Perspectives report

The Faith and Place network met for the first time at The Royal Foundation of St Katharine on 4th December 2014. The report below summarises the key themes and discussions of the day.

1.             Introduction

1.1          The purpose of the first event of the Faith and Place Network was to explore, from a diversity of perspectives, the interrelations between faith, place and the politics of planning. Above all, it placed emphasis on exploring accounts from faith community representatives, planners and policy professionals, to begin teasing out the hidden histories and current realities surrounding the faith, place and planning nexus. This was a significant first step towards achieving the network goals, both to bring together participants from a range of faith, planning and professional backgrounds and to produce policy relevant guidance on religious space and planning practice.

1.2          This report attempts to capture and synthesise the rich variety of themes that were explored throughout the presentations and discussions that made up the Perspectives event, and in turn, to provide network participants with a platform on which to build in the subsequent network events. The various sections below are our attempt to organise the key ideas articulated by network members, according to the over-arching topics and themes that emerged throughout the day.

2.           The politics of faith and place

2.1          Perhaps inevitably, given its basis in legal statutes and their interpretation and application by public authorities, there is an inherent political dimension to the interplay of planning and religious space. Given the recurrent experiences of religious groups vis-à-vis the planning system, questions were raised by a number of network participants about whether planning law and policy was adequate or whether it needed to adapt and change. Comments with regards to this issue also emphasised the different scales of politics, especially in London, and how this creates spatial divisions and boundaries that cut across religious group experiences. This also linked to a discussion of how religious communities might respond to political spatial divisions, such as by forging ‘cohesive constituencies’ and ‘alliances of the willing’ that could involve making connections across political boundaries and between different areas experiencing common issues. (One discussion group captured this in terms of forming ‘constellations of boroughs’ with similar problems and concerns in terms of the interface between religion and local planning).

2.2          With contributions from our European participants it was clear that there was a similar politics of faith and place in the Netherlands, France and Sweden, for minority faith groups in particular. It was also notable that this politics was configured similarly across the religious traditions, again in relation to minority faith groups, for example Muslims and Pentecostals seeking premises in Stockholm and London respectively.

2.3          More generally, it was felt that there needed to be more dialogue and negotiation between planning authorities, government bodies, religious communities and their neighbourhoods, to establish a more ‘open approach’ with the faith sector.

2.4          A common theme concerned the issue of how to disentangle legitimate reasons for objection to planning proposals for places of worship, such as concerns about noise disturbance, parking and traffic generation, from objections that express opposition on the grounds of religious groups’ perceived cultural ‘Otherness’. While it is simple enough to make an analytical distinction between these forms of opposition, in practice it is harder to separate them in specific cases.

3.            Implications for planning and practice

3.1          This was expressed on the day as a need for greater religious literacy on the part of planners, and a need for greater planning literacy by faith groups. What these literacies might consist of should be subject to discussion at subsequent network events.

3.2          Sharing religious space was a frequent theme raised by participants, both the possibilities and problems, as well as the growth in such uses for Anglican churches. Some saw such sharing as intra-faith, for example, new Pentecostal churches being hosted by historic churches. Others raised the possibility of multi-faith premises, or at least a provision of shared community space for faith groups, although the different spatial uses of faith groups were also noted. It was observed that there were complex questions needing to be unravelled between attachment to ‘our space’ and the functionality of ‘shared space’.

3.3          A number of participants questioned the suitability of the D1 use class for places of worship, given the large number of uses included in the non-residential D1 category. Places of worship need some form of protected use, since there are insufficient D1 premises in many parts of London that might serve as religious space, and perhaps elsewhere. A question was also raised as to whether Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning legislation might include places of worship in terms of community social provision.

3.4          A number of participants called for an increase in national level of guidance for planners in relation to places of worship (e.g. Supplementary Planning Documents), as well as for faith group leaders to be involved in the local plan process, both urban and rural. The tension between any proposed national guidance and responding to local faith group needs locally was also raised. The theme of sharing good practice across councils was a common one.

4.            Dynamic spaces

4.1          Some important points were raised concerning the ways in which spaces are dynamic and changing, both in terms of places of worship, and the wider neighbourhoods and cities in which they are located. Recognition of these dynamic qualities of space leads to further considerations, such as the future needs of communities for religious space, and whether or not planning, with its role in exerting control over how space is allocated and used, can be made more sensitive to these patterns of change.

4.2          In terms of religious space, it was observed that the demographics of religious communities, particularly those with recent histories of migration, are changing, giving rise to important generational dynamics with consequences for the development and management of religious sites. This is not only a matter of population growth in the case of some groups and decline for others but also raises issues such as the need to meet the spiritual requirements of young people, the changing composition of faith community leadership, and the gendering of religious space. The significance of transnational networks was also stressed, where faith group dynamics in British cities may be linked to those in their countries of origin.

4.3          These demographic changes were viewed in the context of simultaneous religious growth and decline, as exemplified by the closing of some historic church buildings alongside the search for suitable premises by new religious communities. This trend was also noted in the Netherlands as well as the UK.

4.4.         More broadly, a recurrent set of themes emphasised how, on the one hand, processes such as internationalisation, economic investment and social change have made cities such as London into dynamic and exciting places, but on the other hand, have made particular areas difficult to live in for certain groups. Specifically, the acute shortage of affordable housing, and the inevitable implications this has for the viability of communities, including religious communities, was raised as a significant issue.

5.             Faith in place

5.1          The contribution of faith groups within their communities (neighbourhood and associational) was noted in terms of faith capital, social cohesion, integration and connectedness. It should be recognised that such features are not always part of a faith community’s primary self-definition, and can sometimes lead to an instrumentalisation of faith.

5.2          Questions of identity were raised for religious communities in terms of their architectural expression. On the one hand, it was apparent from several presentations and discussions that architectural style, particularly in the case of new, purpose-built premises, was an important means for linking religious identity to particular places, such as mosques and Hindu temples. On the other hand, however, it was clear that for some groups, theological identity was tenuously connected to the exterior design of their buildings. Instead, community practices and the functionality of space were prioritised, as revealed in the Tate Modern exhibition, where new Pentecostal churches were identified by exuberant worship practices rather than architectural aesthetics. Nevertheless, these were not presented as discrete scenarios and examples from several presentations demonstrated how, over time, many groups show an increasing inclination to invest in architectural designs that declare the religious functions of buildings. The passage of time has also given rise to questions over how the premises of ‘newer’ religious communities might be protected alongside the built heritage of other religious communities. In discussion, this gave rise to a ‘heritage ßà functional’ spectrum of religious space being postulated.

6.             Looking forward

6.1          The Faith and Place network strategy for informing planning policy and implementation were discussed, including producing a number of case studies, establishing a policy action subgroup, establishing greater links with inter-faith forums, linking to local council associations, increasing the range of faith group representation in the network, and seeking commitments from the relevant policy makers.

6.2          Since the Perspectives meeting the network website has been populated with slides and videos of the speakers on the day, along with a growing number of research projects and links pertinent to the network. It is hoped that this continued accumulation of expertise and linkages will make the website the resource hub for the intersection of faith, place and planning issues.

Andrew Rogers
Richard Gale
23rd January 2015logo-banner-cropped-h500 no left border

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