The Sacred in the city: Escape and Enchantment in Everyday Environments

Note: This piece was originally published on The Nature of Cities . It has been posted here with permission from the author.
The late Robin Williams famously quoted C. S. Lewis in the film Dead Poets Society: ‘We read to know we are not alone.’ This aphorism resonates for me the meaning of the sacred in the city: that is the spaces, places, and experiences where individual revelation connects with collective meaning, and which enable escape and enchantment in city life.
The sacred conjures notions of mysterious powers, human flourishing, the search for nature within ourselves, biophilia, oikos—or home. Being at home with ourselves. Home in the city, in our everyday urban environments. We may find the sacred in places where we escape—a quiet, contemplative garden or eave on a highrise roof where there is life around, not too far away, yet distant enough to not force interaction. Or where one steals a magical kiss with a lover in a busy alleyway so lush with vegetation that it provides secret nooks at twilight. Or in places with intense visual stimulation. The sacred, and sacred landscapes, can give expression to an essential nature—of an individual, of a collective, of a place, of a city—where we engage with others or where we retreat to in order to nourish our spirits, regenerate our souls, and reconnect with primal instincts and forces. The sacred in the city is also about a sensibility that heightens awareness of the emotional dimension of humans; of sensory perceptions (smell, sound, sight, touch and taste); of desire, spirituality, enchantment and conviviality.


The Mud Maiden, a living sculpture by Sue Hill and Pete Hill in collaboration with nature. This site in Cornwall, England is sacred to me because of her ever-changing beauty and symbolism. Photo: Jayne Engle.

How can we design and manage urban spaces to nourish the sacred and enable enchantment in everyday environments and contribute to more green and livable cities? Here are four ideas.

  1. Treat space as sacred. Every site matters. Sacred spaces can flourish if we have the mindset that ‘the site is to the city as the cell is to the body’. Land should not be commodified or consumed, but cherished. Truly valuing space in cities calls for us to consider the use and evolution of sites on a case-by-case—rather than a formulaic, traditional zoning—basis.
  2. Make visible in urban space stories of the past, values of the present, and possibilities for the future. Elucidating temporal dimensions in space involves elevating the imagination—individual and collective—into action, through citizen expression and movements such as Jane’s Walk and 100 in 1 Day Festivals. Artists can engage with people to invent ways to more meaningfully symbolize in urban space what was sacred in the past, represent what nourishes spirits of people now, and what possibilities people dream of for the future.
  3. Articulate and map what is sacred. Through participatory planning and active citizenship people can acknowledge the sacred and decide what is worth preserving. Examples are: 1) participatory mapping, photography, video and crowd-sourcing of sacred spaces that identifies places or environmental elements that people care about and want to keep; and 2) storytelling and local lore—constructing livability narratives that reveal the sacred place of nature in the city and precious natural places that are nourishing to the spirit.
  4. Relax rules to let people create. Citizens can collectively create and dream together in spaces of their cities when regulating bodies relax the rules at times, such as by supporting urban experimentation throughpop-up urbanism installations, guerrilla gardening projects, and human-nature collaborations, and by not thwarting spontaneous street celebrations.

The nourishing of the human spirit needs daily space and has everyday expression, and can flourish when people imaginatively—and often collectively—appropriate space in parks, coffee shops, asphalt plazas, rooftops, wherever.
At the end of the day, to find the sacred in the city is to know we are not alone.
You can read more from Jayne Engle on The Nature of Cities.