7 Ways Faith Organizations Are Making Cities More Sustainable and Equitable
Informal workers often come from religious or class minorities who regularly find support through faith communities. As such, faith-based organizations are crucial partners in ensuring their rights and wellbeing. Photo: BanGhoL/Shutterstock

About two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. While cities are hubs of innovation and opportunity, the increasing pace of urbanization also exacerbates inequality, stresses infrastructure, and fuels climate change, air pollution and other environmental problems.

The urgency to address growing urban challenges requires diverse partnerships beyond the usual suspects. Faith-based organizations are an often-overlooked champion in bringing about more equitable, sustainable cities. Indeed, evidence shows they’re playing a key role in supporting climate resilience, affordable housing, sanitation and other urban transformations the world needs.  

Faith-based Organizations Are Uniquely Positioned to Support Equitable and Sustainable Urban Development

Faith and religion have been central to life in cities from ancient to modern times. Religion has always been an important element for what people value, embrace and protect, including people’s relationship with the earth.

Faith-based organizations affect the lives of millions of people daily, an influence unparalleled to any other public institution. A World Bank consultation of more than 60,000 people across 40 countries found that religious institutions were often more trusted than state institutions.

Faith-based organizations have a unique role in leveraging their social capital to address key city priorities and support marginalized communities. They are embedded in communities and therefore have the power and agency to guide masses while ensuring inclusion of vulnerable groups.

Since the turn of the millennium, there has been increasing interest in the role of faith communities in sustainability and international development. They are now seen as key partners in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, at the 2021 UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP26), 40 religious leaders issued a joint appeal for urgent action to meet the international Paris Agreement on climate change. Their call joined a growing number of environmental commitments and declarations from organizations associated with Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and other religions.

7 Ways Faith-based Organizations Can Help with Sustainable Urban Transformations

WRI’s World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, found that addressing gaps in service provisioning, data collection, informal employment, financing and governance are key fulcrums to achieve equitable, sustainable cities. Faith-based organizations are uniquely positioned to address these gaps due to their significant physical assets — including millions of buildings and hectares of land — their history of social service provision, and their long-term presence and trust in communities worldwide.

Here are seven ways faith-based organizations can and already are bringing about more equitable and sustainable cities:

1) Improving access to basic services and sanitation

One third of the world’s urban population — totaling over 1.2 billion people — do not have reliable, safe or affordable access to basic everyday services like running water and sanitation, electricity, decent housing and transport to work and school. For example, in 2015, only 40% of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa and 65% of the urban population in South Asia had access to improved sanitation.

Faith-based organizations can help identify gaps in infrastructure provisioning and ensure investments and policies reach the most under-served regions. They can provide communities with information on how to secure core services and facilitate engagement with local governments. They can raise awareness about policies, aid in their implementation and influence behavior change.

Roman Catholic monks distribute supplies in Lviv, Ukraine in May 2022. Faith-based organizations often provide critical resources to communities in need, especially during times of crisis. Photo: ANDRIY B/Shutterstock 

For example, organizations like Islamic Relief, Art of Living, Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) and Eco Sikh helped in promoting Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in India. This country-wide campaign initiated by the national government in 2014 aimed to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management. Faith organizations informed the strategic construction of sanitation infrastructure, including nearly 90 million toilets, in areas that would best serve residents. They then encouraged behavior changes, specifically by linking cleanliness and sanitation to religious principles. For example, Hindu and Muslim leaders spoke to their followers about how toilet usage and hand washing are supported by spiritual teachings and holy texts, successfully leveraging their trust in local communities to support the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program.

2) Helping collect data

Faith-based organizations can leverage their convening power to build trust and facilitate communication between communities and local governments to enable smooth data collection drives. Faith-based organizations can map quality and quantity of core services, along with community needs. They can advocate for data transparency and accountability in government. And they can facilitate coalitions between civil society organizations, local governments, academic institutions, the private sector and community leaders in order to form a comprehensive database of information that can be used to advocate for community needs.

The University of Michigan partnered with American Muslim Mosque communities to conduct community-based participatory research to explore the healthcare beliefs, behaviors and challenges of American Muslims. Various community-based organizations in the southeast Michigan Muslim community engaged more than 200 community members through the research project, providing a blueprint for community-based health research partnerships with religious organizations. The final policy report provided new insights into the health of American Muslims and how their religiosity impacts health, specifically the importance of utilizing social networks, cultural insiders, and religious norms to engage mosque communities and design health interventions. The evidence has since been published online, circulated nationally to health policy groups, and informed more effective healthcare.

3) Supporting informal workers

Informal workers are crucial to economies around the world, representing over 60% of total employment. These kinds of workers work outside the formal employment sector, without a contract or formal arrangement with their employer, and often lack legal protections and social benefits. Examples of informal workers include street vendors, waste pickers, house cleaners, day laborers, workers in the urban construction and transportation sectors, and smallholder farmers. In some cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the informal economy employs 80% of the working population. While informal workers deliver essential products and services that support the more formal economy, they are rarely considered in government plans or urban policies.

Faith-based organizations can support informal workers given their established trust and services they already provide in these communities. Moreover, since informal workers often come from religious or class minorities who regularly find support through faith communities, faith-based organizations are crucial partners in ensuring their rights and wellbeing. They can:

  • Change the mindsets of communities and government officials to recognize the value of the informal sector.
  • Support informal workers in understanding and accessing basic social security documentation, which can then help them secure employment opportunities, adequate housing, services, land tenure security and more.
  • Provide workers with social and fiscal support in times of crisis, such as evictions.

The 600 favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are self-built settlements with complex governance structures, often associated with inadequate housing, poverty, unemployment and more. Rocinha, one of the favelas, is served by a range of grassroots NGOs and churches that come together to tackle the community’s problems. In addition to providing tutoring, computer courses, employment training, food and healthcare, churches hire interfaith youth from across the favela to provide adult literacy courses to area residents. Programs like this effectively give young people an alternative path to employment outside of organized crime, while also providing critical services to favela residents.

Rocinha, the largest favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, overlooks the mountains and the rest of the city. Several grassroots NGOs and churches offer tutoring, food, healthcare and more to communities in Rocinha. Photo: mathess/iStock

4) Increasing investment and targeted funding

Faith-based organizations can help connect communities with funding and investments. They can also partner with local governments, private funders and civil society organizations in developing programs and monitoring their impact. Moreover, as institutions with considerable physical and financial assets, faith-based organizations themselves have the potential to serve as investors, directing funding toward projects that promote sustainable, equitable cities.

The Shine Campaign is an initiative that mobilizes faith-based organizations and other investors to promote community-led innovations and sustainable energy partnerships in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Participating faith-based organizations identify local needs and connect communities with the resources they need to develop just, clean, distributed energy solutions. Faith leaders also support the full participation of communities in developing locally owned, affordable clean energy assets that improve their livelihoods, such as solar panels that power healthcare facilities or renewable energy credits that support local economic development.

5) Promoting integrated, community-based spatial planning

Faith-based organizations can raise awareness among local communities — especially marginalized ones — on the importance of participating in planning processes. They can facilitate participation in development plans and organize citizens to raise concerns about potentially detrimental projects. They can also help monitor and advocate when development plans create social and environmental risks.

The CNU Members Christian Caucus (CNU-MCC) is an affinity group of Christians who are members of the Congress for the New Urbanism in the U.S. They identify a nexus of overlapping concerns that are central to both Christian faith and New Urbanism, like social justice and environmental sustainability. Between 2019 and 2020, CNU-MCC developed a toolkit to support Christian congregations in leveraging their resources — be it land, money, time, buildings or partnerships — to promote affordable housing and homeless services in their communities. The project informed local communities of the key issues related to affordable housing — such as zoning, financing, and development processes — and provided suggestions for how churches could play a role in ensuring affordable housing was considered in urban planning processes.

For example, when ​Madison Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan decided to renovate its building to create new spaces for worship and congregational activities, it included a new child development center and 45 units of affordable housing to serve the broader community.

6) Creating diverse coalitions

Faith-based organizations can facilitate coalitions of diverse stakeholders. Further, faith-based organizations can work together to ensure peace and reduce conflict within communities.

The Asia Foundation launched the Leaders of Influence (LoI 2) program in Bangladesh in 2011 to promote dialogue around development challenges, convening leaders of various faiths, including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic, as well as some secular leaders. Bangladeshi leaders visited countries like India, Indonesia and Malaysia to learn about organizations that foster grassroots organizing and provide social services. According to the Asia Foundation, the LoI program has been influential in alleviating local leaders’ suspicions about foreign-funded NGO projects, helping to bridge the divide between local communities and NGOs, and building interfaith understanding. Moreover, more conversation between faith, government and development leaders has enhanced the efficacy and technical skills of faith-based organizations while improvinggovernment and development actors’ abilities to engage at the grassroots level.

7) Community development through faith-owned land and assets

For centuries, faith-based organizations have provided critical community services such as education and healthcare. These may include shelters during a crisis, vegetable gardens, or rehabilitation centers for homeless or displaced individuals. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, faith-based organizations provide approximately 40% of healthcare services. Faith-based organizations also own and manage substantial assets, including buildings, land and finance, that can support sustainable development and urban resilience.

Arizona Faith Network (AFN) is a community-based non-profit with more than 4,000 individuals, houses of worship, and faith leaders throughout the U.S. state of Arizona. In response to rising temperatures — extreme heat kills more people per year than most other natural disasters combined, according to the Atlantic Council — AFN launched the Extreme Heat Cooling Center project in 2020. The project aims to get houses of worship to serve as cool centers during the extreme heat season. The project currently operates eight cooling centers across the Phoenix area, each serving between 50 and 120 people daily.

The Future of Faith and Sustainability

The examples cited in this piece are not exhaustive, and many other faith-based initiatives are undocumented or unrecognized. But as climate, nature and social challenges escalate in cities, religious organizations have a growing role to play — not just because of their influence and reach, but also because of their insights into the needs, concerns and priorities of communities.

WRI, through its Faith and Sustainability Initiative, is committed to providing faith-based organizations with guidance and information to tackle urgent sustainability challenges and enhance global prosperity. We invite faith communities working to promote sustainable urban transformations to contact us to share more about their work and discuss ways to collaborate for greater impact. 

This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Smriti Singh is a Project Management Intern for the WRI Faith and Sustainability Initiative.

Robin King is Director of Knowledge Capture and Collaboration at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Anjali Mahendra is Director of Global Research at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Rocío Campos is Communications Manager at WRI’s Equity Center.

Carrick Reddin is Project Manager for the WRI Faith and Sustainability Initiative.

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