What is the meaning and role of the “sacred” in the design and management of urban green space and the building of cities that are both green and livable?

Pedro Camarena, Mexico City.  Lindsay Campbell, New York.  Jayne Engle, Montreal.  Emilio Fantin, Milan.  Mickey Fearn, Raleigh.  Divya Gopal, Berlin.  Patrick M. Lydon, Daejeon.  Jimena Martignoni, Buenos Aires.  Erika Svendsen, New York.  Maria Tengö, Stockholm.  Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem.  Gavin Van Horn, Chicago.  Shawn Van Sluys, Guelph.  Diana Wiesner, Bogota.  Kathleen Wolf, Seattle.  Mary Wyatt, Annapolis. 
7 September 2014

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
show/hide list of writers
Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Pedro Camarena, Mexico City
If we want to conserve the landscapes that save us and give us gifts, then we should always call them sacred places. The intervention in a territory should be seen as a ritual in which man can only play a small role, and tries to pass unnoticed.
Lindsay K. Campbell and Erika S. Svendsen, New York
People can make our everyday, ordinary landscapes sacred through acts of designation and stewardship.
Jayne Engle, Montreal
We may find the sacred in places where we escape—a quiet, contemplative garden or eave on a highrise roof where there is life around, not too far away, yet distant enough to not force interaction. Or where one steals a magical kiss with a lover in a busy alleyway so lush with vegetation that it provides secret nooks at twilight.
Emilio Fantin, Milan
The “sacred” manifests itself in the relationship between man, as a spiritual being, nature and culture.
Mickey Fearn, Raleigh
How can public agencies, community organizations, and residents of poor urban communities create a collaborative initiative that will empower, organize and support citizens to create sacred spaces, that increase civility and improve wellbeing?
Divya Gopal, Leipzig
Bangalore’s sacred trees have multidimensional relevance – cultural importance, inherent protection and high utilitarian value.
Patrick Lydon, Seoul
Think urban nature is important? Hug a tree. Really mean it. Tell your friends.
Jimena Martignoni, Buenos Aires
Those who think and plan and design the places for people—meaning cities and urban spaces that make up the cities—have now an opportunity to rethink the sacred.
Maria Tengö, Stockholm
Deeply held or sacred values of species or natural sites represent a “social-ecological capital” for local stewardship of urban green spaces.
Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem
While the fact that Jerusalem is a spiritual destination for the three monotheistic faiths has caused much conflict and bloodshed, could the nature that is shared by all, and which is the key to our continuing life here and everywhere, become a common denominator, not only in Jerusalem but in all the holy cities around the world that are destinations for pilgrims?
Gavin van Horn, Chicago
If social realities are dependent upon ecological realities, then it is important to consider how matter, well, matters.
Shawn Van Sluys, Guelph
Urban green spaces, like the arts, are resonant spaces for thinking and being
Diana Wiesner, Bogota
Landscape is not just a place, but also has its own cultural image with millions of stories rooted in the ground. It can help people identify with the contexts of their lives, work and leisure, and to strengthen individual and collective knowledge and belonging to the society.
Kathleen Wolf, Seattle
Civic sacred should be designed into urban nearby nature—another goal for green infrastructure and sustainability design.
Mary Wyatt, Washington
In the last two decades, the TKF Foundation has supported the creation of more than 130 open and accessible urban greenspaces. We believe nature is inherently sacred and has the power to heal and transform.
Pedro Camarena

About the Writer:
Pedro Camarena

Pedro Camarena is Landscape Architect and is cofounder of LAAP, where he has created works of landscape urbanism.

Pedro Camarena

The Sacred Place

The sacred can refer to the spiritual, to the ethereal, but can also refer to the material and tangible—whether they be objects or landscapes.  In the act of recognition, humans put value on certain aspects of their lives, albeit somewhat subjectively, and sense or give greater or lesser value to things.  The values ascribed are not necessarily specific or in a utilitarian sense, but, in the end, things have ascribed and understood value.  Landscapes themselves comprise diverse attributes and, in a broad sense, are inclusive of all parts; but are also more than the sum of parts.  The word landscape is as great as its defining object and this makes landscapes enormously rich.

It is so hard to make a single accurate definition of landscape because of the breadth of things that represent it.  It is rich soil, flora and fauna.  It is the great number of interactions between the elements of the landscape that makes a precise, fixed and unchanging definition difficult.  The landscape is rich, which together lives, evolves, changes and is renewed. Its richness evolves.  But the dynamism of landscapes, sometimes imperceptible, perhaps is the greatest element in which to recognize the sacred.  It is precisely the infinite change of scenery that amazes us, that can be sacred to us—the sacredness of landscape.

But, anthropomorphized landscapes are often modified in a banal way, monotonous, and without feeling or reason, which undermines the landscape’s sacred meaning.  However, there are also times when man knows how to integrate into the landscape and make it both of landscape and of man.  Cultures that protect the landscape and know how to be part of it better understand the concept of the sacred.  They have understood that the landscape is a nonrenewable resource and therefore you should not intervene if you do not have the utmost respect and knowledge.

If we want to conserve the landscapes that save us and give us gifts, then we should always call them what they are: sacred, open places that nuture the spirit.  Intervention in a territory should be seen as a ritual in which man can only play a small role, and tries to pass unnoticed.

“To give voice to the non-human, to listen to them, becomes a political and creative act, because it opens a new public space, a cosmic forum or parliament of things.”
—Bruno Latour 1999 Politics of Nature

Lindsay Campbell

About the Writer:
Lindsay Campbell

Lindsay K. Campbell is a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service. Her current research explores the dynamics of urban politics, stewardship, and sustainability policymaking.

Lindsay K. Campbell and Erika S. Svendsen

People make it sacred

Inherent in the meaning and etymology of the word “sacred” is the active role that humans play in consecration, the act of designation.  Because so many of our sacred sites are ancient (stone circles, ruins, mountains, earth mounds), we can sometimes forget about the activeness and liveliness of the sacred.  But the sacred is certainly not relegated to history.  As well, the sacred is not only found in the religious realm (such as churches, synagogues, and mosques).  By examining the use and stewardship of urban natural resources, we can see the active role of humans in making things sacred, even in our ordinary, everyday landscapes.

We create monuments in parks, we build cairns in the forest, we leave shrines on the waterfront, and we write graffiti and paint murals in remembrances of places and people throughout our streets and lots.  Sacredness is imbued throughout the landscape in the ways we remember the dead, honor the living, and connect to the spiritual plane.  Green space in all its varied site types and forms create ample opportunities for humans to connect to nature, as refuge from everyday life and as symbol of the life cycle.  Across cultures and throughout time, people have designated sacred trees and groves as special places to meditate alone, to enact rituals in the company of others, or to connect with higher powers.

In our work studying environmental stewardship, we found that the urge to use nature in ritual acts of designation remains powerful even in our contemporary, urbanized lifestyles.  We found hundreds of landscape-based memorials in honor of September 11, 2001 across the United States.  These range from single tree plantings, to commemorative parks and plazas, to forest restoration sites.  The creators of these sites specifically used the word sacred in describing these places.  They felt that sacredness was conveyed through location, through symbolism, and through the social processes of creating these sites.  But September 11, although a singular and tragic event, was not unique.  Stewards commonly name community gardens in honor of elders who have passed on—often times those who were involved in helping to create the garden.  Further, we can see that different cultures bring their unique understandings of the sacred to how they interact with urban greenspace.  Around the Jamaica Bay waterfront in New York City, we find numerous ritual objects—shrines, incense, coconuts, flowers, and milk—that were left as Hindu ritual offerings to the water by the substantial Guyanese population in this culturally diverse region.

These acts show the fundamental need that people have to make and re-make connections to nature.  They show the vital, socio-cultural importance of our urban greenspaces.  As policymakers and decision-makers increasingly think of parks as “green infrastructure”, we must not forget these places have layered social and historic meanings.  For through these practices, people are cultivating their connection to place and strengthening social cohesion through action.  The creators of these sacred sites are some of the most vigilant stewards of the land.  And as keepers of the city’s collective memory, they help to realize a truly sustainable, resilient, and inclusive city.

Erika Svendsen

About the Writer:
Erika Svendsen

Dr. Erika Svendsen is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station and is based in New York City. Erika studies environmental stewardship and issues related to hybrid governance, collective resilience and human well-being.

Jayne Engle

About the Writer:
Jayne Engle

Jayne Engle is Curator of Cities for People and is a PhD candidate based in Montreal, Canada. She practices participatory community planning and development in the global north and south.

Jayne Engle

The Sacred in the city: Escape and Enchantment in Everyday Environments

The late Robin Williams famously quoted C. S. Lewis in the film Dead Poets Society: ‘We read to know we are not alone.’  This aphorism resonates for me the meaning of the sacred in the city: that is the spaces, places, and experiences where individual revelation connects with collective meaning, and which enable escape and enchantment in city life.

The sacred conjures notions of mysterious powers, human flourishing, the search for nature within ourselves, biophilia, oikos—or home.  Being at home with ourselves.  Home in the city, in our everyday urban environments.  We may find the sacred in places where we escape—a quiet, contemplative garden or eave on a highrise roof where there is life around, not too far away, yet distant enough to not force interaction.  Or where one steals a magical kiss with a lover in a busy alleyway so lush with vegetation that it provides secret nooks at twilight.  Or in places with intense visual stimulation.  The sacred, and sacred landscapes, can give expression to an essential nature—of an individual, of a collective, of a place, of a city—where we engage with others or where we retreat to in order to nourish our spirits, regenerate our souls, and reconnect with primal instincts and forces.  The sacred in the city is also about a sensibility that heightens awareness of the emotional dimension of humans; of sensory perceptions (smell, sound, sight, touch and taste); of desire, spirituality, enchantment and conviviality.

How can we design and manage urban spaces to nourish the sacred and enable enchantment in everyday environments and contribute to more green and livable cities?  Here are four ideas.

1. Treat space as sacred.  Every site matters.  Sacred spaces can flourish if we have the mindset that ‘the site is to the city as the cell is to the body’.  Land should not be commodified or consumed, but cherished.  Truly valuing space in cities calls for us to consider the use and evolution of sites on a case-by-case—rather than a formulaic, traditional zoning—basis.

2. Make visible in urban space stories of the past, values of the present, and possibilities for the future.  Elucidating temporal dimensions in space involves elevating the imagination—individual and collective—into action, through citizen expression and movements such as Jane’s Walk and 100 in 1 Day Festivals.  Artists can engage with people to invent ways to more meaningfully symbolize in urban space what was sacred in the past, represent what nourishes spirits of people now, and what possibilities people dream of for the future.

3. Articulate and map what is sacred.  Through participatory planning and active citizenship people can acknowledge the sacred and decide what is worth preserving.  Examples are: 1) participatory mapping, photography, video and crowd-sourcing of sacred spaces that identifies places or environmental elements that people care about and want to keep; and 2) storytelling and local lore—constructing livability narratives that reveal the sacred place of nature in the city and precious natural places that are nourishing to the spirit.

4. Relax rules to let people create.  Citizens can collectively create and dream together in spaces of their cities when regulating bodies relax the rules at times, such as by supporting urban experimentation through pop-up urbanism installations, guerrilla gardening projects, and human-nature collaborations, and by not thwarting spontaneous street celebrations.

The nourishing of the human spirit needs daily space and has everyday expression, and can flourish when people imaginatively—and often collectively—appropriate space in parks, coffee shops, asphalt plazas, rooftops, wherever.

At the end of the day, to find the sacred in the city is to know we are not alone.

The Mud Maiden, a living sculpture by Sue Hill and Pete Hill in collaboration with nature. This site in Cornwall, England is sacred to me because of her ever-changing beauty and symbolism. Photo: Jayne Engle
The Mud Maiden, a living sculpture by Sue Hill and Pete Hill in collaboration with nature. This site in Cornwall, England is sacred to me because of her ever-changing beauty and symbolism. Photo: Jayne Engle
Emilio Fantin

About the Writer:
Emilio Fantin

Emilio Fantin is an artist working in Italy on multidisciplinary research. He teaches at the Politecnico, Architecture, University of Milan, and acts as coordinator of the “Osservatorio Public Art”.

Emilio Fantin

The “sacred” manifests itself in the relationship between man, as a spiritual being, nature and culture.  The urban structure of the cities of the world, presents important differences, and, though it is not possible to generalize, we can consider some common aspects.  We can evaluate a city for its livability, sustainability, and for its environmental friendliness.  I have seen urbanized centers where nature predominates, where the quality of life is “poor” and the social development inadequate.  I have seen other cities with a certain level of urbanization rather than green spaces, where the quality of the life was good enough.

The quantity of nature seems to be necessary, but not sufficient, to determinate the quality of the life in a city.  What it is necessary and sufficient is the quality of the relationship that man is able to develop with nature and the environment.  It is necessary to know and respect the natural element=culture; to recognize the vital forces=nature; to consider the spiritual activity in everyday=the human being.  Biodynamics affirms that the processes of growth, flowering, and fruiting of plants are to be attributed to spiritual forces.  These same forces also act on man, as for example, the vital force.

If we find difficult to understand what is meant by spiritual forces, let’s think how a plant can overcome the force of gravity and raise itself autonomously.  Where does this force come from?  We can describe the process with which a plant grows without however being able to define what makes it grow.  In conventional agriculture, the study of plants in recent years has been focused on the seed, in complete agreement with the reductionist theory, which tends to isolate the field of study to only one component of the plant organism, as, for example, through genetic manipulation, as if this force were contained in the seed itself.

But the gene is only an instrument to drive this force: it has nothing to do with the causes that produce it.  Thus, this is the wrong direction because no force exists in nature that is self-referential, that produces force in and of itself. The first step in recognizing what this force is, it is not to observe only the seed, but rather, the entire growth process of the plant.  By investigating the growth process of the plant we can “see” the different phases and interpret the action of the seeds, the roots, the stem, the leaves and the flowers.  We can recognize this force in the animals but also in the mineral realm, where it assumes a crystallized form.

In recognizing that the same force lives inside us is where the sacredness of any relationship lies.  The city is the place where these relationships are made explicit through an organization created by man.  It is the respect for the quantity and quality of natural elements that coexist in the social organization with social, economic and cultural necessities, upon which every ritual and devotional moment is based.  The “sacred” manifests itself in the interest for the human beings, when we fight for clean air and water, when we fight the abuse of noises and images, or stop the silly tourism and consumerism.

The “sacred” means to consider architecture in a profound relationship with the space rather than just a housing need; it means to have a concept of time far from the idea of profit.  Money is sacred; a powerful instrument to create a system of equitable distribution; an economic system that runs as an organic process, as the blood circulation.  Blood has to circulate everywhere in the body, or you have a gangrene.  We can make the sacred our own if we know how to learn and live the natural processes and to carry them on to the end.  This will bring us to encounter death, which is a crucial point to pass on the way of evolving from our physical world to a spiritual one.

Mickey Fearn

About the Writer:
Mickey Fearn

Mickey Fearn has been a parks, recreation, and conservation professional for over 45 years. He is currently a Professor of Practice in the North Carolina State University’s School of Natural Resources.

Mickey Fearn

Using the development of Sacred Spaces in Building Community, Civility, Health, and Citizen Stewardship

“Contact with nature is a basic human need not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need. Just as we need healthy food, and regular exercise to flourish we need on-going connections with the natural world.”
—E.O. Wilson

The environment of the urban poor is characterized by:

—Psychic residue (physical evidence of poor economic and political decisions and choices)
—A complex set of overlapping jurisdictions
—Socio-cultural systems characterized by diverse ethnic, cultural and demographic populations and diverse lifestyles
—Residents who “seem” alienated from nature
—High concentrations of disfranchised residents
—Food Deserts
—Various kinds of toxicity and pollution
—Complex interlocking social maladies
—Tension between the built and natural environment

Our environment positively and negatively influences the lifestyles, preferences and values of residents.  Despite the constraints of the urban poor environment, it can accommodate many residents’ needs for improvisational spontaneous play, some organized play and gathering spaces.  However, there are few spaces conducive to stillness, silence, and reflection.

Living environments should reflect the wisdom of our decisions.  The environments of the urban poor too often reflect, racism, classicism, or poor individual, business, community or political decisions.

Human spirit is as asset.  It is an undeniable aid in both enduring and confronting many of the challenges confronting the urban poor.  Using nature to sustain the human spirit is critical.  We must be committed to the elimination of urban blight (structures no longer fulfilling their original intent) that drains the human spirit.  We are all entitled to live in proximity to places that:

—By their beauty and serenity, are concurrently stimulating and relaxing
—Calm us when we are anxious and stimulate us when our spirits are low
—Insulate us from daily tugs, pulls, stresses, anxieties and distractions and help us transcend our sometimes ordinary, routine, pedestrian lives
—Encourage a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, an attitude that is prerequisite to being in the moment and to the apprehension of reality
—Stimulate personal reflections, spiritual thoughts and interactions, meditation, contemplation, personal transformation
—Inspire discussions that would never rise to a conscious level in any other environment—that stimulate thoughts regarding the true meaning of life and the spirit that binds all living things together
—Inspire civility by providing opportunities to interact with nature and help us understand that being around living, growing things creates, in all of us, a deep and abiding respect for all life

We all, at some point, consciously or unconsciously, benefit from the natural beauty of natural sacred places.

Those living in habitats void of nature often revert to alternative experiences to simulate the feelings that result from frequent interactions with sacred places.

These alternative experiences may take the form of anti-social behaviors including, substance abuse or crimes against people and property.  Human beings are forced to rely on each other for things they can’t consistently supply.  Without accessible opportunities to explore and experience nature, the urban poor, especially urban youth, often come to think of nature as dangerous.  They experience stillness, and silence reflection, and meditation, not as vital to physical, emotional and spiritual health, but as boring.

In places where public spaces are scarce, communities and organizations are reimagining underutilized spaces for new and creative uses.  Many organizations are now engaged in initiating long-term, carefully crafted initiatives that complement common short-term experiences and result in deeper sustainable engagements.

Civic leaders and environmental experts are not responsible for leading or developing these solutions.  Stakeholders must resist the inclination to rescue the urban poor, fix them, reduce their suffering or show them a way out.  Every phase of these efforts from planning to community engagement to contruction to maintenance  must be accomplished combining their energy, intelligence, ingenuity, knowledge, commitment of participants the resources on public and other community agencies.

We must reaffirm the value of vibrant beautiful spaces regardless of size.  The creation of modestly sized, human friendly open spaces in the midst of blight may seem a feeble approach to a large complex problem.  However, when we mobilize, organize, support and resource citizens to create sacred spaces that increase civility and improve the physical, emotional and spiritual health of residents and communities by restoration, revitalization, and repurposing of abandoned, underutilized, or financially distressed properties in their communities will also benefit from:

—Building the capacity of communities to address their neighborhood ecology, recreation and environmental justice challenges and improve their communities while avoiding gentrification
—Repairing the disruption that may have occurred between the urban poor and nature
—Reconnecting communities and young people with nature and providing opportunities for STEM education, and career skill development
—Inspiring true collaboration between community organizations and disfranchised communities
—Creating the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards
—Breaking restrictive cycles of racism and poverty that limit social and career choices

The Native American Oglala Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear said.

“…Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; lack of respect for growing and living things soon leads to lack of respect for humans too.  We must keep citizens close to nature’s softening influence.”

In creating this narrative several times distractions caused me transposed letters.  I typed Scared Places instead of Sacred Places.  After catching the mistake for the last time I realize that the difference between scared and sacred is stakeholder focus, concentration, commitment, and dedication to purpose.  Creating urban sacred places can make the difference in our communities being  “sacred” versus “scared.”

Divya Gopal

About the Writer:
Divya Gopal

Divya Gopal is a researcher at the Department of Ecology, TU Berlin, focussing on the role of culture in urban green spaces.

Divya Gopal

Deeply etched in the cultural and spiritual realm of the society, sacred ecosystems across India are immensely valued resources.  In the urban context, there seems to be a clear difference between sacred tree species and other species.  The hunger for infrastructure development is causing immense pressure on land in urban areas, often resulting in massive tree-cutting drives.  Indian cities, therefore, seem to be part of a paradox.  While India is often referred to as the land of spirituality, religion and nature worship; the flora and fauna in both urban and rural areas seem to be on a constant decline.  In this context, one wonders what ‘nature worship’—tree worship in this case—means.

In contemporary Bangalore (the southern Indian city where I come from), ‘sacred’ refers to trees, shrubs and herbs that are described in religious texts.  ‘Sacred’ also means that which is worshiped and that which ‘should’ not be harmed.  While a sacred tree in the neighbourhood or a religious institution is considered to be auspicious bringing good fortune, cutting the same makes for bad karma (in simple terms—bad deeds).  ‘Sacred,’ therefore, also seems to imbibe fear wherein—if that which is sacred is harmed/destroyed, one may have to face consequences for the bad deed. With this, cutting a sacred tree becomes a taboo.  There might not be written rules about this taboo, but it is generally understood and practiced by both civil society and the administration.

Pete, the old city centre of Bangalore, is an important commercial and residential area.  We conducted a study in this locality to find that the tree cover in the area was rather poor (as is in most historic city centres across the world).  However, almost all the trees in Pete were sacred.  Although little is known of the tree cover in Pete in former times, sacred trees seem to be the only survivors of green cover in this extremely congested locality—portraying the level of protection sacred trees have.  In another study we carried out in the slums of Bangalore, slum dwellers were seen to incorporate sacred trees into their neighbourhood, despite the severe space crunch in slums.  They seemed to have a deeper relationship with sacred trees which went beyond worship.  Slum dwellers were often seen socializing and gathering under the canopy of sacred trees, treating them as active community centers.  These spaces also seemed to contribute to income generation as seen in the photograph.

While the first example portrays the immense protection that sacred trees enjoy, the second is an example of how cities can be both green and livable.  As an intrinsic part of the Indian culture and with keen observation of people around me, I feel that the fear of earning bad karma often overshadows devotion.  As an ecologist, the combination of the two emotions prevalent in the Indian society seems to bring a ray of hope for a city with rapidly depleting tree cover.  Most sacred trees like the Ficus species (Peepul, Banyan, Cluster fig, etc.), neem (Azadirachta indica) and Indian blackberry (Syzygium cumini) are native species with medium to dense canopies—well suited for tropical and sub-tropical climate.

In urban India, sacred tree species have multi-dimensional relevance wherein they are culturally important, protected and have diverse uses including medicine, food and shade.  Urban planners should acknowledge and tap this potential of sacred green spaces in making cities both green and livable.

Flower vendors (left) and two women (right) having a chat, under the canopy of a sacred space in a residential locality of Bangalore. Photo: Divya Gopal.
Flower vendors (left) and two women (right) having a chat, under the canopy of a sacred space in a residential locality of Bangalore. Photo: Divya Gopal.
Patrick M. Lydon

About the Writer:
Patrick M Lydon

Patrick M. Lydon is an American ecological writer and artist based in Korea whose seeks to re-connect cities and their inhabitants with nature. He writes The Possible City series, is co-founder of City as Nature (Daejeon). He is an Arts Editor here at The Nature of Cities.

Patrick Lydon

Three years ago, while interviewing Yoshikazu Kawaguchi—a Japanese natural farmer and author of multiple books on the subject of living with nature—I asked how a person can maintain peace and sanity a city when the city contains far more asphalt and concrete than nature.

I expected an answer from Kawaguchi that reflected on how we need more nature in cities, or conversely, how we just need to give up and move to the country for that kind of peace.

But instead, he happily bulldozed these preconceptions, telling me simply that “the only way to live with peace in our soul while in a city, is to understand that you don’t live in a city.”  On hearing his answer, I double checked my trusted translator with not one, but two raised eyebrows.  I had no understanding of what he meant.  Of course I live in a city.  How can you say I don’t live in a city?

The slow and gentle Kawaguchi smiled, and continued to say that we don’t live in a city, we live in a universe, and until we realize our lives from this perspective, we will never be able to truly have peace within our souls, regardless of where we physically dwell, concrete-lined city or tree-lined nature.

PMLydon_hugatree_photo_by_Suhee_Kang_PML9243On the surface, this idea seems to remove any reason for worrying about nature within a city.  But if we look a bit deeper, we see that Kawaguchi’s perspective also unveils something more rooted; it shows us a framework wide enough to allow the sacred to enter everyday life.

To clarify, many of these natural farmers—though they follow different religious practices—generally refer to concepts such as ‘Nature’ and ‘God’ as one in the same.  With this mindset, we could say that (1) all of what we typically term ‘nature’ is seen by them as sacred, and (2) this sacred nature not only surrounds us constantly, but is also within us.

Looking at the city with these two points in our pocket, from within the city we can look up and see the clouds, and they are sacred.  Our buildings are often made of stone, and although removed from its home in the mountain, this stone too, is sacred.  Our small urban farms, trees, even the weeds which pop up from the cracks in the sidewalk, all of it contains an element of the sacred.  All of it is a part of us.  Yet only if we see it this way, and only if we have a mindset which is open to treating the earth and universe in which we dwell as sacred.

I get that this might sound like crazy talk, and that few may see any point, and even fewer will walk around hugging urban trees, saying hello to weeds, and gently touching stone buildings.

But if we claim to take urban nature seriously, why don’t we?

I would like to offer a challenge to you today.  If you believe that nature is truly something to be held in high regard in our lives, if you believe nature has an essential role to play in our lives—city or not—I challenge you to walk out into your city and hug a tree.

Don’t  just do the action, mean the action.  Hug it like its your best friend.  Hug it because it is a part of you.  Hug it and release your mind, let go of logic for a spell and listen to the tree.

If you feel something change inside of you, congratulations; you are not crazy, you are connected.  You know something of the role of ‘sacred’ in urban nature. N ow comes the real challenge: write about it, design it, plan it, tell a friend about it, sing about it, and perhaps, suggest that those around you do it, too.

Jimena Martignoni

About the Writer:
Jimena Martignoni

Jimena Martignoni is an Argentinean architect, freelance writer and curator. She specializes in urban and landscape architecture projects in Latin America.

Jimena Martignoni

Nature is sacred.  So are cities.

Cities, also, are infernal machineries in which we, most of human beings, spend our everyday life—that is to say, live our lives there. Only decades ago no one would have imagined how cities would grow, how it would be to be a city dweller, how much nature around cities—or the original landscapes in which cities are born and developed—would be changed.

In principle, we respect all that is considered sacred: places and people, texts, music and objects, gods in whatever form they are conceived.  But it seems we haven’t really respected nature.  And I wonder, what could be more sacred than nature?  We only have to think about simple sacred creatures such as a small bird or an orchid, or larger formations such as woods, rivers and mountains.  Pre-Columbian civilizations, in all Latin America, thought about these elements as sacred ones, they revered them, they built their lives, work and food production around them.  This was all gone of course, long ago, when other stronger civilizations decided their gods and their sacred objects were better or more reliable. Who knows?

That’s all in the past.  Future is what we want to preserve, for the generations to come.

Now we live in a world where the most sacred is the art of consumption, in whatever form this god is conceived.  Sad, but true.

Those who think and plan and design the places for people—meaning cities and urban spaces that make up the cities—have now an opportunity to rethink the sacred.  The presence of the green is an unquestionable sacred component in any urban context.  Green spaces, of course, but also all that comes with it: the possibility of walking, wondering around, meeting with others, gathering, relaxing, sunbathing, playing, resting, breathing fresh air.  Place-making would be then understood as a sacred action.  And if truly sacred, it should be humble too.

By rethinking cities and places for people to live their lives, we’ll be rethinking life too and making our lives something sacred.  We know our lives are sacred; we have to preserve our lives as such, but not only ours but the life around us.  Today, our planet is almost an endangered species; we are all trying to rethink how to use the natural resources that make this (sacred) planet and we all are trying to internalize new related thoughts and behaviors.

Those who are in charge of thinking about and creating cities have in the present day a higher (and sacred) responsibility.  This is good news.  The future is sacred.  The past is sacred too.  Our present, our lives—both individually (with all the beautiful complexity this is) and collectively—are sacred.

We need to believe in what is sacred.

Maria Tengö

About the Writer:
Maria Tengö

Maria Tengö is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, interested in how strong human-nature relationships can contribute to social-ecological resilience.

Maria Tengö

Prevention and mitigation of the negative impacts of human activities on ecosystems is critical.  However, there is significant untapped potential for sustainable governance of urban ecosystems in additional focus on the positive connections between people and nature.  The TNOC blog carries numerous examples of people’s engagement in protecting, restoring, and mobilizing around the values of parks, wetlands, trees and more.

Sacredness in relation to species or natural sites can be seen to represent a “social-ecological capital”, to draw upon when crafting co-management and enabling local stewardship of urban green spaces.  Sacred natural sites and species are manifestations of a strong bond between people and nature in an interdependent social-ecological system.  In the city, sacred trees, groves, or wetlands, provide memory and in some instances continuity of historical social-ecological interactions, such as the harvest of medicinal resources and religious practices.  They also serve as a reminder that biodiversity and ecosystems play an important role for human well-being—including spiritual and psychological.

Sacred nature is often described in the context of religious beliefs or traditional cultures, and in a rural and marginal context.  However, as is shown in Divya Gopal’s contribution to this panel, sacred trees do exist in a modern, contemporary, urban context and play important role for maintaining ecosystem services for the benefit of people in the city.  Furthermore, the notion of sacred as deeply held values associated with nature can be interpreted beyond religious beliefs and traditional cultures.  For example, in Stockholm, the planned felling of a large oak tree, presumably more than 500 years old, in a central part of the city, led to protests and around-the-clock civic protection for several weeks until it was finally cut down with the help of police in November 2011.  Trees on cemeteries have a special significance in Stockholm—as well as in Muslim and Christian burial sites in Bangalore.

In our modern world, the underpinnings of sacred values, may they be religious or cultural, are often forgotten, but the respect and reverence of the ecological features remains.  In Bangalore, sacred trees and temple sites were found to be actively managed and nurtured—generally by a temple foundation, but in many cases informally by people in the vicinity. Management includes replanting of trees that die in a city that is rapidly losing much of its former tree cover.

Together with colleagues, I argue in a forthcoming article that, in particular in the urban environment, emotional and cultural ties to ecosystems provide a gateway to nurture and build on people’s engagement in the sustainability of urban green and blue areas and the ecosystem services they generate.  To enable stewardship, a valuable approach for urban planners and managers may be to select places with existing strong values and capacity for management (formal or informal).  These may not necessarily be the places where ecological and biodiversity values are highest, but rather places where untapped “social-ecological capital” can be mobilized in support of urban ecosystems generating multidimensional benefits for human well-being.


Special issue of Current Conservation on the scope for nature in cities, including articles on sacred trees in Bangalore and heritage trees in Cape Town http://www.currentconservation.org/?q=issue/8.1

Andersson, E., M. Tengö, T. McPhearson and P. Kremer. Cultural Ecosystem Services as a gateway for improving urban sustainability. Forthcoming in Ecosystem Services

Naomi Tsur

About the Writer:
Naomi Tsur

Naomi Tsur is Founder and Chair of the Israel Urban Forum, Chair of the Jerusalem Green Fund, Founder and Head of Green Pilgrim Jerusalem, and served a term as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, responsible for planning and the environment.

Naomi Tsur

In the urban environment, nature has not yet been granted the status it deserves, and is usually not even on the town planner’s checklist of accountability.  When open spaces, parks and gardens are integrated into planning, it is usually on the basis of their recreational value for city-dwellers, with no thought for conservation or for the city’s potential contribution to the protection of biodiversity.

Throughout many years of work in Jerusalem, I have come to realize that it is truly inspiring to think that the indigenous flora and fauna of our holy city were the backdrop for a great part of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and that this knowledge should in turn be a source of spiritual inspiration for pilgrims who visit Jerusalem, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim.  While the fact that Jerusalem is a spiritual destination for the three monotheistic faiths has caused much conflict and bloodshed, could the nature that is shared by all, and which is the key to our continuing life here and everywhere, become a common denominator, not only in Jerusalem but in all the holy cities around the world that are destinations for pilgrims?  Could the pilgrim’s journey be transformative both spiritually and environmentally, so that he or she would return home a more responsible citizen of the world?

This thinking creates an entirely new and refreshing platform for inter-city and inter-faith dialogue and action, calling on faith communities and pilgrims to “leave a positive footprint”, while encouraging pilgrim cities to respect and conserve their nature assets, which constitute part of their religious and cultural heritage.  This philosophy finds expression in the Green Pilgrimage Network, in which the ICLEI cities’ network is a partner, and in the work of Green Pilgrim Jerusalem, established in 2010.

Approaching the interface between green and sacred from another angle, people of faith will undoubtedly agree that it is important to consider urban nature and indeed nature in general, not only in terms of the increasing threat to biodiversity, but also in the context of the sacred duty we have as stewards of God’s creation.  In this context, in cities that are not officially “holy”, but which are blessed with an abundance of flora and fauna, it could be hoped that the local faith communities would be the first to lobby both to defend and to enhance their precious green areas.

In a more philosophical vein, is the concept of sacredness to be the experience only of people who adhere to a formal faith doctrine?  Can we conceive of non-believers for whom nature is sacred, and whose spiritual, cultural and emotional world is enriched by nature in a way that results in a bond of commitment to protect?

In my city, Jerusalem, there are many examples of the spiritual inspiration drawn by pilgrims and locals alike from the incredibly powerful natural backdrop of the Judaean Desert in the East, and the green Jerusalem Hills in the West.  The desert beckoned prophets in the Bible and Jesus himself to meditate, and the green agricultural terraces around west Jerusalem look much as they did two thousand years ago.  When the swifts visit Jerusalem on their annual migration route, they come in a multi-faith team, covering their long journey together, but splitting up in order to nest according to their faith, in the crevices of the ancient Western Wall, in the eaves of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or in the nesting places they have in the Dome of the Rock.  They then proceed on their journey together, after enjoying the sustenance provided by Jerusalem’s parks, gardens and forests.

Although I present the case of the multi-faith swift migration with a touch of humor, it has been posited by Prof. Uriel Safriel, a world expert and head of the Israel Man and Biosphere team, that swifts and other migrating birds that nest in sacred sites meet all the criteria to be classed as pilgrims, since they consistently fly to a specific destination at a specific time of year…

To sum up, it is surely appropriate to view the reverence invoked by natural landscapes in and around cities as a meeting ground for believers and non-believers alike, which can inspire them to work together to preserve their shared natural heritage for the benefit of future generations.

Gavin Van Horn

About the Writer:
Gavin Van Horn

Gavin Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature, a nonprofit organization that focuses on and promotes conservation ethics.

Gavin van Horn

Cultivating the Sacred

If social realities are dependent upon ecological realities, then it is important to consider how matter, well, matters.

The meaning of the sacred to urban green spaces is visible at the intersection of 51st Street and Greenwood Avenue, on Chicago’s South Side. If you stopped a passerby and asked what was sacred about that lot, I’m guessing most people would point to the striking, historic central-dome sanctuary that occupies the space.  But in recent years a person might also gesture toward what surrounds the sanctuary.

I spoke with Robert Nevel, the president of KAM Isaiah Israel (KAMII), about the transformation of this land since 2009.  A general tendency exists, Nevel told me, for congregants to view their houses of worship as “a mass in a sea of grass” and treat their larger properties as “leftover space.”  For most of the synagogue’s history, the grounds were indeed an afterthought, something to walk through on your way to what was truly important.  Nevel, an architect by profession, has perspective on this.  More than architectural expertise, however, a religious sensibility infuses his understanding of the highest and best use for the synagogue property. “The land is not ours,” he said, “It is on loan to us.”  He didn’t mean on loan from the bank, either—unless you understand God as the ultimate account manager.

As a congregation in the Reform Jewish movement, KAMII considers social justice a core part of its identity.  Nevel saw an opportunity to connect the dots between social and environmental justice, with the lawn as a canvas of opportunity.  He knew, however, that tearing up the lawn was going to be a tough sell.  Noting the devotion of Americans to their lawns, he wryly remarked, “In its own odd and ironic way, lawns have become a sacred space.”  His solution was to ease his fellow congregants into an alternative perception.  He proposed designs for a hexagonal garden in the front lawn of the synagogue, in the shape of a six-pointed Star of David.  Each of the star’s points would grow food; the negative space would remain lawn.  The proposal was approved.  Work began in 2009.  The Star of David remains, now anchoring a much larger transformation: gardens surrounding the synagogue have doubled every year and the former lawn on the 2500 square-foot property is hard to find between the vegetables.

Further connections, both religious and secular, have come quickly, and the evidence radiates into the larger community—from the White Rock Gleaning program, to summer leadership training for young people, to “Crop Mob Constructions,” to ongoing produce donations to local soup kitchens and shelters (4500 lbs. in 2013). Some of the most remarkable stories Nevel told me were about the way in which the gardens mediated interfaith relationships and understanding.  He recalled a moment when he watched Muslim children attentively listening to an 80-year-old member of the congregation read a book about growing carrots.  “Food and care for the earth is common to all of us,” he observed.

The gardens at KAMII serve a very practical purpose—feeding people—but they also represent lifelines that reach still further, connected by the aerial surveys of goldfinches, foraging bumblebees, soil organisms, and a hundred different iridescent beetles.  The value of such vital places—their sacredness—is an emergent property of relational depth.

“I think that anybody who works in this program is changed when they work in it,” Nevel remarked.  “They see their responsibilities to each other and the land differently.”  The meaning of the sacred is more than a concept.  “They see it under their fingernails. They see it on their knees.  They feel it in their back.  They can see, and feel, and taste the difference that they’re making.”

Perhaps gardens like those at KAM Isaiah Israel reveal how the sacred is cultivated. It can be seen under one’s fingernails.

Shawn Van Sluys

About the Writer:
Shawn Van Sluys

Shawn Van Sluys is the Executive Director of Musagetes, a foundation that makes the arts more central and meaningful in people’s lives.

Shawn Van Sluys

Resonant Spaces for Thinking and Being

“Being is the interconnectedness, the resonant ecology, of things.”Jan Zwicky (Wisdom & Metaphor, 2003)

When writing about the role literature plays in shaping who we are as individuals and as societies, Philip Davis describes the arts as ‘resonant spaces for thinking and being.’ These conceptual spaces make room for imaginative thought to reach beyond what we currently know, to imagine possibilities for the future.  Imagination is the most profound aspect of our being, originary to our existence as a species and world-shaping in the most expansive sense.  Imagination is a priori to ourselves; it is on invention and reinvention that our knowledge of self and others depend.  Therefore, our imagination is our sacredness. And so the self, the sacred, and the imagination exist in harmonic relation.

While we see conceptual ‘resonant spaces’ revealed through artistic creation, we can also find physical ‘resonant spaces’ for thinking and being in the form of urban green space.

Our world is plural, consisting of multiple stories many of which aren’t told in the commodified world we have constructed in much of our urban design—shopping malls, suburban sprawl, big-box developments, and incoherent spaces for consumption.  Rather, the compelling stories of our sacredness are told artistically through continual reaching of the imagination and through careful contemplation of the natural world.  Our earliest metaphors—which gave form to language, to meaning—were shaped over millenia of evolution through observation of the physical, natural world around us.  (Things fall, heat rises, solids contain, fluids flow, and so on.)  And its on the roots of these metaphors that human evolution continues to expand.  As Canadian poet Don McKay wrote, “It is as dangerous to act as though we were not a part of nature as it is to act as though we were not a part of culture.”  (Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness, 2001).  Resonant spaces of culture and nature depend on each other.

Guy Davenport points out in The Geography of the Imagination that the etymological root of the word ‘culture’ is ‘cultus’—the ancients’ name for the dwelling of a god.  These dwellings were imagined into being as architectural expressions embedded in nature—in the form of groves, mounds, dolmens, and earthworks.  Over time they became part of the vernacular ordinariness of daily life.  The cultus of cities today is the urban green space that nourishes our soul and inspires our imaginations.  The decline of such vernacular, ordinary sites—the decline of the cultus of our cities—would contribute to the demise of the sacred, the diminishment of the imagination, and the loss of the world.  A culture that no longer knows its natural origins—where its imagination began—is in a state of decay.

Don McKay also wrote that “the poetic frame permits the possible to be experienced as a power rather than a deficiency; it permits the imagination entry, finding wider resonances, leading us to contemplate further implications for ourselves.”  (The Shell of the Tortoise, 2001)  He, along with other Canadian poet-philosophers such as Jan Zwicky, Tim Lilburn, and Karen Houle, address ecological and environmental issues with a lyrical aesthetic rather than a realist one, believing that the urgency of ecological decline must be addressed both through our imaginations, poetically, and through reason, scientifically.  But too-great dependency on instrumental reason in modern society has quashed our imaginations, limited our perception of the world, and now we are at risk of erasing ourselves and other species.

Great are the capacities of the imagination to draw poetic lines of meaning that invite all of humanity into sacred, resonant spaces for thinking and being.  Artists can help with this. Urban green spaces are the soul of it.

Diana Wiesner

About the Writer:
Diana Wiesner

Diana Wiesner is a landscape architect, proprietor of the firm Architecture and Landscape, and director of the non-profit foundation Cerros de Bogotá.

Diana Wiesner

Sanctity of Land

in this flood of earth-
where seeds end
and augur nearness- you will sound
the choral rant
of memory, and go the way
that eyes go. There is no longer
path for you: from the moment
you slit your veins, roots will begin
to recite the massacre
of stones. You will live. You will build
your house here-you will forget
your name. Earth
is the only exile.”

Paul Auster

¿…or the meaning of landscape?

The landscape possesses a large diversity of components, as well as a whole plurality of views.  The geographic reality is nourished by its representation, images and meanings. Therefore, the landscape is not just a place, but also has its own cultural image with millions of stories rooted in the ground. It can help people identify with the contexts of their lives, work and leisure, and to strengthen individual and collective knowledge and belonging to the society.

The Muiscas, who are the predominant pre-colombian people of Cundinamarca, use to have a sacred relationship with the land. Unfortunately, that relationship has changed over time as other priorities took hold. Priorities have changed from colonization to the modern age, giving rise to different ways of perception and connection with the landscape, tied to a productive and functional view, thus putting sanctity aside.

Over recent decades, there has been a methodical resurgence of meaning and value of the landscape, joining emotional, historical, interpretative and symbolic values without reaching the previous spiritual dimension.

Bogotá is a 468 year old city. Since its foundation, the city has grown across the cold high plain of the Andes. As a consequence, the hills  are full of cultural and symbolic sites and values, from a single rock, “el árbol del ahorcado” (The hanged tree), the Virgin, a cave, to the christmas stars.  Fundación Cerros de Bogotá promotes the recovery of the mountain’s sanctity value and the forms of relationship of the inhabitants with the hill, to articulate symbolic and affective dimensions, given priority to children and young people as cultural transformers.

Intangibles will bound to that sum of individual perceptions, when matched can motivate movements in defence of something lost.

The continuing work of the foundation and the engagement of the community are having results: not only recognized by media but also by the government. In June 2013, a land protection pact was approved by the mayor, and ratified by government in November 2013. Establishing mechanisms for social change was considered a precondition to the successful implementation of the project. The legislation acknowledges stakeholder rights and protects an area of 415 hectares of the green belt for ecological preservation and recreation.

First, we seek to establish social pacts that gradually stretch up into the physical breathing spaces in the hills adjacent to Bogota. These actions would sow seeds of social change and recover sacred ties of nature to contemporary man, who now goes lost in Bogota’s landscapes of transit and digital tablets.

El palo del ahorcado (The hanging tree). Photo Diana Wiesner
El palo del ahorcado (The Hangman’s Post). Photo: Barbu Bogota Guide
Kathleen Wolf

About the Writer:
Kathleen Wolf

Dr. Kathleen Wolf is a social scientist at the University of Washington, and is a science advisor to NatureSacred, a program of the TKF Foundation

Kathleen Wolf

Grey to Green—A Call to Include Sacred

Cities all around the world have made rapid (and astounding) progress in their integration of sustainability design and green infrastructure into development standards.  Can the innovators that are driving these changes imbed a sense of civic sacred within urban landscapes?

Planners and elected officials typically shy away from the concept of sacred when discussing green infrastructure, parks, and open space systems.  Sacred is an ambiguous word, often interpreted as aligned with faith or spirituality and not an appropriate subject in the public realm.  And sacred can also imply exclusion, by either the social or cultural group that acknowledges a sacred place, or in being a landscape that is distinctive and away.  Yet as our cities grow and lives get busier people seem to be craving the respite and opportunity for mindfulness that a nearby sacred space can offer.

The 19th century could be viewed as the era of the sanitary city as civic leaders and public works departments perfected the engineering practices of sanitation and hygiene.  Within that framework nature was seen as nice to have, but not essential.  The 20th century might be viewed as the period when city services and operations integrated ecological function. It became obvious that pipe, drain, and paved solutions might not be adequate to handle the demands of rapid population growth and urbanization.

In the current century, and the prospects are exciting, nature is regarded not as a mere aesthetic trinket or bobble of the affluent.  Landscape is being explored as a substantial contributor of solutions for the most important challenges of cities and nations—the urban forest for air quality and stormwater management, living walls for air quality and building energy conservation, roof farms for food security, and parks as elements of walkability programs to combat obesity and enable active transit.

Most integrations of nature and ecological function with built environments have an underlying utility function.  The justification for investment in natural systems that were once viewed as just being ‘pretty’ hinges on sustainability metrics, performance criteria, and, perhaps most importantly, cost-benefit analysis.  The professionals and organizations that advocate for more green cities have developed the analytic tools that provide evidence of key functions and services.  In some instances, sophisticated economic modeling suggests that nature, while less tangible than pipes and paving, should be included in capital investment planning and funding in cities.

More recently, extensive evidence about the health benefits of nearby nature in cities is garnering attention.  Urban life is stressful, and modest nature encounters are effective in alleviating stress symptoms.  Gardens are effective healing environments, and are included in hospital construction plans.  Mental health is an emerging health concern in many cities and nations, and the presence of quality nature near one’s home may provide both direct and indirect therapies.

Where is the sacred in these trends and innovations?  We no longer make the the distinction in many regions that cities are barren and rural areas are natural.  Yet the discourse about nature in the city continues to have a commodity-based tinge—that the only reason that nature is introduced into urban enviroments is because of the bullet list of benefits and services that it provides.

Nature and green systems can multi-task.  We can and should imbed sacred with a small ‘s’ within the functional landscapes of cities.  Effective planning and design should generate civic, inclusive sacred spaces that augment green infrastructure and sustainability functions.  The discussion around this set of essays may provide insight about the built elements and programs that can support sacred experiences.

Green infrastructure for stormwater management that includes opportunities for sacred experiences. Photo: Kathleen Wolf
Green infrastructure for stormwater management that includes opportunities for sacred experiences. Photo: Kathleen Wolf
Mary Wyatt

About the Writer:
Mary Wyatt

Mary Wyatt, Executive Director of the TKF Foundation, is an integral piece in the envisioning, planning, launch, and ongoing leadership of TKF.

Mary Wyatt

In the last two decades, the TKF Foundation has supported the creation of more than 130 open and accessible urban greenspaces.  We believe nature is inherently sacred and has the power to heal and transform.  Our mission is to provide the opportunity for a deeper human experience by inspiring and supporting the creation of public greenspaces that offer temporary sanctuary, encourage reflection, provide solace and engender peace and well being.

Open Spaces Sacred Places are the result of a collaborative design process within each partner community.  In addition to the presence of nature (community gardens or landscaped areas) our small public spaces include design elements meant to elicit and represent historical features of sacred spaces.  Spaces set apart and dedicated to moments of respite.  The design elements draw one into these pockets of urban nature:

Portal—An entrance through a gateway, natural or built, that delineates the reflective space from the surrounding environment; a stepping “out of” and intentionally “into”.

Path—Whether linear and well-defined, or more meandering, a path allows one to focus attention and achieve mindfulness about the surroundings.  A path can ground one with the earth while offering a sense of connection to a greater reality that is sacredness.

Destination—An appealing feature or end point(s) that further draws the visitor into the space, and in doing so encourages quiet, fascination, and spiritual connection with nature.

Sense of Surround—Design elements that provide a sense of boundary, safety, and enclosure.  They create a sense of “being away” and temporary separation from the emotional stresses and challenges of life.

Once drawn into these spaces, community members can share their thoughts with us via journals stored in benches.  We were struck by how many seem to recognize and embrace time spent in urban nature as an opportunity to connect with something larger than individual consciousness.  The journal entries reveal recognition and value of protecting and nurturing the environment as both an end in itself, and because it is critical to quality of life.  The sense of reverence, awe, and peace that time in nature may elicit gives us something that money can’t buy, and it is available to everyone.  As one of our partners once said—“Nature is the great equalizer.  Trees know no war.”

These powerful narratives begged us to push further for evidence that open, sacred greenspaces can be community sources for health and wellbeing.  Scientific evidence suggests that the experiences of city trees, parks, and gardens can aid with attention restoration and stress reduction, contribute to positive emotions, and can promote social engagement and social support.  As our foundation sunsets, our legacy continues in the Nature Sacred award initiative to integrate urban landscape design with an empirical research component.  Six diverse multi-disciplinary teams are working together to document the healing power of urban, sacred, nature spaces.  While we were cautioned about using the term “sacred”, we found that to the contrary, teams were eager to embrace and use the language—as if the permission to call nature sacred had been granted.  A significant number of people recognize and embody the need for sacred nature in their lives, but just don’t call it out as such.

The research component of our initiative will provide quantitative evidence of the need for sacred, urban nature opportunities.  Open Spaces Sacred Places spaces support livable, sustainable, and healthy cities.  Cities around the world have an opportunity to create these mini-places of respite within larger existing greenspaces, or make valuable use of scraps of vacant land which plague all cities.  These small remnants may quite easily be transformed to provide sacred moments for our urban populations—the open spaces, sacred places where people can let out their breath and just “be” for a moment or two in time.

Pedro Camarena

Pedro Camarena

Pedro Camarena is Landscape Architect who studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1998) and has a Masters from the University of Lanús, Argentina (2009). He is cofounder of LAAP, where he has created works of landscape urbanism. He has held positions in various sectors of government, Ministry of the Environment of the City of Mexico (2001-2004). He has taught since 2001 at the Design Workshop at the Academic Unit of Landscape Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, served as advisor to the Ecological Reserve Pedregal in Ciudad Universitaria, UNAM and is president of the Society of Landscape Architects of Mexico (SAPM) 2013-15.

17 thoughts on “What is the meaning and role of the “sacred” in the design and management of urban green space and the building of cities that are both green and livable?

  1. On this last pair of ideas—the formal such as 9/11 memorials and the informal such as sacred trees—Campbell and Svendsen are also doing some cool work documenting informal shrines (pop-up shrines, if you will) in New York City parks. One result from that ongoing work that I find remarkable is the frequency with which park users make the public spaces their own, in one way or another.

  2. I find the contributions and the discussions very exciting and encouraging. I agree with comments above that there is a need to “pin down” the key elements that cut through the contributions – whether that should be expanding and defining what we mean by sacred or finding or building on different concept(s) I am not sure.

    One of the key elements to me, which came across very well in some of the contributions, is that things are sacred because we make them sacred – that people and their activities and values needs to be viewed as part of a park, or other urban sites. Mickey Fearn, Jayne Engle and others give some great advice on how to do so. This clearly related to the social justice aspects, and is related to how we (and urban planners and decision makers) view urban green spaces as engineered or landscapes, nature/ecosystems, or social-ecological systems co-created by people and nature where values matter.

    When reading I also reflected upon that there are two separate but related paths in the discussions – how to recognize, and nurture existing connections between people and nature in the city, such as in the example of sacred trees in Bangalore, and secondly how to create potential for people to re-connect with nature in the urban context, for examples as a response to crisis after September 11 in the example from Campbell and Svendsen.

  3. We would say that “sacred” is not something that can be intentionally created, but rather emerges from the experiences of the users in the space, and the intentions and the needs they bring to the space. But, we do believe that the age old design elements of portal, path, destination point / points and the sense of surround, no matter how simple, create a place that is apart from the greater environment and supports the opportunity to experience a connection with something greater the minutia of daily life that we all become immersed within. That something greater is sacred.

  4. PENSAMIENTO SISTÉMICO : Un sistema tiene muchas historias dependiendo de quien las cuente : el pensamiento sistémico presente en la física con Stephen Hawking en el gran diseño; Peter Senge, la quinta disciplina; W. Harvey, todos los sistemas del cuerpo humano son homeostáticos ( autor regulan ) y se encajan unos con otros para que el conjunto funcione: la percepción de la realidad de acuerdo a su pensamiento sistémico analiza la causa y efecto en forma lineal o circular en una proyección de espacio y tiempo . Veamos dentro de este esquema el análisis de Michael Sandel: ¿ obedece a un esquema de mercado abierto? ; ¿ dentro de una democracia real y participativa ?; ¿ podemos consultar a Soros la trampa del mercado abierto ?…lo invito al analista que confrontemos estos esquemas. [email protected]

  5. Reading Emilio Fantin’s comment and the metaphor of the circulation reminds me of the important element of justice in these discussions (slightly off topic too, but like Emilio’s, relevant). Many in these texts promote the idea that the sacred should be valued and have a clear place in our physical and metaphorical spaces in cities. Emilio’s circulation comment reminds us that these places for sacredness, however expressed, must be accessible to all, in all parts of the city. Mickey Fearn makes this point also. That opportunities for sacred experience must be accessible to all (the same as all services, including ecosystem services). Such access must be clear policy, but also an expression of justice as a sacred core value.

  6. Aware of the risk I’m taking to go off the topic, I’ll try to answer to Jayne Engle’s question about “money is sacred”. According to me, we can describe different attitudes, context and elements of the “sacred”, but however and wherever we talk about it, we must refer to something which goes beyond our usual (and rational) relationship to things, objects, people and nature. The adjective “sacred “ can be adapted to different situations – making something with sacredness means to be conscious of a spiritual presence in a worship place as a church or a cemetery. It also means being conscious of our own existence or of what secretly animates the nature – in any case it has the same unique semantic nucleus → to evoke a reality for which we feel devotion and gratitude = (Gratia → Sacer). This reality can be called in different ways, but its intrinsic qualities do not change → not ponderable, not perceptible, not logically understandable, beyond the categories of space and time. We manifest the sacredness trough out symbols, some of them are attributed to nature, some others to objects made by ourselves. Money is one of these: it is the symbol for excellence, the most powerful, in term of construction or destruction. In the text I wrote for this forum, I quoted the “blood circulation system” as a metaphor to evoke the sacredness of the money→ if blood does not circulate well, necrosis arises in some areas of the body, similarly, if money is accumulated instead of circulating, then misery, degradation and crime arise. As well, the blood which comes in excess causes an aneurysm and the excess of richness and luxury ends into selfishness, arrogance, cynicism and boredom. Certainly, one of the main causes of the carelessness and contempt for the environment, in many cases of urban degrade of our cities, comes from an egoistic relationship with money. Money is considered an instrument of accumulation = power (a sort of depraved sacredness), instead of being used as an instrument of circulation, distribution and as a dispenser of vital flux. Money is a symbol of exchanging: when we use it, we should perpetrate the ritual of the brotherhood (another analogy with blood), in order to allow the essential quality that we have in common as human beings, to come out.

  7. One of the most successful former mayors of Bogota, Colombia, and former presidential candidate, coined the word ‘sacred’ in his political campaign ‘Life is sacred’. The relevance of the sacred in Colombia is key to achieving peace.

    Antanas Mockus stated: our proposals have as their starting point the commitment to protect all forms of LIFE. Our passion for the sacred nature of human life means we are committed to respect all forms of life on earth.

    By giving importance to the sacred value of nature within a political framework, we can realise this vision in practice.

  8. One of the best mayors of Bogotá, Colombia and candidate for president coined the word “sacred” in his political campaign, “Life is sacred.” The relevance of the sacred in Colombia is key to its strategy to achieve peace.

    Antanas Mockus stated: “Our proposals are the starting point of the ethical commitment to protect all forms or LIFE. Our claim for the sacred nature of human life, commits us to respect all forms of life on Earth.”

    In Colombia it turns strategic to have the vision from politics of the sacred value of nature in order to be realized in planning and execution.

  9. There seems to be a general agreement here among the authors here about both the diverse meaning of the word sacred with respect to green spaces, and also its value.

    I find myself wondering what cities (and their managers) would *do differently* if these ideas were fully taken to heart. How would, say, a city planner in New York or Mumbai or Lima operationalize “valuing the sacred” in their city plans? In some cities that will mean valuing, protecting and creating green and open space from zero, because their is so little public open space (e.g., Mumbai). In places with more extensive green spaces (e.g, New York) it would entail making sure that there are diverse spaces (spaces for contemplation, natural areas, in additional to the ball fields) and complete access in all neighborhoods (as Mickey points out).

    Every city is a little different, but are there specific guidelines for how to build sacredness (or whatever it ends up being called) into the formal planning of cities? Perhaps Mary’s NatureSacred organization has done this.

  10. It is clear after reading these, that most all are feeling something very similar, but this ‘something’ has just not yet been formulated in a way which is at once simple, deep, connected, and easily transferable as a concept. Which seems a bit funny, considering that holding nature as ‘sacred’ is hardly a new concept, but one which has arguably been with humanity since humanity existed.

    The stumbling block I have run into with the term ‘sacred’ in particular (and I think many others have) is the reluctance of the general public (religious and non-religious alike, and with most children exempted) to approach the concept of ‘sacred’ without it conjuring up organized religion in their minds.

    Naomi mentioned terminology and ‘social marketing’ strategy, and perhaps there is something to this.

    I wonder if others can share/expand on experiences or ideas in this area?

    For instance, rather than directly attempting to define what is ‘sacred,’ we have worked from a standpoint of developing a ‘relationship with nature’ at a personal level, which allows individuals to have ‘compassion for nature,’ leaving it up to them how they define this relationship. We have also seen others use ’empathy for nature’ as a tool. Both approaches come with varying degrees of success with the public.

    At any rate, great conversation so far.

  11. Naomi, I think you put it so well when you ask that “the concept of reverence and sanctity be extended beyond the realm of formal religion.” This is needed. The feeling of nature as ‘sacred’ is indeed practiced widely both inside and outside of organized religion, but to many i’ve come into contact with, the word ‘sacred’ itself creates uncertainty and even fear, simply for its religious connotations.

    I agree it would be well worthwhile to discuss how we can approach the definition of ‘sacred’ or further, a new terminology which is more easily able to reach across our society’s pre-conceptions.

  12. For people of faith, nothing is held in higher regard and respect than that which is sacred.
    I believe the challenge here is a double one: first of all, to ensure that people of faith view nature with the respect and reverence due to that which is sacred, and secondly, to propose that the concept of reverence and sanctity be extended beyond the realm of formal religion. This latter is needed because global biodiversity will not be sufficiently protected if it is in the category of “very important”, since we are all familiar with “very important” issues that suffer gross global neglect.
    It may sound as though we are in a word game, seeking an appropriate epithet for nature’s essential role in our continuing life on earth. However, if the attribute we choose to describe the importance of nature is not sufficiently powerful, and the message is not clear, then neither believers nor non-believers will engage in the challenges ahead facing biodiversity and indeed life on earth as we know it. Now is surely the time for green-thinking believers and non-believers alike to develop social marketing strategies that will strengthen the case for preservation of nature and green spaces in and around our cities. and if the concept of sacredness is useful we should use it. However, before using the concept it must be defined, and in reading the other contributions and comments on this round table theme, I find great flexibility alongside little consistency in reference to what “sacredness” actually means.

  13. What a beautiful collection of reflections on the sacred! That so many of us think about such things demonstrates connection between people and gives hope — for me anyway.

    That nature in cities is sacred is explicit or at least implicit in most entries here is not surprising (even if it is not well enough reflected in most of our urban environments). Less obvious to me was reading divergent reflections above, such as ‘money is sacred’ and change is what is sacred. I would like to know more: in what ways is money sacred? And change?

  14. Although the prompt asks us to consider the role of the sacred, I am struck by the thread of social justice that runs through many of these pieces. As several authors note, nature is not an optional amenity-it is a vital resource that provides opportunity for engagement, for creative expression, for meaning-making, and perhaps even community self-determination.

    Divya Gopal tells us that slum dwellers in Bangalore form strong attachments to sacred trees, gathering in their shade, socializing, and developing economic spaces under them. Given lack of green space and lack of space overall, these trees seem to serve as forest, park, commons, and town green all in one.

    Mickey Fearn makes an eloquent call for the need for equity and inclusion in our urban areas, and for the power of community leadership to help envision, create, and activate greenspace as a tool for neighborhood cohesion and well-being. His call (and Jayne Engle’s call for “relaxing the rules”) reminds me of my work with the group ioby (stands for “in our back yard”). I am fortunate enough to serve on the board of this great organization that supports online crowd resourcing for civic-led projects, ranging from community gardens, to bike shares, to mural projects, and more. On countless occasions, they show the power of neighbor-led action to envision creative solutions, to pool resources, and create local change. Many of the ioby projects use greening, gardening, and the environment as the platform for action.

    While the desire to connect with nature is universal, Erika Svendsen’s and my research finds that people are particularly drawn to engage with greening post-disturbance. That disturbance can be acute (tornado, terrorist attack) or chronic (neighborhood disinvestment, capital flight). In the wake of these fast and slow moving changes, we find people turning to the accessible, available resources of vacant lots, seeds, plants, and trees. Disinvested neighborhoods in my hometown of Cleveland, in Detroit, in Baltimore, and countless other post-industrial cities show the innovation of residents engaging in community gardening and urban agriculture to help shape new futures.

    Perhaps the most sacred act would be for us to build just, inclusive, green cities.

  15. after reading some of the texts, all of which seem so interesting and profound, I have this thought: the present we are living is sacred, we are all thinking in the same direction, so this is when things can start and keep changing…

  16. There is much to think about after reading the essays. The presence of the sacred is deeply felt, essential to livability in the city, and socially significant – yet rarely addressed in the governance and management of urban communities. Can sacred be introduced in the public realm in a systematic way – or must it be the personally identified or treasured space as determined by individuals or small groups? Is it possible to introduce the potential for sacred as a goal in public planning and programs?

  17. Lo sagrado puede ser muy personal, puede ser lo mas valioso en la percepción de un individuo o un grupo según su historia y tradición. La gestión de lo público nunca contempla los valores intangibles de un lugar y que personas o grupos valoran como sagrado sin estar atado a algo religioso . Ahí esta la dificultad, pues las nuevas intervenciones urbanas buscan “renovar y transformar” borrando historias, cuentos, afectos y “claves” personales de la gente.

    Estos cambios podrán tener estéticas bellas o ser funcionales, o cumplir con estándares de sostenibilidad como una lista de chequeo. Pero, ¿ donde esta la esencia del ser humano? ¿donde se queda lo que genera la risa, el recuerdo, la memoria?

    Lo sagrado esta en respetar el espacio de todos y reconocer que muchos elementos que pueden ser vitales o significativos para unos puede no serlo para otros pero hay que lograr una armonía en la multiplicidad de voces en la estructuración de lo publico.

    The sacred can be very personal, may be the most valuable in the perception of an individual or a group following history or tradition. But public management of sites has never contemplated the intangible values ​​of a place people or groups valued as sacred without being tied to anything religious. There’s a difficulty when new urban interventions seek to “renew and transform” and along the way erase histories, stories, emotions and key personal meanings of people.

    These changes may be beautiful, aesthetic or functional, or meet sustainability standards as from a checklist. But where’s the essence of being human? Where is the essence that generates laughter, memory?

    The sacred space is in respect of all and recognizes that many elements that may be vital or significant for one person may not work for others. The sacred site needs to achieve harmony in the multiplicity of voices found in the public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.