Places of nature conceived and created by urban communities can provide opportunities for reflection, rejuvenation and physical healing
Cities, in a counterintuitive way, are more sustainable settlements that provide housing for thousands or millions of people, as high-density centers offer energy efficient smaller homes, transit systems, and concentrations of services. Yet life in cities can be stressful, and residents can feel removed from nature, the wellspring of all that sustains us. Research of the past few decades provides evidence of how nearby nature is essential for human habitat. Nature offers restorative settings and experiences, including sacred encounters. A luminous sunset or a glimpse of the tracery of tree branches are just a few of the nature encounters that can instill a sense of calm, contemplation, or inspiration.
Sacred places are those spaces imbedded in everyday life that can elevate visitors into a deeper, healthier and more peaceful relationship with themselves, their neighbors, and the built world. Sacred place experiences provide time and the surroundings for respite from the pressures of urban living and an opportunity for a deeper human experience. Some sacred spaces are innately so; others are intentionally designed. Nature is often a key element of sacred spaces, for air, water, sun and plants satisfy our basic needs, and connect to the deeper processes of life. We know that urban green spaces and parks are important for recreation and relaxation. Sacred spaces offer another level of experience as they lift the human spirit and offer the opportunity for individual and community transformation.
Urban lifestyles demand our close attention, be it sitting at a desk attending to the details of work or studies, family scheduling, or navigating busy streets to make our way for errands. This busyness takes a toll as continued directed attention tires our powers of concentration, leading to irritability, inability to focus, and even general frustration. Nature - flowers, clouds, water ripples, the patterns of leaves - offer 'soft fascination' that holds our attention without effort and restores our ability to think and focus. Attention to nature also offers brief experiences that transcend everyday details, giving us opportunities to discover and reflect on the sacred in everyday life.
We enclose ourselves in buildings, vehicles, and protected spaces. We have muted the sensations of sun, wind, rain, and temperature in daily life. Yet our bodies are surprisingly responsive to the presence of nature in our surroundings. Research shows that our body's systems respond quickly to views or contact with nature, and we are rarely even aware of the rapid and positive changes. Experiences of nature can inspire feelings of contemplation and sacredness, impressions that are reinforced by calmed heart rate, reduced stress response, and healing processes within.
Many cultures around the world treasure their iconic gardens, as these singular places represent a unique convergence of climate, history, and horticulture. The garden creators and generations of visitors note unforgettable experiences of place when in such spaces. This spirit can also be felt when one is within more contemporary nearby nature. Many studies of parks users report a rapid improvement in mood, emotional state, and life outlook. Simply being in the presence of nature can elevate one's spirit - perhaps an expression of biophilia. Careful and intentional design can create spaces in today's cities that provide opportunities for renewal of self and exploration of vital thoughts or feelings.
Many people develop deep attachments to places within their communities, including public parks and gardens. These connections result from participating in the creation of the green space, enjoying events or celebrations there, or building a personal connection through repeat visits. Special places become part of who we are, and become an essential element of personal identity. At another level groups of people may come together to create a green space in response to challenge, tragedy, or celebration. Neighborhood gardens and parks can become local symbols or memorials that are sacred in their expression of a community's connectedness and resilience.
Nearby nature in cities can evoke restorative emotions and thoughts, provide community connections, and be the places where a person encounters the sacred of everyday life. Based on the insights of talented landscape designers, as well as the evidence from social science and public health research, we know that certain natural elements and arrangements of space are more restorative and beneficial. Using research findings and guiding principles individuals, organizations, and communities can create spaces that focus one's attention on the sensations of nature, and offer the support and security that nurtures contemplation and sacredness.