Faith-Based Land Use Planning

by James M. Thunder, appearing in Volume 5

Faith-Based Land Use Planning proposes that our churches, synagogues and mosques become the central buildings of our lives. Why? Because, as believers, our lives must be ones of prayer and service. Like contemporary retail stores, our churches must be designed as "places of destination." The centrality of a church requires that we rethink the design of the church and, importantly, the design and types of buildings that immediately surround it. Our principles should be: (1) increased accessibility and walkability; (2) openness to the rest of the community; and (3) a balance of privacy and community. These principles dictate that we consider covered walkways, elevators, underground parking, escalators, pedestrian bridges—anything and everything to make our churches more accessible to worship and to service. The papal motto of the Jubilee Year was “Open Wide the Doors to Christ.” We should do this literally and keep our churches open twenty-four hours, seven days a week. We must reassess security arrangements, perhaps re-instituting the minor order of porter.

As to the buildings that surround our churches: If a church is in or near a residential area, even in a suburban or rural setting, the quarter-mile around it should be zoned for high-density dwellings. Conversely, these same principles dictate that more churches need to be sited in nonresidential areas where people spend much of their day: offices, factories, shopping malls, prisons, airports.

The principles of Faith-Based Land Use Planning echo those of the New Urbanism and of Traditional Neighborhood Development. There are some who would argue that it is exceedingly difficult to design a walkable, traditional neighborhood with a church the size of a typical Catholic church with its attendant parking needs1. To acquiesce in this difficulty, however, would mean placing the church outside the residential community rather than right in the center of it.

The public increasingly finds new developments centered on golf courses, recreational boating, leisure, and small landing strips. Reports of planned communities often mention nearby jobs, transportation, and shopping, but rarely churches. Surely, we can develop new and revitalize existing communities centered on prayer and service and find solutions for the automobile. We should consider, for example, developing a worship-and-service park in which multiple houses of worship would share facilities such as parking, gymnasium, banquet hall and kitchen. Then residences would be in walking distance, within a quarter mile of the park.

There are a large number of examples of places that promote lives of prayer and service and illustrate these principles. One historical example is St. Stanislaus Kostka, Chicago. In the 1890's it had a church, school, orphanage, home for the elderly, a newspaper, and cemetery2. More noteworthy are the charities, new to the world, that flowered once Christiantiy was legalized in 312 A.D. These were built adjacent to the new churches: xenodochia (inns for travelers), nosocomia (infirmaries), brephotrophia (foundling homes), orphanotrophia (orphanages), and gerocomia (homes for the aged).

A limited sampling of contemporary examples include:

Misericordia Homes in Chicago, for adults and children with physical and mental disabilities, with its own chapel, gym, bakery, and banquet hall.

St. Anthony’s Village in Portland, Oregon, with a church, housing for seniors, a child care center, parish center, and community park on a 5 acre site.

The Society of St. John in Pennsylvania, with church, housing, & college.

Korean Catholics in Olney, Maryland are building a parish church, retreat center, and home for independent living.

United House of Prayer in Washington D.C., with a church (behind a shopping plaza it owns), public cafeteria, and adjacent low-income housing.

St. George Orthodox Church, Bethesda, Maryland, that over the past 25 years has provided lodging for 1,000 families with children being treated at the nearby National Institutes of Health.

Bartholomew House for seniors, on the premises of St. Bartholomew Parish in Bethesda, Maryland.

In a 1943 speech about the reconstruction of the bombed House of Commons, Churchill declared, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” If our churches are properly designed, and the land uses around them properly zoned, we twenty-first-century believers will have as large an effect on our world as the fourth-century churches and charities, the medieval monasteries, and the California missions had on theirs.

1 See J. C. McCrery, “Catholic Architecture and New Urbanism: An Interview with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk,” Sacred Architecture 3.2 (Fall 2000) 8-11; Tom Gallas, Torti Gallas/CHK, “Building New Neighborhoods in D.C. and Beyond,” address at National Building Museum, Feb. 3, 2000.

2 Thomas Schlereth, VICTORIAN AMERICA: TRANSFORMATIONS IN EVERYDAY LIFE, 1876-1915 (1991), p. 264.