‘The Sacred and the Sustainable’ by Anne Marie Sowder, MSc graduate

(c) Charles Tilford

(c) Charles Tilford

For the first time in human history, more people on the planet are living in urban areas than in rural areas. Taken in aggregate, people are on the move to cities, cities where much of the existing building stock still reflects the demographics and needs of their previous populations. This is particularly true for certain religious institutions whose sacred architecture — often monumental worship spaces– are sitting empty. This is just such the case as in New York City, one of the densest urban areas in the United States. Can the sacred be sustained in the city or will financial instability threaten social stability in New York’s parishes?

Since my time at Oxford’s MSUD program, I have investigated religious organisations as possible vehicles for a sustainable urbanism founded on social, environmental, and financial sustainability. In particular, I have studied the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a regional Roman Catholic diocese serving 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 people. Numbers are on the rise in the general population of New York City, however the rising parishes of the archdiocese lie to its suburban perimeter.

Results of this shift in demographics have included the closure or consolidation of parishes in some parts of the region and the growth of parishes in others; changes to community services such as food pantries, outreach to the elderly, and schooling; as well as challenging long held assumptions of the sacred and the “unassailable” in certain communities.

In 2013, the archdiocese began a formal reorganisation of parishes. Over the next year it is expected that properties will be sold off for fundraising purposes, in an effort to improve the archdiocese’s overall financial sustainability while increasing services in other areas. A similar reorganisation in 2007 resulted in the closure of over 20 parishes.

In November I will be presenting on this topic at the Regional Studies Association (RSA) Winter Conference in London, ‘Sustainable Recovery? Rebalancing, Growth, and the Space Economy’. My paper discusses the practical implications of the reorganisation of parishes due to shifting Catholic populations and limited resources – implications that disproportionately affect urban, aging, ethnic, and minority communities.

Anne Marie Sowder is a graduate of the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development (2010) and Assistant Professor at New York City College of Technology, The City University of New York

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