Sacred Places

    image of artwork titled "Sacred Place" by John Beres
    “Sacred Place,” artwork by John Beres, CC BY-NC-ND

    What makes a place sacred? That was the question posed by a recent study that involved a group of East Texas residents. The answer, as it turns out, is that just about any place or building can take on a sacred quality, at least to someone. If the place means that much to more than a handful of people in a community, it may be a place that has historical or social qualities that have been overlooked by community leaders.

    This study reminded me of a planning document I worked on in a suburbanizing Massachusetts town a few years ago. One of the things the planner did was to survey local residents about what they thought were the most valuable views in town. As this town still had a somewhat rural landscape, despite being adjacent to a big city, residents prized many of the scenes they saw as they drove from place to place. Most of the views were onto private property. The town didn’t intend to acquire land for public parks; the intent was more to preserve these scenes if possible, because they were so “sacred,” if you will, to so many people.

    In the study in East Texas, the emphasis was on how residents’ faith affected their view of their surroundings. Many participants responded that they saw something sacred in places that others might hardly notice – such as a vacant lot where a school had stood long ago. Others did not acknowledge as sacred a building that had real meaning to them, because the building was slated to be torn down. Residents had “purposefully disconnected” themselves from it.

    There are interesting lessons in this study for planners, developers and others who care about building community. Learn more about it at

    David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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