Event Summary
Religious transnationalism and suburban change in London and Vancouver

Speaker: Dr Claire Dwyer, Department of Geography, University College London
Date: 12 November 2013

Summarised by Dr Alan Mace

Claire’s talk was structured around a book project which looks to focus on the presence of diverse religious spaces in the suburbs. Claire’s overarching focus was on the links between faith, migrations and change in the suburbs. Here she referenced other work on how the spiritual travels through material objects. The project adds to a body of academic work that seeks to challenge simple characterisations of the Anglo-American suburbs as places defined and dominated by the prevailing white and middle-class norms of their respective societies. Claire demonstrated how some suburbs are now home to a diverse and sometimes spectacular range buildings serving as places of worship for followers of many world religions. In the case of Vancouver a decision by the city to zone for such uses in the suburb of Richmond has led to the development of a range of bespoke developments along No. 5 Road. These include the India Cultural Centre of Canada, the Subramaniya Swamy Temple and the Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy. Compared to these we were also shown developments in the London (UK) suburbs some of which were bespoke and others houses in converted buildings.

Tibetan Monastery, Richmond, Vancouver (Photo credit: Claire Dwyer)
Tibetan Monastery, Richmond, Vancouver (Photo credit: Claire Dwyer)

The presence of these buildings raised a number of questions and suggested the possibility of developing several projects with different foci. The first built on Julian Holloway’s call to take more seriously faith and the interface in space between the religious and profane. What might these buildings be able to tell us about a range of changes in the urban? Does the juxtaposition of world faiths on neighbouring lots in Vancouver speak to an accommodation of difference or the victory of indifference – as the car borne faithful ‘park and pray’ and have little interaction with neighbouring places of worship. The project is also a call to take suburbs seriously, in particular as places where substantial change has occurred and is occurring. Several decades ago Garreau coined the term edge cities to capture changes in some US suburbs which were coming to appear more city-like. The concept was briefly referenced in relation to Vancouver, although Garreau was focused on the proportion of retail and office to domestic space; he could hardly have imagined the impacts of religious zoning in Richmond. But a third strand, and one that might be developed further, was to consider what these developments might tell us about planning. The choice of case studies provided an insight into the very different practice and impact of planning in Canada and the UK. While zoning had led to the development of a specialist zone of religious architecture accessed by car, in London a discretionary and plan based approach has facilitated the more fine grained integration of ‘new’ religious spaces into the existing suburban fabric. The significance of this appeared as an aspect of the project still to be fully developed. The presentation stimulated a series of questions relating to these themes and how they might be drawn together.