The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles had a far-reaching decision to make after the 1994 Northridge earthquake led to the condemnation of its nearly 120-year-old home — the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana.
Preservationists were bearing down in court to force the diocese to restore the historic church building, rather than tear it down and rebuild. Publicly, the church threatened to abandon the property and flee for the suburbs as other faiths had done.
But behind the scenes, then-archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony was working on a deal to purchase five acres of downtown real estate from the county to build a new cathedral and sell Vibiana to a private developer who would turn it into a cultural entertainment venue.
"The threats were a ploy to get the preservationists to drop their lawsuits, which they eventually did," Cardinal Mahony said. "But we never wanted to leave downtown."
The now-emeritus archbishop explained he wanted to continue a centuries-old tradition in which the seats of government, commerce, culture and religion together comprise the core of a city. That happened in 2002, when the land deal culminated with the archdiocese moving into the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a stunning postmodern house of worship near county offices, the financial district and a concert hall.
A decade later, a growing number of urban planners, architects and faith leaders are lamenting a trend in which many houses of worship, unlike the Los Angeles cathedral, are relocating to the suburbs. In their retreat, they often lose prominence as they erect functional but uninspiring buildings far from the community's civic and commercial centers. But, these observers say, religious institutions could reclaim religion's historical influence in the nation's cities, towns and even suburbs by creating sacred spaces in the hearts of communities.
"The traditional placing of the church on the public square is important as a symbolic gesture and as a practical means of evangelization," wrote William Dowdy, a town planner and designer, in the periodical Sacred Architecture. "A church is an image of our spiritual nature, ... and when the church faces a courthouse, city hall or bank, it reminds everyone that there is no profit in gaining the whole world at the expense of one’s soul."
Needs and values
Congregations migrate to suburbia for a variety of reasons, ranging from changing demographics to a call from God to expand. But underlying most decisions to move is the fact that suburbs are where the people are.
Census data show that from 2000 to 2010, population growth within 2 miles of the core of major metropolitan areas was 1.3 percent, while it declined 1.7 percent in areas 2 to 5 miles from the core. But population shot up 22 percent in areas 10 to 15 miles from the core of major metro areas and skyrocketed 53 percent in areas 20 miles or more from the core.
Urban design experts say they understand the need for churches to follow their followers. But they add that once a church decides to put down roots in a new community, it should work toward providing that community with structures that stand out rather than simply blend in with the strip malls, parking lots, shopping centers and big box stores.
Aaron Renn, an urban analyst and consultant, explained that churches have an opportunity to counter the transient nature of the commercial construction that makes up the town center of many modern suburbs with structures that symbolize stability and connect with the spiritual.
"Civic sacred space like monuments or memorial connect us to some larger fact about ourselves," he said. "Religious space connects us to the transcendent or something that exists beyond us, a larger reality outside of ourselves."
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