Benefits of belief in the supernatural face the logic of urban planning this week. Toronto’s bylaw harmonization hearings will decide what to do with the mystery of how places of worship benefit the common good and whether they should be given special consideration in the city’s zoning plan. The argument in their favour: the “halo effect,” a discovery that calculates measurable benefits that researchers find when communities gather for sacred and public purposes combined.
But if you’re a neighbour tired of the comings and goings of a faith-run daycare or basketball nets in your laneway or worship services that sprawl parking around every curb, things aren’t quite so angelic. If you’re a municipality trying to pay for roads, consider the irritant of religious organizations buying land in light industrial zones, forever being exempt from taxes.
Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian congregations with signs such as Apostolic, Hope or Victory all flock to the affordability of light industrial zones to build their new meeting places in abandoned warehouses or storefronts. Businesses get nervous when they see neighbours moving in who may eventually complain about commercial noise, the Toronto Industry Network argued in city hearings.
Canada’s 24,000 places of worship are well aware that rising land prices threaten to push them out of downtown or suburbia. At last year’s Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Conference, a faith-based booth was set up to educate planners on the blessings bestowed from divine co-existence.
Calgary’s City Soul Project prompted a recent rethink. Research led City Hall to a planning correction, integrating the benefits of places of worship for all phases of development around Calgary’s urban core. This is the kind of miracle the devout are praying for when Wednesday’s hearings convene in Toronto. They also want bylaw wording that allows places of worship affordable rental of schools, libraries and community centres instead of having to head for industrial zones.
So what’s the halo effect? It’s a term coined by secular researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who questioned how to put a price tag on the investment that local congregations generate for the public good. They found that 12 Philadelphia congregations contributed $52-million in annual economic value to the city. More consumers put money directly into the economy, buying goods and services locally as weddings and funerals made the cash registers ring. Education and social services were part of the payoff, with programs for children, parents and the elderly.
The office space that churches provide for non-profits, counsellors and charities also had an economic spinoff. So, too, did personal impact, and it’s hard for me to not grovel in gratefulness on that point. When my teenager needed a place to scream on a guitar with a gang who bashed out punk music, our church let the boys into a basement youth room every day after school. Those four boys turned into great Canadian citizens, but imagine if we make it harder for access to community programs for the elderly, divorce recovery groups, AA meetings and so on. “We intercept so much trouble the city doesn’t even see,” said Bill Dyck, a Queen Street West pastor whose church plays host to dozens of street-involved people every Saturday night.
Let’s make room for places of worship; there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Lorna Dueck is host of Context TV, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.