Landscape architects can play a powerful role in changing lives — possibly in ways most haven’t fully contemplated. The spaces they design have the potential to measurably improve the health and well-being of those who spend time in them.
At Nature Sacred, we have spent the past 25 years creating green spaces – or what we call Sacred Places – with the sole intent of bringing nature to people so they could benefit from this restorative, healing connection. From the very beginning, we asked ourselves: how can we work with communities to create spaces that more fully capture the benefits nature has to offer? How do we incorporate established design principles while, at the same time, create spaces that resonate with people and their lived experiences? We knew instinctively that the two went hand-in-hand.
Working with landscape architects, academics, and on the ground with communities, we honed an approach to creating green spaces where people live, work, play and heal that is a blend of scientific evidence and ground truth. We’re sharing this approach in a new report that we released just two weeks ago at ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.
“The Power of Sacred Places — 25 Years of Science and Evidence-based Design of Healing Green Spaces: A Landscape Architect’s Guide” is part research and part practical guide, and shares key insights gained through having co-created more than 100 Sacred Places across the country in communities, many under-resourced; in prisons, at universities, and in hospitals. A handful of these sites were also implemented as part of an expansive, decade-long design, build, and research project.
The report, written by Nature Sacred’s Neha Srinivasan, MLA; and edited by Nature Sacred Design Advisor and University of Maryland Assistant Professor Naomi A. Sachs, ASLA, PhD, is intended to be a resource for landscape architects interested in creating green spaces that are designed to encourage contemplation and connection with nature.
Over the years, the science around the nature-health connection has continued to grow. While anecdotally, most wouldn’t argue with the statement that time spent in nature is health-building, the scientific evidence proves that nature has remarkable therapeutic benefits. Not to mention, our approach to designing nature spaces in cities is so critical to preserving our natural ecosystems and mitigating the negative health and ecological impacts of global warming.
The role of landscape architect is more influential than at any other point in history.
Using this research, landscape architects and designers can make stronger health-based arguments to decision makers and number crunchers to integrate thoughtful design of green spaces into larger planning projects — nature zones for recharging and wellness that will become magnets for the community.
For the research portion of this paper, we focused our attention on four domains: nature’s impact on individual, community, economic and ecological health. A few highlights of the research:
Individual health: Time spent in nature can reduce cortisol levels and symptoms of depression; research also suggests it can slow cognitive declines in people with dementia and improve memory and concentration — including in children with ADHD.
Community health: Easy access to shared green space and tree canopy in particular can influence drops in acts of aggression, violence and crime by 40-50% especially in public spaces, where trees are 40% more effective at reducing crime than trees on private property.
Economic health: Researchers have observed improvements in health perception comparable to a $10,000 increase in annual income with the addition of just 10 trees.
Ecological health: Healthy natural spaces provide carbon sequestration, filtration of air and water pollutants, reduced load on drainage systems, and decreased intensity of the deadly urban heat island effect.
All of these benefits can be reaped in small instances of nature — a pocket park, for instance.
Some of these benefits are what you might call passive; i.e. the sheer existence of the trees or well-planned green spaces will help address challenges related to carbon sequestration and water pollutants whether the community engages with the space or not. However, for many of the individual and community health benefits to kick in, people must engage with nature. Spend time in the green space.
And this is where Nature Sacred has spent a lot of energy over the past two decades — looking at how to best engage the community and how to best design so that the community embraces, and spends time in, their green space.
Suggestions for design
We grouped specific design suggestions into three outcome categories: making people feel welcomed, encouraging them to explore and play, and giving a site a specific purpose or two.
And central to the Nature Sacred approach: incorporating elements that are familiar to a community or reflective of its culture. This can go a long way toward helping nearby residents see themselves represented in a space, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will spend time in space and that it will become a Nature Sacred’s approach to designing landscapes involves four guiding principles, four design elements and one signature fixture. These ensure that our Sacred Places are optimally suited to meet the needs of the people they serve.
Four guiding principles
Every Sacred Place is designed to be:
Open and welcoming to everyone.
Nearby where people live, work, play and heal. Only when green space is conveniently reachable can it become an integral part of people’s everyday lives.
Community-led — This refers to both the creation and long-term stewardship; this is key ensuring the space is deeply rooted within the spirit of those it will serve.
Sacred — Meaning, this is a community-led space that strengthens ties, restores connection to nature and offers solace and rejuvenation.
Four design elements
Every Sacred Place incorporates a portal, path, destination and surround; a response to humans’ overarching need for cohesive structure in landscape. It’s important to note though that there are as many interpretations of these elements as there are Sacred Places.
Portal — An entry point to the site that indicates that one is stepping into an intentionally created space.
Path — A guide, slowly leading visitors deeper into the space and giving them a journey to follow.
Destination — An end point to which the path leads. In Sacred Places, this is often the Nature Sacred bench, which holds a waterproof journal to collect the thoughts and musings of visitors to the space.
Surround — A design feature that creates the sensation of being embraced and sheltered within the space — a feeling of refuge and safety.
In the paper, we share images, examples, of how these elements have been interpreted by communities in their Sacred Places. For instance, at the Sacred Place at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia, peace poles decorated in the many languages of the diverse immigrant community around the church serve as the portal into the space. And at the Sacred Place at Brooklyn’s Naval Cemetery Landscape, a boardwalk, a suspended path, leads visitors through a wildflower meadow, allowing them to experience it without disturbing the former burial grounds and native plants growing beneath their feet.
More examples of the interpretations of these design elements can be found in the paper as well as on our website.
We believe the research and guidance laid out in this paper, coupled with a landscape architect’s own experience, can lead to the creation of more green spaces that truly improve society on multiple fronts. As advocates for nature, the planet and people, landscape architects are in an ideal position to communicate to clients and partners the crucial need to value and prioritize green space in our built environments.
If you are interested in collaborating with us, or serving as a design advisor, we invite you to connect with us.
Alden E. Stoner is CEO of Nature Sacred. She served on Nature Sacred’s board for nearly 15 years before transitioning to CEO.