Science - February 11, 2016

Catholic church steered urban development

Albert Sikkema

The Catholic church had a big influence on urban development in the Dutch provinces of Brabant and Limburg, concludes Joks Janssen, special professor of Spatial Planning and Cultural Heritage. He studied the urban planning in Eindhoven and Roermond between 1900 and 1060 and saw that the church developed its own vision of urban development with catholic identity embedded in it.

Janssen describes how in the early twentieth century a broad network of social, cultural and political organizations grew up within catholic circles which shared a vision on spatial planning in the Netherlands. This subculture opposed the secular forces of the national government and industry. In Eindhoven, for instance, the church had to take up the cudgels against the expanding company Philips, which soon needed housing for its workers, and the city architect De Casseres, who took a functional, modern-industrial approach to urban expansion. In opposition to this ‘New Pragmatism’, catholic architects were of the Delft School, which had more eye for beauty. This alternative fitted into a broader movement which favoured small communities and deplored the sinful city.

In practice the catholic vision took the form of ‘garden towns’ with new urban neighbourhoods on a scale based on former parishes, with the church at their centre. This way a catholic community was reproduced in modern urban planning, notes Janssen in the journal Urban History. The idea was that this design would enable the church to protect the catholic population against the disorder and weakened traditions of the big city. This catholic philosophy was so strong in Eindhoven that the modernization plan thought up by De Casseres was put on ice.

In Roermond the church strongly opposed the mayor, who wanted to have the city grow and annex the neighbouring city of Maasniel. The church emerged as the champion of the autonomy of communities. The plan for the Roermond conurbation was swept off the table, following which the Limburg architect Jos Klijnen ensured that the municipalities of Roermond and Maasniel started collaborating. Klijnen too uses the concept of garden towns. Catholic urbanization, in fact. Eventually, under the influence of the province, Maasniel was annexed by Roermond after all in 1959. This was unique as it was the first time since Napoleon that a rural community was absorbed into a city. Thanks to the catholic church.