How Anglican Cathedrals are trying to put themselves back at the centre of city life

York Minster. Image: Getty.

Mention Barcelona, Cologne or Durham to someone and they may talk about the football team, perfume or pit villages – yet the chances are that, before long, their heads will be filled with images of great Cathedrals. Despite widespread secularisation and lack of Christian belief in many European countries, cathedrals maintain a grip on our imagination.

As tourist destinations and integral parts of many cities’ skylines, these cathedrals are well known. What’s not quite so well appreciated is the role that many of them are playing in the 21st century cities that surround them.

Cathedrals aren’t just big churches. As christianity spread from Jerusalem in its first few centuries, it organised itself geographically. Each Bishop would have jurisdiction over an area called a diocese, and his seat (Cathedra) would be placed in a church. That’s the system that spread out from those initial cities most important to Christian faith – Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch – that we’ve inherited today.

It’s widely, but incorrectly, thought that in England a city has to have a cathedral. Certainly that used to be the case, in practice if not in theory. In fact some of our largest cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, only got their Cathedrals after the Industrial Revolution shifted populations towards them and made them more important.

Famously, for historical reasons, some small places have city status. Wells, the smallest city in England, has a cathedral with an imposing West Front. St Davids, little more than a village, has a cathedral, key to it being reinstated as a city in 1995, despite only having around 2,000 residents.

Even though they aren’t a requirement for city status, many cities are unimaginable without their Cathedrals. Ely would be a small market town without its giant “Ship of the Fens”. Lichfield would be a pleasant Staffordshire conurbation, were it not for the unique three-spired Cathedral. Lincoln would be nice enough, without the distinction of the building which used to be the tallest in the world.

But let’s be honest: their cathedrals make these places. The data back up how vital they are to local economies, according to a 2006 piece from the Journal of Heritage Tourism, showing they welcome “around 10 million visitors per year. Cathedrals generate substantial local economic benefits of some £150m per annum within their urban economies.”

In this context it’s easy to think of cathedrals as beauty spots which bring in a few tourist pounds to places which would otherwise be backwaters. In many cases, though, they’re being reinvented as hubs of both worship and community activity.

There are cathedrals stepping in to plug gaps in state provision, such as Newcastle Cathedral, which opened itself up as an emergency homeless shelter in the midst of the bitter winter of 2017-8.

Or when major incidents strike a city, they look to their Cathedral for leadership. The Manchester Arena bombing happened very close to the city’s cathedral. In the aftermath, the Dean (the senior priest of an Anglican Cathedral) was a prominent community leader. Similarly, after the London Bridge attacks, which were so close to Southwark Cathedral that it was also shut, it became a focus of the response of the local community including traders at the adjacent Borough Market.

A different kind of incident put St Paul’s Cathedral on the front pages. When they were turned away from the nearby London Stock Exchange, Occupy protestors set up camp outside St Paul’s, the seat of the Bishop of London. Although the initial response of the Church was criticised, much of the recent work of the cathedral has focused on finance, and highlighting the kind of problems the protestors were concerned about in the global financial sector.

The symbiotic relationship between a city and a cathedral has also been highlighted in Leicester. After the discovery of the body of Richard III there led to an uptick in tourists, the cathedral, which hosted a belated funeral for the King, is now building a new learning centre – meaning the city has appropriate facilities to cope with the renewed interest in Leicester and its history. The cathedral reckons this will boost its contribution to the local economy from £9m a year to around £15m.

Last year, representatives of the 42 Anglican Cathedrals in England and many more from the rest of the UK met in Manchester for the first ever national cathedrals conference. The range of projects they were engaged in was impressive.

Take Blackburn, for example. Like many similar post-industrial towns in the north, its centre is at risk from local shop closures, online demand and the departure of big national chains.

The Cathedral, working closely with the local council, is redeveloping the land around it to attract more businesses, offices and shoppers. The cathedral became the first for over 600 years to build a new cloister area – featuring offices, accommodation for cathedral staff, a new garden, car park and a number of rooms available to hire to the local community. By using its proximity to the train station and the rest of the centre, the cathedral has put itself at the heart of regeneration efforts which are having knock on effects on the rest of the centre.

The cathedral is even beginning to start its own businesses. Cathedra Gin, made by a local distillery, was announced last year. “This is not a novelty; this is a cathedral doing business,” said the Dean, the Very Revd Peter Howell Jones. “Blackburn is not a tourism centre, it is not a rich part of the world, and we need to reach out to markets beyond our town and region to be sustainable long term.”

Unlike in ordinary parish churches, attendance at Anglican cathedrals in England is on the rise. Numbers are up around 10 per cent in the last ten years. There are a number of possible explanations, including a desire for anonymity from people attending worship, the excellence of the music on offer, the opportunity for silence, and the beauty of the architecture.

What’s clear is that in the midst of the steel and glass structures surrounding them, cathedrals have an intriguing future – and a core role to play in many of our cities.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.