more effective communication and learning between city and faith-based organizations faces the perils of all new initiatives: that misunderstanding, assumptions, and established prejudice on all sides will undo the effort before its full measure can be taken. Most of the infrastructure (social and institutional) is not in place. City-planning processes do not regularly or consistently engage with faith-based organizations in longterm design—they are assumed irrelevant to such processes. This is not intended to be a direct criticism. City planners often overlook faith-based organizations because these organizations have had so little involvement in the formal processes of planning-related deliberations.
Q: What are the barriers to getting faith-based organizations to work with each other and together with city leaders?
Faith-based institutions and organizations are neither literate about city-planning process nor in any significant way coordinated with each other. The result is that they speak to planning-related issues in a highly fragmented way, if even at all. Weaving across this gap would require a regular and persistent structural approach that is not driven by any particular issue. What is needed is a steady and patient interaction rather than a volatile and episodic flurry. It is easier to generate interest in engagement when a particular cause or issue arises that captures the interest of faith-based organizations (changes to parking bylaws, for example), but support for such rallying causes tends to decline just as rapidly once decisions about the issue have been made. Another challenge is that faith-based organizations may insist on confessional alignment as a precondition for cooperation on city issues. It often seems to be the case that issue-driven or confessional comfort are the key drivers of cooperation. Just as businesses coordinate in a chamber of commerce on the basis of being commercial entities, faith-based organizations could explore ways of cooperating and coordinating on the basis of being faith-based organizations, that is, a particular type of entity in the larger urban landscape. I further explain this concept in a recent article for Comment magazine.
Q: What will it take to overcome these issues for both city leaders and faith-based organizations?
Pursuing this kind of meaningful engagement around long-term structural, social, and spiritual themes will require greater investment (or re-allocation) of resources, from both city and faith-based organizations. New work often requires investment ahead of concrete results. Investing social, intellectual, and financial capital in this framework of process requires an exploratory, pioneering mindset. We do not understand enough about the costs and benefits, but one effort that is emerging in Canada builds on the work of Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining the replacement cost of services that local faith groups provide to their neighborhoods. The early results show a substantial value to neighborhoods. Funding is not the only need, however. Equally important will be finding people willing to stick with the work even when cause-effect results are hard to see or perhaps not even possible in a full sense. This effort will entail a great deal of searching and persistence. Finally, communication will be key and the development of new tools, resources, strategies, and approaches will be essential.
To learn more about Milton Friesen and his work, read his article in Municipal World, "Social Infrastructure: Underpinning the success of cities" and his recent one in Comment, "The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire."