The Very Personal Impact of Community Green Spaces

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Naval Cemetery Landscape Honor Award. Brooklyn, New York. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Max Touhey

By Alden E. Stoner

While landscape architects’ work touches people’s lives every day, they rarely get to hear from the people who interact with their work. Designing outdoor spaces and using those spaces are two distinct phases. But what if there were a way to get a glimpse into how people feel about landscaped green spaces, years or even decades after they were designed?

At Nature Sacred, we believe nature offers powerful benefits for health and mental well-being, particularly in urban areas, where it can be hard to connect to the natural world. We’ve spent the past 25 years supporting green spaces that are nearby and integrated into the communities that use them, open to all, and designed to encourage contemplation and peace. We call them Sacred Places.

When we built our first Sacred Place, we tucked a waterproof journal under the wooden bench that serves as a centerpiece of the space. We were surprised and moved by the volume and breadth of writings that visitors added to it. Nature emboldened people to share their ideas, loves, losses, gratitude, and encouragement with great vulnerability – and sometimes a bit of humor.

As we developed more Sacred Places – now over 100 across the U.S. – we added a journal to each one. Our archive of journals grew, and we realized the wisdom contained in them was too valuable to keep to ourselves. We collected the most touching, memorable, and thought-provoking entries in a book that was published last year titled BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature.

BenchTalk is not only a testament to the power of nature but also to the work of the landscape architects who bring each Sacred Place to life with the help of a community-led design process. Throughout the book, a constant theme is people’s gratitude for a small pocket of nature where they can reflect.

“Never knew of this space – little sanctuary amid the rubble of the BQE. Boy do we need more spaces like it – to allow ourselves a moment to connect with the infinite, with the silent rhythms within – even as the traffic hums unabated, and planes fly overhead.” – Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, New York

We worked with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and Marvel Designs to transform a 1.5-acre former cemetery into an award-winning green space that’s filled with life while honoring the site’s history and the community’s needs. A partnership with Brooklyn Community Housing and Services offers formerly homeless residents a chance to interact with nature in their community. And a local high school has developed a science curriculum based on the Sacred Place’s meadow, sparking an appreciation for nature among a new generation.

“Looking up at these towering trees, I am overcome with the feeling of being blessed. I am also keenly aware that these arching trunks and branches are only half the picture. I thus ask these deep roots to give me strength. Thank you for this space.” – The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Green Road was designed with the help of Jack Sullivan, FASLA, to provide a place for veterans to heal from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Featuring a forested area with paved, accessible trails, the space intentionally retained “wild” and natural elements to mirror the wild and chaotic realities of war that these veterans have lived through.

“Today is the day Baby K is trying to start his life of greatness. Mark these words that the world has a new warrior with passion, heart, and power!” – Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon

Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Terrace Garden is a therapeutic garden filled with plants to mark the changing seasons, connected to the Family Birth Center and Cardiovascular ICU at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Designed in collaboration with Brian Bainnson, ASLA, of Quatrefoil, the space bears witness to the highs and lows of life, offering serenity for laboring mothers and recovering cardiac patients, as well as the doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to help them.

“Tough times never last but tough people do. #JoplinStrong” – The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook is part of our Landscapes of Resilience Project, which aims to show how green spaces can support community resilience and recovery in the wake of a tragedy – in this case, the tornado that killed 161 Joplin residents in 2011. We collaborated with Traci Sooter and students from Drury University, city officials, psychologists, and community members to design this healing garden. The result is a Sacred Place with design themes related to the mourning process and a butterfly pavilion referencing children’s reflections that butterflies helped them during the storm.

In every corner of the country, in neighborhoods, universities, hospitals, prisons, and more, we’ve seen that creating restful green spaces with community input has a profound impact on people’s lives. If you’d like to join us in this work, please reach out.

Alden E. Stoner is the CEO of Nature Sacred.

One thought on “The Very Personal Impact of Community Green Spaces

  1. Joy Kuebler 11/10/2023 / 2:56 am

    Thank you for the work you do, Alden. Such a beautiful contribution.

Leave a Reply