Based on 20+ years of funding community green spaces, the TKF Foundation developed a design template for open, nature-based spaces. In addition to the healing power of nature itself, every TKF Open Space Sacred Place includes four design elements that combine to invoke a sense of sanctuary, encourage reflection, provide solace and engender peace. These design elements include a Portal, a Path, a Destination and a Surround. Each element serves an important purpose in the overall design of the space.
A TKF research initiative, the Nature Sacred Award Program, is a promising advancement in the scientific understanding of human health and time spent in nature. Through the grant, six community green space projects across the U.S. feature the TKF design elements and a research component designed to gather evidence of visitor health and wellness when using these spaces. As of Fall 2016, all spaces are built and open to visitors. The most recent opening, The Green Road, is a two-acre outdoor healing environment for injured military service members and their families at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The design elements combined with nature-based holistic health care has the potential to empower and transform the people who visit the space.
The first design element encountered as one enters an Open Space Sacred Place is a portal which the visitor passes through. This could be an archway, gate, trellis, overhanging trees or other marker. Passing through the portal marks the transition from the space of every day life to a reflective space where one can experience the power of nature. In The Green Road, service members and their families view an urban forest from the windows of their Center housing, and can enter through an opening in a cathedral of trees.
The surround consists of design elements which define the boundary of the sacred space. It could consist of a small fence or plantings, a natural opening in the trees or even previously existing structures. No matter what it is made from, the surround creates a sense of security and separation from the stress and challenges of everyday life.
“The Green Road opening was a great day, the site is magical and as Fred said, truly a “wild nature” experience in the midst of a very built environment – it was soothing and healing just being in it for me, and the hope is, of
course, that it will help the wounded heal just by virtue of being immersed within it.”
– Mary Wyatt, TKF Executive Director
Walking a path allows visitors to focus their thoughts and achieve a mindfulness about their surroundings. It could be a straight path through garden plantings or a labyrinth that leads the visitor back and forth extending a smaller space. The meditative act of walking a path can ground one with the Earth while creating a connection to the greater sacredness of a specific space. The Green Road is a wheelchair-accessible path through the forest. It provides transport for the service members living in the Center’s approximately 400 long-term living units, many of whom are amputees facing long, painful recoveries.
The destination is an appealing feature or end point that draws the visitor into the space. It could consist of a beautiful view, a quite spot away from the noise of the city or just a place to sit, rest and experience the fascination, awe and tranquility that nature can provide.
Bench and Journal
More than just a place to sit, the bench invites the visitor to stop for a moment to rest, listen, think and experience all that a sacred place has to offer. Located below each bench is a waterproof journal and pen that invites visitors to articulate and process their experiences. It also provides an opportunity to share thoughts and meditations with others through the written word. As visitors write in the journal, it becomes a living, changing, dynamic part of the space. Selected journal entries are featured each week on the Nature Sacred #benchstories.
While you may not visibly see a Firesoul while visiting an Open Space Sacred Place, their strength is evident throughout the space. Firesouls are the individuals that are passionate about creating, maintaining and sharing the healing, restorative powers of nature spaces with others. It is the Firesouls that make these sacred spaces possible.