How Can Religion Help in the Pursuit of Urban Sustainability?

Chris Ives, Nottingham. 
22 October 2017

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Faith communities have great potential to act as a force for urban sustainability—urbanists need to engage with them.
Increasingly, urban nature is viewed not only as a scientific, technological or design issue, but a moral one. The recent TNOC roundtable “Ecosystems for everyone” rested on the assumption that provision of and access to ecosystem services and urban nature is a “moral imperative”. Indeed, Steward Pickett began his contribution with the statement “The availability of ecosystem services for everyone is an unarguable moral stance”. Yet with all this discussion of morals, ethics and justice, there is a conspicuous absence of discussion on the place of religion in sustainable and ecologically-flourishing cities. Roger Gottlieb argues in the Oxford Handbook of Ecology and Religion that religion is the “arbiter and repository of life’s deepest moral values”. If this is the case, then surely anyone who is compelled by moral arguments to pursue ecologically-flourishing cities must consider the role of religion. In this blog, I will attempt to answer some key questions around the relevance of religion for sustainable cities and outline why I think religion might be a “sleeping giant” in this endeavour.

The potential for religious institutions to promote urban sustainability has been vastly overlooked. Photo: Photo by Daniel Tseng on

First, how compatible are religious beliefs with visions of ecological flourishing? A common (if antiquated) view is that religion—particularly monothetistic faiths in the Judaeo-Christian tradition—are responsible for peddling an anthropocentric and exploitative paradigm that is the root cause of the environmental crisis. This view was argued 50 years ago by Lynne White in his famous essay titled “The historical roots of our ecological crisis”. While many faiths may not have been moral leaders in highlighting humanity’s unsustainable exploitation of resources since the industrial revolution, the rise of environmentalism has caused religious scholars to dig deeper into the teachings of their respective traditions. What has emerged is a wealth of moral resources, grounded in scripture, affirming the sacredness of nature and humanity’s responsibility to care for it. Indeed, Bill McKibbin concludes that “only our religious institutions, among the mainstream organizations of Western, Asian, and indigenous societies, can say with real conviction, and with any chance of an audience, that there is some point to life beyond accumulation”[1]. This “ecological awakening” of religious faiths can be seen in the emergence of organisations such as the Alliance for Religion and Conservation and in explicit teachings such as Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical on the environment (summarised here). The potential for religions to be allies for the environmental cause is increasingly recognised by secular conservation organisations, with the Society for Conservation Biology recently establishing a conservation and religion working group.

Pope Francis’ teachings have emphasised the moral imperative of environmental stewardship. Photo: Wikimedia commons

But how does this potential alignment between religion and conservation translate to an urban context? First, urban sacred sites (such as churchyards, mosques, cemeteries) are often rich in biodiversity and provide myriad cultural ecosystem services to urban residents. A recent study in Cape Town, South Africa, found that sacred sites functioned as places for rich and meaningful spiritual experiences, and that aesthetic appreciation was correlated with the species richness of woody plants. In many cities, parks and grounds owned by religious organisations are important green infrastructure features. This has led the Christian conservation charity A Rocha to establish a “churchyard conservation” initiative whereby churches are equipped to encourage wildlife onto their grounds.

Churchyards can be important sites for biodiversity within cities. This is a picture of Cloister Garden, Priory Church of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, London. Photo: Photo by Julian Osley.

However, I suggest that religion has potential to go beyond promoting biodiversity in urban churchyards, to contribute to wholesale transformations towards sustainable and flourishing cities. I discussed in a previous blog post how connecting urban dwellers to nature might help promote sustainability. I suggest that religion might be another powerful vehicle for transformations personally and at a societal scale. In his study titled “Does religion promote environmental sustainability”, Jens Koehrsen suggested three pathways by which religion might contribute to such a shift. First, religious communities might help “materialise” sustainability aspirations through activities like the use of renewable energy or recycling consumables; second, they might campaign for change in the public sphere; and third, they might contribute to the dissemination of values and worldviews that support pro-environmental attitudes and actions. Although Koehnsen did not find strong support for the second and third pathways in his German case studies, I believe these pathways are nonetheless useful for considering how religious organisations might feasibly contribute to sustainable cities.

These categories align well with the notion of “leverage points” for sustainability transformation, which my coauthors from Leuphana University Lueneburg and I have written about recently. Leverage points are places within or attributes of complex systems (e.g. cities) at which interventions can be targeted. These leverage points include parameters (attributes such as amount of green space or amount of energy consumed), structures (the arrangement and behaviour of infrastructures, actors, institutions, etc.) and goals/paradigms (the underlying drivers of system behaviour such as efficiency, growth, well-being). I would argue that religious groups and faith communities have immense potential to effect change at all these leverage points. Using Koehnsen’s examples, materialising aspirations is about parameters, and includes initiatives to promote biodiversity in churchyards. Campaigning for change is about shifting structures via political means. Disseminating values is related to the goals of the system. It is religion’s capacity to combine all three that gives religious groups so much potential. Faith communities have many members and physical assets, which can be used to promote nature. But they also are characterised by strong social capital, and typically are networked with other communities around the world and with other (religious and secular) organisations in their cities. Finally (and most importantly), they affirm values such as empathy, compassion, justice and generosity, which often radically oppose paradigms such as materialism and consumerism.

Faith-based engagement and implementation of the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito in 2016, will guide international efforts concerning urbanisation for the next 20 years. One key commitment of the New Urban Agenda is to pursue

“Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, sustainable use of land and resources in urban development as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.”(14c)

To date, there has been virtually no formal engagement with the New Urban Agenda on the part of religious communities. Given the potential for religion to act as a force for sustainability in cities, there is an urgent need to engage faith communities in this pursuit. In November, this is precisely the objective of the first World Urban Campaign Faith-Based Urban Thinkers Campus: a forum to facilitate a multi-faith dialogue on the cities we need, in line with the UN New Urban Agenda.

The Faith-Based Urban Thinkers Campus will be held in Singapore from 13-15 November. Photo: chuttersnap on

The Urban Thinkers Campus will be hosted by the World Evangelical Alliance, along with other organisations such as the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. To be held in Singapore from 13-15 November, delegates will come from around the world and represent many faith traditions. Over the course of three days, they will develop supporting statements, commitments and practical action plans for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. There will be a focus on how religion can help enable Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 (sustainable and resilient cities), and how this relates to other SDGs such as eradicating poverty, enhancing health and wellbeing, and working for peace and justice. This meeting is an exciting first step in engaging the potential of religious communities in urban sustainability. Once activated, their contribution has potential to transform the future of urbanisation and embed ecological and spiritual values of nature firmly within cities.

Chris Ives

On The Nature of Cities


[1] McKibbin, “Introduction”, Daedalus 130(4): 1

[1] Tucker and Grim. (2001). Introduction: The Emerging Alliance of World Religions and Ecology, Daedalus 130(4):1.

Chris Ives

About the Writer:
Chris Ives

Chris Ives takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying sustainability and environmental management challenges. He is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham.

Chris Ives

Chris Ives

Chris Ives is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He is interested in understanding how people relate to their environment and how different social and ecological sciences can be used to make better decisions. To date, Chris has worked principally in Australian cities where his research has spanned the fields of ecology, geography, environmental policy and social psychology. He obtained his PhD from Macquarie University Sydney in 2012 and has since worked on various research projects at The University of Melbourne, RMIT University and Leuphana University in Germany.

8 thoughts on “How Can Religion Help in the Pursuit of Urban Sustainability?

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the great thoughts. I have been searching for further studies in Sustainable Urban Development and I came across your article. I would like to connect with you further if you’ve some time.

    I’m US Navy Chaplain, and would like to do something that will impact lives in our big cities.

  2. An excellent essay, Chris. Thanks. Mark makes a good point that some religious communities will favor the “recycling” strategies of conservation rather than wilder approaches. The success of all our sustainability movements will depend on diverse approaches anyway: as Chris noted, there is tremendous variety among religious communities. I hope we can engage more and more of them.

  3. I sure appreciated these thoughts, and believe the directions that religion can take us are critical given how many in the world subscribe to one religion or another. Some of your thoughts mirror my own in my book A New Garden Ethic, where in one chapter I explore the religious context of urban gardens and how they can help us reconnect to wildness.

  4. Please check out Faith & the Common Good and our Greening Sacred Spaces programs, to name just one of our many programs that support faith communities across Canada in being more sustainable in their places of worship, and in their communities.

  5. Hi Mark, some very interesting thoughts! I suspect there will be a diversity of perspectives out there among religious communities, just as there is among the general public. I think this is an area for much more research! Understanding how religious thought influences perspectives on urban landscape aesthetics would be fascinating to explore. In the UK at least, there seems to be a broad awakening to the ecological value of more ‘messy’ churchyards. I suspect – as with other urban landscapes – cues to care (e.g. mown pathways) are likely to be important here.

  6. Thanks for the comment Fadi. Yes, it’s not necessarily a straightforward, positive relationship between religion and urban sustainability. But as you say, there’s a need to highlight the positive potential influence faith communities can have. One under-recognised area is the many individuals who work in ‘secular’ organisations (government departments, third sector groups) who are motivated by their religious faith but whose actions do not have a ‘religious’ label attached to them.

  7. Thanks for a very interesting article. Religion, just like technology, can certainly be part of the solution in the pursuit of urban sustainability. It can be, and sometimes is, also part of the problem.

    It depends on how the urban dwellers organize to use, raise awareness on its potential positive role, and not shy away from criticizing its sometimes practiced negative role (e.g. by saying destruction in the wake of earthquakes, floods and flash floods is an act of god rather than a direct result of short term quest for profit and unplanned development).

  8. Yes – thanks for this article Chris. A “scared” forest would garnish quite a bit more protection then a forest simply providing ecosystem services (as a benefit). But how far would various religions support urban biodiversity conservation? For example, would various religious entities support conversion of neat and tidy lots and parks to something more along the lines of “controlled chaos” – aka Mother Nature? Or on the whole – would religious entities be that much more conservative, and not accept alternative landscapes, but go for relatively easier things such as recycling? Just thinking out loud here and not sure one way or the other. Cheers

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