Sacred in the Public Realm

Each month in our Open Voices blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. This December we introduce sacred spaces that serve as centers for community; spaces to experience the “civic sacred”. 

In the past few decades a surge of scientific research provides evidence connecting human health with the experience of nearby nature in cities. The experience of “being in nature”, personal and deeply felt, commonly evokes feelings of transformation and contemplation. Literature and traditions recount the importance of nature in personal realizations of inspiration, deeper connections, mindfulness, and extended social connections. This personal experience is historically described as “sacred”.

(Photo Credit: TKF Foundation)


With recognition given to the complexity and diversity of sacred experiences, there are many elements common across what sacred might include- mindfulness and meditation, focused breathing, time spent in nature and communal open spaces. Abundant scientific evidence establishes these elements as major contributors to health. And nature-based, open sacred spaces also contribute to large-scale community benefits such as reduced health care costs, reduced noise pollution, social cohesion, engaged citizenship, clean air, and environmental stability. As the human population becomes more urban and resource-stressed, civic sacred in everyday life is increasingly necessary. The mission of the TKF Foundation is to provide the opportunity for a deeper human experience by inspiring and supporting the creation of public greenspace that offers a temporary sanctuary, encourages reflection, provide solace, and engender peace and well being. Here are just a few examples from recent literature on the benefits of experiences you are likely to have in civic sacred spaces:

  • Urban nature, when incorporated into community planning and building design, provides calming and inspiring environments and can encourage learning, inquisitiveness, and alertness 1,2.
  • Contact with natural environments promotes psychological restoration, enhanced mood, improved attention, and reduced stress and anxiety3.
  • Allowing oneself to sit quietly, with few auditory or visual distractions, allows our brains to rest and use a different network of connections (a “default mode”) than it does when attention is focused on the outside world. Evidence suggests that brain systems activated during rest are important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing. In other words, rest improves the ability to recall personal memories, imagine the future, and feel social emotions with moral connotations4.
  •  Benefits of meditation include lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure 5 improved metabolism, improved respiration, improved cognitive functions, longer attention spans 6, and improved perceptual ability, memory, intelligence and empathy 7. Researchers have not reached a consensus on mechanisms or causation but generally agree there are benefits.
  • In addition to physical environment benefits, resident participation in urban greening programs is associated with community empowerment and social cohesion8.


[1] Beatley, T. 2010. Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning. Island Press: Washington DC.
[2] Kaplan, R., and S. Kaplan. 1989. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press: New York.
[3] Alcock, I., M.P. White, B.W. Wheeler, L.E. Fleming, and M.H. Depledge. 2014. Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas. Environmental Science and Technology 48, 2: 1247-1255.
[4] Immordino-Yang, M.H., J.A. Christodoulou, and V. Singh. 2012. Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education. Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, 4: 352-364.
[5] Schneider, R., S. Nidich, J.M. Kotchen, T. Kotchen, C. Grim, M. Rainforth, C.G. King, and J. Salerno. 2009. Effects of stress reduction on clinical events in African Americans with coronary heart disease: A randomized controlled trial. Circulation 120, 18: S461-S461.
[6] Slagter, H.A., R.J. Davidson, and A. Lutz. 2011. Mental training as a tool in the neuroscientific study of brain and cognitive plasticity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5: 17.
[7] Desbordes, G., L.T. Negi, W.W.P. Thaddeus, B.A. Wallace, C.L. Raison, and E.L. Schwartz. 2012. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6: 292.
[8] Westphal, L.M. 2003. Urban greening and social benefits: A study of empowerment outcomes. Journal of Arboriculture 29, 3: 137-147.


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