The Church and the Neighborhood: Past, Present, and Future

by Eric Osth, appearing in Volume 15

Over the past two centuries, Pittsburgh’s beautiful churches have made significant contributions to the city’s architectural character and quality of life. Great neighborhoods across the country, as in Pittsburgh, grew up around active churches. However, over the past few decades, many of our nation’s once-thriving churches have declined or even been shuttered. While the question of church health is undoubtedly complicated, the story of two Pittsburgh churches may provide some clues as to the connection between neighborhood context and congregation vitality.

East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh is a five-minute walk from Calvary Episcopal Church of Shadyside. The churches are remarkably similar: both are well-endowed, exemplary French Gothic-inspired structures designed by Ralph Adams Cram. Calvary Episcopal of Shadyside was completed in 1906 and East Liberty Presbyterian in 1935. In the early 20th century, both churches were thriving, boasting full congregations and vibrant surrounding neighborhoods. Today they are worlds apart; East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s membership has declined dramatically since the 1960s while Calvary Episcopal of Shadyside continues to flourish.

East Liberty was once a busy center of Pittsburgh’s East End. East Liberty Presbyterian Church sits at the geographic center of its commercial district. At its completion the church was fully endowed, containing excellent amenities for a congregation that numbered over 1,500. In the 1960s, as the commercial district of East Liberty began to lose business to new suburban shopping malls, the center was transformed by a reckless urban renewal program. The program involved tearing down neighborhoods of historic, residential fabric and replacing them with parking lots. Further disconnecting the commercial center from remaining residential neighborhoods, tree-lined streets were removed, a four-lane, one-way ring road was constructed around the center of East Liberty, and three affordable housing towers, designed in a reckless manner, were built along the four-lane road. Since the 1960s, the once prosperous neighborhood has deteriorated, and East Liberty Presbyterian’s church membership has significantly declined.

East Liberty Presbyterian Church is one of two remarkable churches designed by Ralph Adams Cram. Only a few blocks from each other, the health of their congregations is symmetrical to the characteristics of their contexts. Photo: Author

Literally only a few blocks away, Calvary Episcopal Church of Shadyside is nestled in the beautiful neighborhood of Shadyside, the pride of Pittsburgh’s East End. Calvary was originally named “Calvary Episcopal of East Liberty,” but the congregation changed the name to associate itself with Shadyside. Shadyside has had periods of down times, but its overall urban infrastructure has always remained intact. Calvary Episcopal Church sits at the intersection of a number of different uses: Sacred Heart Parish church and school; a mixed-income, mid-rise residential tower; a successful town center of neighborhood services; and a beautiful neighborhood of Victorian houses. All of these uses are set on tree-lined streets of a congenial human scale and a notable local character that encourages walking. Although Calvary’s congregation has had its ups and downs over the decades, the church continues to thrive today.

Pittsburgh is just one of the many cities in which the condition of church neighborhood context is symmetrical with congretory participation. Is it sheer coincidence that thriving churches, such as Calvary Episcopal, are most often found in intact, successful urban neighborhoods, like Shadyside?

The Effect of Context

A healthy church congregation and a healthy neighborhood community are indeed interconnected. The shift towards new development, urban sprawl, and automobile efficiency over the last fifty years has resulted in residential places that lack walkable streets, mixed-use centers, connectivity to neighborhood services, and a distinct feeling of intimacy common in traditional communities. Where widespread placeless growth is on the rise, a steady decline in church membership consistently follows. When it comes to church health, urban context matters.

Many of our nation’s best neighborhoods are those developed prior to World War II and the automobile era. At that time, development patterns were balanced, providing residents with an infrastructure that supported walking, public transit, and the automobile. But what stands out most in successful, historic neighborhoods is the human scale and local character of the streets and the architectural form. In such places, resident activities and services are usually found within a comfortable geographical radius of ¼ mile (approximately a five-minute walk).

Churches are also an integral part of these neighborhoods. In fact, church communities often played an integral role in the creation and the continuation of the neighborhoods. The urban patterns, whether developed privately or publicly, were often designed around public buildings of civic pride, including churches. Congregations selected sites with distinguished hierarchy and character. These churches flourished.

Sixth Presbyterian Church considered closing its doors until, through an entrepreneurial effort to redevelop its own land with residential condominiums, the church’s membership and financial security increased. Photo: Ed Massery, Architect, Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel

Deterioration of Neighborhoods and Communities

Once the automobile became ubiquitous, change was inevitable. The automobile offered unprecedented mobility and consequently the walkable ¼-mile radius lost its influence. Distance between neighborhood services that was once measured in feet is now measured in miles. New infrastructure based upon a culture of cars changed the landscape of the United States and the urban form for the worse.

Unfortunately, the automobile had great market and political support within cities. As people moved to the suburbs, city neighborhoods were destroyed by poor planning and transportation policy. City governments, eager to cash in on commercial revenue, replaced residential zoning with commercial zoning, deteriorating the quality of existing neighborhoods. In many cases, fine-grained networks of city streets, which were not built to handle the suburban rush hour, were replaced with an infrastructure designed for heavy volumes of automobiles traveling in and out of the city, further damaging the character of our great urban communities.

New suburban churches, instead of nesting comfortably within pleasant neighborhoods, have become vehicular destinations with the dubious real estate parity of shopping malls. The residential patterns designed to represent ‘freedom’ have become patterns of entrapment; high traffic congestion and automobile dependence are limiting the very liberation that automobiles were marketed to facilitate in the first place. Generic patterns of high-volume traffic arteries and a disconnected network of cul-de-sacs are neither walkable nor memorable. These patterns completely disregard the characteristics of traditional great places and serve neither our communities nor our churches.

Current Development Practice

Many professionals recognize the relationship between healthy churches and healthy neighborhoods. The Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) is a consortium of architects, planners, and developers who consistently apply basic town-making principles and regional character to new and existing communities across the nation. Some of the most high-profile communities and planning efforts along these lines have included churches as a critical component of urban design.

Seaside, a seminal New Urbanist town on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida’s panhandle, was one of the first new towns to exemplify traditional town-making principles and is often cited as a model town. In the design process, the developer, Robert Davis, and the designers, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, set out to create a community with all the positive qualities of pre-war precedents. Seaside’s design prioritized walking and the pedestrian scale over automobile infrastructure. The town, which was started in 1980 and is still developing today, includes fine-grained residential fabric, a neighborhood center, offices, a school, and places for recreation. Seaside is widely respected for its unique sense of place and high-quality, regionally inspired architecture. In fact, it is so successful that local real estate values have swelled to uncomfortable highs.

Seaside’s original master plan included a prominent site for a town chapel. The main streets and passageways in the town are oriented toward the water, and in an effort to provide an inland focus for the community, a high profile, axial location adjacent to the town center was selected for the chapel site. The town is not large; it is approximately 87 acres. Its residential fabric was built over about a decade and one-half is entirely complete. Shortly after completion of the first phase of residential construction, residents of the town organized and funded the design and construction of the Seaside chapel building. The success of the democratic group that raised private funds to build a community chapel is a testament to the will of the neighborhood to include worship within its boundaries. The design of the chapel, by Merrill, Pastor, and Colgan, is extraordinary. Although the architecture contains no specific denominational references, the chapel is clearly gothic inspired, which gives the space a distinctive ecclesiastical feel. Like Seaside, the chapel exemplifies the plurality of today’s new towns, holding non-denominational services and community events. Today the stunning chapel, funded by its congregation, sits on its prominent location in the significant town of Seaside.

Churches have been included in designs for larger new towns as well. Celebration, Florida, a town developed by the Walt Disney Company, is well-regarded example of a large-scale New Urbanist community. The town was designed for an underutilized tract of the Walt Disney Company’s own land outside of the Florida theme park. Within the academic community, the town was often criticized as “disneyfication” of town making. However, Celebration has proved itself to be a successful town, illustrating that traditional town-making principles are a sound foundation upon which to build a year-round community much larger than Seaside. The plan for Celebration, over 4,900 acres, included sites for neighborhood churches. The sites were sold to church groups of many different denominations, and the church structures were built through fundraising drives. Because community residents funded church construction, the town’s churches were some of the last buildings to be completed within each construction phase. Today the town of Celebration and its church congregations are thriving.

The Kennecott Land Company has made church sites a fundamental part of its master plan for Daybreak, a new town in South Jordan, Utah. The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and the Kennecott development team worked together to design neighborhoods in which landmark sites were designated for churches and every residence was within a comfortable walk of a church. The Kennecott Land Company is also encouraging members of other denominations to build churches within Daybreak. An interfaith chapel, entirely funded by Kennecott Land Company, will house a Montessori School and provide space for various religious groups while the town grows. The goal is that as these groups grow along with Daybreak, they will establish more churches of their own. In Daybreak, churches have become an active partner in development efforts, resulting in obvious benefits for both the community and the church congregations.

Urban Infill around Dwindling Churches

Through active participation in local planning efforts, church communities across the nation can promote responsible, human scale development surrounding an individual Parish. A Parish can also develop its own excess land in partnership with private planners. Such development brings residents closer to the church itself, utilizes land efficiently, and makes sound financial sense. In Pittsburgh, Sixth Presbyterian Church did just that. The church revived its congregation, refilled its financial coffers, and at the same time, assisted in the revitalization of the commercial intersection of one of the great neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

Squirrel Hill, home of Sixth Presbyterian Church, has always been a neighborhood of diverse incomes, activities, and religions. Squirrel Hill is esteemed for its pedestrian-friendly streets and rich architecture. It is well served by public transit and its adjacency to Carnegie Mellon University. 

In the early 1990’s Sixth Presbyterian’s roof and structure were in desperate need of repair and its congregation was dwindling. The church considered closing its doors. As a last resort, the church constructed a separate condominium building around back of the existing building. This model for development, although perhaps difficult to imagine, is particularly useful in today’s development context. The design of the two buildings provides the church with a new, improved congenial space, similar to great European piazzas. The new condominium building is home to members of the church, including a number of senior citizens. Interestingly, the church itself does not provide any parking – congregation members travel by bus, walk, or park on surrounding streets.

Following the construction of this condominium building, Sixth Presbyterian Church’s membership increased, and since that time, new construction and revitalization around the site has increased at great rates. Had the church shuttered, it would likely have set back the entire neighborhood.

Although this example is ‘urban’ by nature, many churches can benefit from this type of proactive strategy. Around the country, specifically in the suburbs, church parking lots are conspicuously oversized for that once-a-year Easter Sunday, holding excess land with an unrealistic goal of future growth. By utilizing this excess land in an esthetically pleasing manner, a church can actually improve membership and the financial status of the Parish itself.

The Future

Community development is a difficult and complicated business, requiring patience and strategic business acumen. However, the collaborative nature of Christianity and the process of community building is a natural fit. Proactive participation in neighborhood building, combined with a healthy, entrepreneurial spirit can benefit the long-term health of a Parish. At a national scale, the Catholic Church and its membership would do well to lend its support to responsible neighborhood development strategies, such as those advocated by the Congress for New Urbanism.

Today, our nation is at a critical juncture. Many of our cities are struggling to maintain core economies and the suburbs are increasingly stressed. A national research study by Reed Construction has determined that the United States will double its square footage by the year 2030. Even if that number is off by a factor of ten, it is still a remarkable prediction. Our nation’s cities are ripe for redevelopment and our suburbs will require reconstruction. It is critical that redevelopment is responsible and sustainable and that it promotes the core values of great place making in order to support both healthy neighborhoods and healthy church communities.

Here lies an opportunity for leadership by the Catholic Church. As a society, we yearn for communities that connect us to our daily necessities and our neighbors, but we don’t always follow a development path that will adequately meet these needs. Meeting community needs goes hand-in-hand with building healthy churches. Through secular and church leadership, we have an incredible opportunity to rebuild our nation’s communities and congregations at the same time. When it comes to church health, urban context matters.