Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Churches, Public Space, and Demographic Change

Here's my idea. Nobody better steal this, 'cause I'm doing it as soon as I've got IRB approval and GIS at my fingertips (read: once I get into grad school, hopefully next fall).

My colleague recently showed me the website of a church in Livonia, MI, that makes explicit reference to reclaiming public space. This caught my attention pretty quick. How many pastors are urban planners--and particularly in Livonia?

How do they go about this reclamation process? So far, they've got a labyrinth outside that I assume is completely public, and a coffee shop that is probably public to the extent that you pay for a drink (though I could be wrong).

an early example of making good use of public space

This got me thinking about other examples of public space in religious institutions.
There was a time, of course, when churches left their doors open most of the time. They were always public spaces, and they had good reason to be so. You can't capture someone's soul without giving them the opportunity to step inside the building. And though that imperative continues for most denominations today, it's a different world. Most institutions do not fling open their doors, at least not all the time. So to what extent does public space exist? And for what purpose?

Nowadays, I can think of a few examples. There are some other churches I know of with coffee shops or labyrinths, and then there are places that allow homeless individuals to congregate in covered porches or courtyards. Is there anything else? Is there a way to really reclaim this space--to get creative?

I'm also interested in looking at demographic trends in relation to this issue. For instance, this church on Six Mile and Middlebelt has just started to take interest in public space. Is it because poverty has crept across the border from Redford, making the topic relevant? In general, are churches less likely to provide public space in low-income areas because of crime concerns, or more likely because there is a greater need?

outdoor public space in Seattle

Public space is increasingly a pressing need. With heightened mobility comes a decline in neighborhoods where everyone knows each other, comes a need for spaces in which people can interact, meet their Maslow requirements, gather information, and rest. Personally, I find myself depending often on public space, as I am one of the growing numbers who often work remotely.

Churches, one might argue, do not have the same function as they once did, and may be in something of an identity crisis. In most places they are no longer the anchors of homogeneous neighborhoods, and in some cases the population and reality inside is very different from the population and reality outside. Churches need to rethink their place in heterogeneous, mobile communities, and public space may be a commodity that they are uniquely suited to provide.

former church in Flint that provides community services

I'm not interested in establishing any causal relationships, and I'm also not interested in finding results generalizable to anywhere outside southeast Michigan. I want to find out what's going on here, and explore both the reality and the possibilities.

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