A significant social isolation survey revealed that the number of adults in the United States who said they have no significant confidant increased threefold between 1999 and 2009, the very same span of time that has witnessed an explosion of social media tools and digital communications platforms. And a Canadian study, looking at social ramifications rather than medical outcomes, suggests these trends are not limited to the United States. We must be careful not to assume a cause and effect relationship between the two; it simply seems to be the case that despite new forms of communication, more and more of us are lonely and socially isolated.
We can talk to almost anyone in the world and travel there almost as quickly but we are having trouble growing relational significance in our lives. The cost is high: if you are a socially isolated adult, your risk of early death is as significant as if you smoked or had heart disease. We likely all know this anecdotally and perhaps by experience, needing neither statistics nor analytic rigour to convince us.
It is precisely the challenge of meaning, purpose, and social and cultural connection that could draw both municipal leaders and faith based organizations to collaborate more effectively. Typically, this relationship exists at the level of service delivery—many charities are faith based and they look after a wide range of frontline needs in society from running soup kitchens to organizing addictions programs. This service is a great benefit to both city and country and forms the critical social fabric of our natural communities. This pattern has a long history, albeit one in which government agencies increasingly took over charitable functions.
One function that government policy, however profound, cannot replicate is the full range of human experience, individual or collective. Faith based organizations and the religious traditions that give rise to them have long been the repositories of our deepest existential and spiritual quests. Despite recent experiments aimed at abolishing or marginalizing antiquated notions of morality, belonging, and spiritual experience, they persist. It may well be that their value will be seen most clearly by what happens in their absence as key threads in the warp and woof of our social fabric strain and eventually part, leaving gaping holes that municipal governance is ill equipped to re-weave.
In 2009, Cardus happened across the downtown plan for the City of Calgary where careful attention had been paid to what was needed to make room for an additional 40,000 to 70,000 people. The objective was to have a full service downtown where you could live, work, play, raise a family, or myriad other things that individuals and groups might want to pursue. The complication was that in the plan no provision was made for the religious practices of the prospective new inhabitants, particularly if their practices included a need for sacred or social service delivery space.
When Cardus engaged with the City of Calgary, the City was, to their credit open to the possibility that there could be another dimension that could enrich their already well-developed plan. An audit of downtown institutional capacity was commissioned and depth was added with a further review of how faith based organizations support social service and other quality-of-life needs in neighbourhoods.
One outcome of that process was an eventual change to the Centre City Plan in Calgary that included formal room for faith based organizational engagement in developing the plan. The gain means that there is the possibility that faith based organizations will be able to contribute the full measure of their social and cultural capabilities to the challenges faced in contemporary urban development: Calgary can be a better city than it would have been without that contribution.
This isn’t about big cities or amping up promotional campaigns that try and convince people that urban planning is cool (it is, of course). It is also not about trying to wrestle control from some imagined malignant city bureaucrat and letting faith based organizations run the excavators or draw up the land use maps. The argument is not that faith based organizations should be privileged but that their role as important caretakers of service, meaning, purpose, and cultural transmission are given full scope as institutional citizens of the city, town, or country.
There are a number of key challenges faced in moving faith based organizations toward greater structural engagement, challenges that were encountered in Calgary and which others will likely encounter amid the great diversity of our respective urban landscapes.