“Places of Urban Sanctuary for Humans”: A Q&A with TKF’s Tom Stoner

After a momentous visit to England in 1995, Tom Stoner, and his wife, Kitty, returned to the United States with a commitment to building urban greenspaces in cities across the United States. Their foundation, the TKF Foundation, was born in 1996, and since then they’ve helped fund and create more than 130 open spaces in the Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington region with the Foundation’s support.

To kick off the launch of Open Voices, we sat down with Tom Stoner to discuss a variety of topics — from why he started his foundation, to how communities can better work together to create urban greenspaces, and much more. Enjoy!

Open Voices: You’ve said the vision for the TKF Foundation and Open Spaces Sacred Places was inspired by a trip to London, where you saw a park that served as a refuge for people during World War II. How did that experience help spark this idea for you?

Tom Stoner: My wife Kitty and I, we’re both from the Midwest and I think when we moved here to the East coast, we realized that the life in the city was a different experience than we’d had. She lived on the Mississippi river, and I really experienced the outdoors and it was part of my experience and part of the balance in my life, and I think when I saw some of the difficulties that urban life presented, and particularly some distressed neighborhoods, I said, what can we do?

So we were in the process of talking about this when we ended up at a garden in London and it was sort of serendipitous. It was a transformational experience. There were paths throughout it and there were benches along it. We noticed on the benches that there were writings, which became sort of a dialogue between the people who had shared these benches, and you looked at their names and you realized that they had come from everywhere in the world, and then it became clearer as we dug in a little deeper that some of these people had been there during World War II. This was a true, a natural sanctuary in the middle of a city that was more than half destroyed. So this came to us, that if this garden worked for people in that stressful situation, if this bit of nature in the middle of London would work for people in that stressful condition and time, that it might well work back in the United States.

Open Voices: The TKF Foundation was created in 1996. If you thought urban neighborhoods and citizens needed healing spaces more than a decade ago, how would you rate the need now in this age of increased technology and separation from nature?

Tom Stoner: Well, I think you know certainly our cities have grown. Many neighborhoods have continued to deteriorate. But perhaps as important, if not more important, is that we have ended up moving into a cybernetic world. I think the iPad, the Internet has put that all on steroids, and while we feel like we’re being connected with people, I think we’re finding ourselves less and less connected to our community and to our neighbor and the things that make the cities work, and so I think the need for these places of urban sanctuary for humans is greater today by far, and if you look ahead, I don’t see a stop to that.

I’m not someone who doesn’t believe in technology. Technology helps us in many ways, but on the other hand, we find sort of a deficit disorder in being disconnected from nature, and so it’s finding a balance in one’s life to be connected to one’s community and to experience some time in nature. We found through the years helping helped people develop these green, open spaces that it affects all kinds of communities, and being in nature has a direct effect on their health. I think we all know this intuitively, and so if people are just glued to the television set or glued to their screen and they don’t have a chance to have a break from it, I think it can affect their overall health.

Open Voices: Are there places in the United States – especially cities – that you think are doing a good job of providing healing green spaces in nature for their residents?

Tom Stoner: Well, of course, we think that some of the spaces that we’ve helped create in Baltimore and Washington and Annapolis have made a huge difference in people’s lives, but we definitely see it in New York. One of the inspirations really for us in the early days was the Paley Park in New York, which was designed particularly with that wonderful waterfall at the back of it to really move people away from urban life into another sort of state of mind. That’s the idea, really – to take them into some natural experience whether it’s water or green. The work that’s been done in New York by Bette Midler and her group is another great example of bringing these kinds of spaces into the city.

Open Voices: Do you think there’s a way that other cities can be inspired by New York? What are some of the most important steps those cities that are looking to do this sort of thing can do to move toward that model?

Tom Stoner: I think that in order for this to really work, there has to be a realization that there is a need for recreational spaces and parks in communities. I think we do realize that. Maybe they’re not as utilized as they should be, maybe they’re not as extensive as they should be, but I think we all need to begin to focus on the need to have some kind of urban sanctuary. This is the antidote for the computer and the life that we lead, and so it’s understanding that it’s a place of sanctuary – not just of recreation – that is important.

And secondly, this will never happen unless individuals, through their own commitment and their own realization of the need, band together in some way as citizens and work as a community with city government or county government to make it happen, because it’s difficult for government to do this on their own. We’ve experienced this a number of times, where it takes community action, community involvement to make something like this happen. I can give you an example of that. At Patterson Park in Baltimore, where we helped fund a sacred place, the city came to us and really approached us about creating such a space. It was around a fountain that had been turned off 25 years ago in Hampstead Park.

We decided not to give that money to the city, but there was a community organization that was forming around that park and we said well, we’ll give the money to that organization.

Two things happened. One was over time this wonderful space was created, but just as important was that organization became a very powerful force in that community and did other things in the park in that part of Baltimore that would never have happened had they not stepped forward. So they were sort of in the gathering and a feeling empowered state and then they went on from there. So I think that’s sort of a model of what I think can happen all over the United States.

Open Voices: The terms and concepts of “placemaking” and “nature deficit disorder” are becoming increasingly common as people start to realize the impact of a lack of nature or creative public spaces. How do you see those terms playing into the vision of Open Spaces Sacred Places?

Tom Stoner: In the case of placemaking, as I understand the term, it is a place that can be public, public/private or private – I think one of those three – which is conceived to bring people in the community together in social interaction. And the design of it is not so much the design that may be a perfect piece of architecture, but it’s the perfect piece of architecture for people, which is quite a different thing, and there’re a number of organizations that are focused on that and I think that opens spaces, sacred places sort of within that.

Nature deficit disorder – well, I think everybody knows, everybody feels that when they get in nature, they sort of let the air out. I mean, there’s a transformation that happens to them whether it’s sitting by a stream. Maybe I should tell you a story to illustrate this.

When we went through the process of creating the garden at Western Corrections, which is in Western Maryland, we brought together the chief administrative people of the prison, the warden, the assistant warden, the psychologist, the chaplain and the director of security. I had the privilege of being with them that day and six inmates and he asked all of us to close our eyes. I’ll never forget it as long as I live with that warden closing his eyes sitting next to those inmates; it took a certain amount of courage. This process was led by a very thoughtful Architect, and he asked us a question — to visualize what a sacred place was for us, for each of us, and when everyone spoke later, every one of them, every single person in their own way mentioned the word water.

There was something about being close to some physical tangible thing that transformed their life in some way, so the garden ended up being focused on that as a result, but I think that that’s a good example of how people felt a need. This was a shortfall in their life to be connected to the water in some way, to be connected but it could be connected to trees or some other kind of natural experience. But that leads us to what we’re doing now, which is to help create these spaces across the United States which will be researched to determine in very scientific ways what that nature deficit disorder is and how it can be addressed in specific design forms using nature as the tool, so to speak. It’s the prescription for that nature deficit disorder and we hope that this effort will bring the kinds of scientific proof that public officials need to allocate assets and resources toward this objective, and it will also hopefully inspire people to step forward and come together because they’ll see that this is an antidote to that disorder.

Open Voices: There are so many benefits to communities – economic as well as health – by including green space. Why aren’t more developers being more aware about including green spaces in their new properties?

Tom Stoner: It is a matter of return on investment. Progressive builders are moving to green now. The size of office space per person is shrinking. So there is an even greater need for common green spaces that are designed for human rejuvenation. It is my hope that the research that is being conducted will prove to developers, building owners as well as public officials that green sanctuaries , open and sacred places will improve productivity in the workforce and attract consumers in retail areas. If this happens the bottom line will drive all developers to do this. Nothing incentivizes a developer that a better bottom line.

Open Voices: What’s next for the movement?

Tom Stoner: In the end this is a public health issue. The metrics for physical health and mental health are concerning to everyone. The cost of treating stress is breaking the bank. Yet research that is being done all over the world is continually proving that being in nature is one of the most cost effective ways with the least side effect of dealing with this problem. We all know that being in nature calms the spirit, exercise tones the body now we have to find a way to make sure that it is documented so that public bodies will make the investments to bring them into being.

We live in very stressful times, urban sanctuaries are a healthiest antidote to the way we live in our cities. Now is the time to do something about it.