of SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES
The greatest failing of our cities today is
the same as that of the society in which they are embedded - a failure to
address the spiritual dimension of our lives. This
is not the once-a-week, sit-in-church spiritual dimension of our lives,
but the everyday part that deals with the diseases of the spirit which constitute
our greatest social problems.
Look at all our intractable social problems - violence, alcoholism, tobacco and drug use, crime, child and spouse abuse, homelessness, obesity, apathy, broken homes, poverty, failing schools. All are reaching epi demic proportions. All seem resistant to resolving.
These are not separate problems, however. They have a common root. They are not diseases of the body, but of our psychic "immune system". They all arise out of lack of self-worth, lack of respect by and for others, or lack of opportunity to be of use and value to family and society. These problems are all diseases of the spirit.
It is a disease of the spirit we see in the eyes of people who have been defeated - individually or as a society - and seen what they love and value destroyed, lost, or taken away.
It is a disease of the spirit when wealth and comfort make us too self-satisfied to reach out for the vital nourishment and understanding arising from work, community, and giving to others.
It is a disease of the spirit when the weight of the successes and failures of the past lie so heavily on a person or culture that they don't want to even try to measure up either to the past, or to their own potentials.
It is a disease of the spirit where we lack the nurture of meaningful and honored goals, roles, responsibilities and power.
These same diseases underlie our external environmental
problems. A focus only on technological solutions to the outer symptoms
of diseases of the spirit is, however, deeply troublesome. With it we ignore
the emotional, psychological social, cultural, and spiritual poisoning that
results from a profusion of material wealth. It is that wealth which has
allowed us the latitude to focus only on our individual material "wants"
and not on our inner needs for health and community. We ignore, as well,
the root causes of our external environmental problems, ensuring that their
"solution" will only cause their reappearance in another guise.
People speak with fear in their hearts of the growing violence of modern cities, but view it as an isolated situation which can be contained by equally violent response and punishment. Yet violence is a fundamental tenant of modern culture and the appropriate fruit of our society. What else can we expect when we create immense wealth alongside desperate poverty, and provide the means and training for violent action? What else can we expect when the fundamental economic and legal principles of our society are based on violent exploitation of resources, people, and other life? What can we expect when our agriculture and medicine are based on annihilation of all we don't want or understand? What can we expect when we have exercised the power of exterminating or destroying entire cultures?
We cannot ignore the values and beliefs which underlie our actions. We cannot address urban violence until we acknowledge and respond to the hidden violence of rape, incest, abuse, harassment, suppression, war, poverty and environmental destruction. We cannot expect to resolve random violence unless we are willing to give up the fruits of our deeper violence.
Thomas Berry refers to our modern consumer society as the supreme pathology of all history, a pathology in which we have virtually defined consumption as the highest human purpose.1 Is it right to focus only on how to make that kind of society operate a bit better, or is it wiser to ask what our special role and purpose is in life's evolutionary path and how best to fulfill that role? We will be willing to transform our values, and thus our actions, only when we realize that our present ones are unnecessary, harmful, and replaceable by more effective alternatives.
Sustainability requires a true transformation of our basic values, the development of a spiritual core to our lives and society, and a building of institutions that direct our actions in harmony with these values. Sources of our problems, not just their symptoms, need to be addressed.
Material wealth is truly not an issue to our individual or global well-being. Equity and fairness of comparative wealth and power are. The sustainable capability of natural resources and systems, our numbers, and the wisdom with which we live and use those resources to support our lives, growth, and culture set the limits of what is possible. Healthy, rewarding lives have been lived for thousands of years within very restrictive material limitations, while very unrewarding lives are increasingly common today under conditions of plentiful material resources. Within the boundaries of the possible, we need to determine not just what is obvious, but what is wise.
We have shown in energy, housing, transportation, food production, water and waste, health, and education that the resource demands necessary to support the way of life of countries such as the U.S. can easily be cut by 90% or more.2 This means that if such ways of life are truly desirable, they can be achieved well within the levels of material sustainability, in the process improving their effectiveness. It means our past practices and values are unnecessary and counterproductive. And we are showing today that other approaches are greatly more effective.
All economics, and all cultures and communities derive from distinctive assertions of value. If the values chosen reflect consumption, greed, and violence, they will create a far different world than of those values chosen are spiritual values. E.F. Schumacher, in his path-breaking "Buddhist Economics" powerfully remarked on the characteristic kind of economics which arises from the values of Buddhism - on the role and importance of enriching work, of obtaining the maximum well-being from minimum consumption, and of the importance of non-attachment to wealth.3 He has shown also its effectiveness in creating successful life, culture, and tools.
Reestablishing a value base to our communities involves discovery of the real meaning of a whole range of sustainable values.4 Austerity, for example, is important. But it does not, as we may think, exclude richness or enjoyment. What it does do is help us avoid things which keep us from our real goals in life. When we understand austerity, we see that affluence has a great hidden cost. Its possibilities demand impossible commitments of time and energy. It fails to discriminate between what is wise and useful and what is merely possible. We end up foregoing things necessary for a truly satisfying life to make time and space for trivia. When we relearn to the value of austerity, along with stewardship, permanence, responsibility, enoughness, work, and interdependence, we will begin to create a new kind of community.
Like a garden, our lives need to be weeded if they are to produce a good crop. Spiritual values are excellent cultivating tools. With them we become clearly aware how our conventional world splits us through the heart. We divide our time and lives between work and leisure. But rarely do we allow our work the leisure to be enriching. And rarely do we allow our leisure the purpose and reward of doing things of value and benefit. In a world of such contradictory values, wholeness is not possible.
Spiritual values restore us to the wholeness needed to reconnect with our own hearts, our neighbors and the world around us. They give us the strength to summon our vital inner resources and to guide the powerful tools of our technology into right paths. They teach us the importance of community-based economics, and of not excluding from our decisions the costs today often passed on to others.5 They help us understand the importance of "fair trade", rather than "free trade" whose conditions have been laid down from a major imbalance of power.
They also give us the basis for transforming and creating institutions which work to support rather than deplete the lasting supply of world resources, biosystem health, and the capabilities of human and global systems that constitute our real wealth. Paul Hawken's proposal for a "salmon utility", for example, would collect fees from all salmon landings and use them for habitat restoration, education, and land acquisition, ensuring high sustainable productivity of the fishing resource. A similar oil utility, he proposes, would find it more profitable to invest in auto efficiency than in disruption of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.6
Equivalent institutional changes are already happening in water and sewage treatment, and have been proposed for higher education, transportation, and other fields.7 It is CLEAR that the maze of regulatory agencies and lawsuits that has resulted from attempts to patch together business endeavors and preservation of natural systems health is an ineffective process. Reorganization of institutional goals from a spiritual basis so they avoid the need for such regulatory control is a far more effective process for all. Proper evolution of our cities and communities can make it possible for them to contribute to rather than deplete, the sustainability of our human culture.
* * *
A spiritual core to society is essential for personal and social health and survival. Simply put, that spiritual core deals with "honoring". It deals with respect, with what the Christian Golden Rule distilled into, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
How do we honor each other, and ourselves? How do we honor old people, children, the sick or dy ing? How do we honor workers and those outside the workplace? How do we honor those going through life's changes?8 How do we honor our neighbors, our past, our communities, or our adversaries? How do we honor plants and animals; the earth, air and waters; our planet and the stars from which we are descended? What does this mean for design of our buildings and communities?9
Expressing a sense of honoring in our surroundings is but a small piece of a sacred world, but one which permeates and connects to everything. And it is one which constantly surrounds us with concrete im ages of what we value. A sense of mutual respect would stop the use of prices, product sizes, and advertising intended to confuse purchasers. A sense of the spiritual core to our world would create specific places and an overall sense in our communities that there are things which must be allowed to be enduring, immutable, and inviolate. A sense of the true needs connecting the parts of our lives and communities would eliminate the single-use zoning isolation of different aspects of our society which generates need for unnecessary transportation. A realization that material greed should not be the primary driving force of a society would eliminate the use of public space for advertising.
In almost every country the formal practice of spiritual traditions have been losing power. At the same time, however, the key tenets of several spiritual traditions concerning our relation to each other, our homes and communities are being scientifically verified and reinterpreted for contemporary conditions. Individuals have also been actively reforging spiritual understanding upon which life today can be rooted.
Many traditions, for example, have spoken in similar terms about the energy in a place - feng-shui, ley lines, earth energy. We know now that there is a demonstrable geophysical basis for part of this power of place. And it is being clearly shown that these geophysical phenomena affect all life and bodily processes, including the thought processes in our minds via the magnetite found throughout our brains.10
Such energy connections may appear esoteric at first contact. Yet the spiritual traditions of many cultures have long spoken of a particular kind of human life energy. The Chinese call it chi, the Japanese, ki. Hippocrates called it the Vis Medicatrix Naturae. The Egyptians called it Ka; the Hindus, Prana, the Hawaiians, Mana. Its measurement and how it operates in our bodies is only now slowly being worked out.
Feng-shui masters such as Professor Thomas Yun Lin have long asserted that there are important and reciprocal energy interactions between us and our surroundings which affect our lives. "Our vital energy, or chi", he says, "impacts and alters the energy of the places we inhabit, and consequently affects others that use those places." We know on a less specific level that places retain the reverberations and mark of events occurring in them long after the event. Yun Lin outlines specific practices to impart positive energy into a place and counterbalance the residue of past occupants.
It is only recently that we've realized that this interaction does work - both ways. Our internal "chi" energy impacts and alters the energy of the places we inhabit, in much the same way that the energy of place affects us.
Health practitioners using a variety of techniques including dowsing, acupuncture, computerized electrophysiology and kinesiometry are now measuring specific physiological responses in our bodies to ELF radiation (extremely low frequency oscillating magnetic fields) and a wide variety of other environmental stressors.11They are documenting consistent and persisting physiological impacts from events as small as an overflight by an airplane, the presence of plastic bags, auto exhaust, or low-level chemical outgassing from plastic windows, furnishings, floor and wall coverings. They are showing bodily responses to residuals of anger or fear from recent occupants of a space. They are showing demonstrable loss of muscle strength and permanent bodily damage caused by magnetic fields from computer monitors, electric blankets, cellular phones, microwaves and other electrical appliances.
These studies are showing we are far less tolerant to the wide range of harmful chemicals, products, and other influences we have released into our surroundings than we had any idea. The emerging understanding of massive organic damage to our bodies from organochlorine compounds is only one of many that will necessitate major changes in our attitudes and practices.12 Most importantly, they are showing that our bodies are far more sensitive, and far more affected by apparently subtle aspects of our surroundings, and that the vehicle for our "immunity" to many stressors is intimately related to energy fields in our bodies.
We are clearly not distinct and separated from the world within which we move. Influence and awareness move both ways across our skins and entwine us into a single organism. The harm we cause to our surroundings returns to cripple and diminish our own lives. In the world we are now seeing, there is no excuse for taking from our neighbors and surroundings. There is only reason upon reason for giving and enriching life on both sides of our skin. The implications for how we shape and use our surroundings and our lives are immense.
When we as designers or clients stop saying only what "I want..." in a project and start asking, "What can this give?", we begin to find exciting new opportunities to strengthen the web of community in our cities. Planting street trees gives pedestrian shelter and lessens summer heat for the whole community. Building placement can create useful outside public spaces,. An inexpensive public walkway or bridge may create pedestrian connections between parts of a city. Proper juxtaposition of uses can encourage community and 24-hour life in our cities.
Our surroundings themselves are worthy of honoring. They also act like mirrors, expressing our val ues and conveying to others our inner strengths and fears, pride and hungers. They speak of our relation with nature. They reflect our patterns of work and what we do or don't gain from that work. They show our relations with others, and what paths we take to self-respect, balance, and growth. They reflect our goals as a society. They tell how we build, live and love. They show whether we know ourselves as part of the great and all-encompassing drama and adventure of our universe, or if we see ourselves as a small and insignificant thing apart from it all. What they reflect back to us today is not inspiring.
How we shape our surroundings demonstrates our values, and can be a tool for healing ourselves and our relations to others. In a sacred society our surroundings become a source of meaning, power and strength which we lack today. To make our surroundings better, our hearts need to be in a better place - which we are learning step by step. If our surroundings are better, they make us better. Strength leads to vitality, just as weakness leads to impotence.
Sacred places and sacred building are vital to a healthy society. We all know of places with such power, that should be held sacred. What sacred places boil down to is honoring, And that is key to healing a whole complex of social diseases.
Once we accept that some places should be held sacred, it is impossible to deny the sacredness of all places, all things, and all life. Affirming the sacredness of all our surroundings, we have to acknowledge that we inhabit a sacred world. As part of a sacred world, we are all to be held sacred also. And that calls forth a totally different way of relating and acting. If the person/place/world we love is not happy, we cannot be happy. We reject taking for greed rather than for need. We rediscover the multiple benefits of giving and sharing. This implements fundamental change in our ways of working, playing, celebrating, sharing, and shaping our surroundings.13 We find a new strength and vitality arising in all parts of our lives.
* * *
The first step to both sound community and sound design is to reaffirm the sacredness of our world and establish that VALUE as a touchstone of our society.
Life in a sacred society is essential to our survival, but difficult for many to comprehend, for we now have few remaining comparisons to the kind of support, strength, freedom, meaning, and confidence - and therefor health - that arise from being part of a community of respect. One dimension of it can be seen in a Quaker or Japanese society, where consensus and shared decision-making, shared responsibility, and respect for others is still a central strength. Other dimensions can be seen in indigenous communities throughout the world which still maintain fragments of ancient ties to land, spirit, and wholeness, and in the surroundings and patterns of life which were shaped by such traditions.
Be that aside, there is opportunity in every act of building today to honor and show reverence. Building from a spiritual base brings often subtle, but powerful, changes in our ways of building. A win dow rather than a mirror over a bathroom sink greets us in the morning with a view into a garden rather than a discouraging look at our outsides in their worst condition. It stops the diminishment of self-esteem that mirrors give. It helps wean us from excessive attention to the surface qualities of things. Putting a "1% for heart" clause in building contracts for builder contributions that enhance the environmental, esthetic and spiritual quality of a project can end up making all of the project better and enrich the workers' skills and self-esteem. Natural materials can honor their sources. Creating peaceful silence and shadow can give breathing room for users.
" places need to convey a spirit of greatness in our hearts, of celebration of the universe we inhabit and of our connection with it. We need to create homes for our spirits as well as our bodies and activities. We need to express the special spirit of place and time in our surroundings - to celebrate the rain, the winter, the night, the heat - and find ways to live comfortably in harmony with them.
Sometimes we may stumble onto one of those rare places that bring us into powerful contact with the primal forces of our world - a remote farmhouse, a forgotten temple garden, a simple barn, or possibly a famous cathedral. They make our hearts overflow as does a grove of ancient redwoods or a mountain top sunrise. We know then with certainty that the surroundings we create can and should powerfully move our hearts. They can give deep nourishment to our lives and provide us with concrete visions of what is needed and possible in all our actions. We can, without question, create places with a soul.14
It is time to put heart back into our architecture.
* * *
Cities, too, have personalities and reflect their makers. Present efforts to improve the sustainability of our urban and cultural patterns have so far ignored the vital human and spiritual components of enduring patterns. A city can have the best conceivable design of green space, homes, neighborhoods, efficient transportation, and material- and energy-efficient construction. That does not make it capable of moving our hearts. It is our dreams, our passions, our distinctive cultures and ways of life that give shape to our cities and give them the power to move our hearts and affect our lives. We can live without wealth, but not without love and meaning.
We need places we can love, and enjoy, and about which we can be fervent. We need to rediscover how to make the communities where we live able to raise our passions and move our hearts.
Part of the specialness of places that touch our hearts is the Spirit of Place - those unique qualities - cli mate, geology, history and community of inhabitants that make a place distinctively different from others and which gives root to a unique personality and spirit in its inhabitants.
Think of the "Paradise Gardens" of Isfahan in the desert. Remember the incredible water and temple systems of the Khmers, harnessing river floods to supply water for a sustainable agriculture and tying it into the cosmology of their beliefs. Consider the Winter Cities of Canada, which have grasped the power of imagery, meaning and emotion of winter living and transformed their communities into wonderful celebrations of winter with ice skating, winter festivals, skiing, snowmobiling and sled dog races.
And think of the enduring wonder which graces a village like Amien or Mt. St. Michael in France, where a quest for expression of the exultation of life and creation transformed an entire community into a magical manifestation of that power.
The power of place can also arise from layer after layer of everyday acts of everyday people. Many towns and villages have an evening tradition of the "passerada", where people gather in outdoor cafes and in the squares and enjoy the spectacle of the young and old eyeing each other, making overtures, beginning and renewing friendships. Amish villages and farm country show an indelible mark of their nurture of life, as do Swiss mountain villages where traditions of vibrant flower boxes in every window have evolved, giving a special spirit to even the simplest village.
Love of a place can even evolve invisibly out of our act of belonging to it. When founding a new village, Native Americans would bury a rock during their ceremonies of founding. The rock would not necessarily be in the middle of the planned village, or a special rock, or prominently visible. It was importantly, however, a mark of relationship. It said, "In this place we will live. Our lives will be centered here, and we will see the universe and our surroundings from this point. Our lives here are a connection with this place." And out of that commitment arose a sense of connection with a meaningful, valued and loved place. In a related way, the great cities of China have been built upon an image of the cosmos, the nation, nature, and our place within it, which gives unique and potent meaning to the lives of their inhabitants.
Our lives are sustained in being moved by the places where we live and visit. The power of those places evokes a similar will to self-esteem, to dreaming great dreams, and to the will to achieve them. We can transform our communities into something which draws forth the love of residents and visitors alike - in the physical fabric of the city, in the celebrations it supports and nurtures, and the way of life it empowers.
A community which lives only for the greed of commerce and consumption does not enjoy itself, and does not enjoy life. It has no great passions, and dreams only small dreams. Such a community has not learned the incredible drama of life of which we are part, and is not capable of creating sustaining bonds within itself, with its neighbors, and with the natural world in which it is embedded.
It is human passions and failings, dreams and hardship, that dominate the spirit of place of cities and give them the power to arouse our feelings and our will to maintain, refine, and enrich them, and to ensure their life into the future.
Make our communities places to love. That is the sustaining force of life. When we have communities we are passionate about and which nurture our souls, we will want them to endure. With that love, we will seek and assure the changes in infrastructure, land use, building practices and patterns of living essential to that survival.
38755 Reed Rd
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© May 1994
See "The Hidden Cost of Housing",
Tom Bender. RAIN, Mar-Apr. 1984. Reprinted in UTNE READER, Summer 1984;
SUN TIMES, Nov.-Dec. 1984; ALTERNATIVE PRESS ANNUAL, 1984.
See also, "Building Real Wealth", Bender. Top award winning entry in the 1993 AIA/UIA "Sustainable Community Solutions" International Competition. Excerpted in THE HEART OF PLACE, Bender, 1994.
"Buddhist Economics", E.F.
Schumacher. Available in SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, E.F. Schumacher; ENVIRONMENTAL
DESIGN PRIMER, Bender, 1973; or STEPPING STONES, deMoll and Coe, 1978.
4 See "New Values" in SHARING SMALLER PIES, Bender, 1975. Reprinted in RAIN, April 1975; NEW AGE JOURNAL, Nov. 1975; THE FUTURIST, 1976; RESETTLING AMERICA, Gary Coates, 1981; UTNE READER, Fall 1987.
5 See PARADIGMS IN PROGRESS, Hazel Henderson, 1991, for overview of full-costing mechanisms.
6 THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE, Paul Hawken, 1993.
7 See, for example, Rocky Mountain Institute and Center for Living Waters publications, and "Vitality and Affordability of Higher Education", Bender, 1993.
8 "Time and Place", THE HEART OF PLACE, Bender, 1993.
9 "Building with a Heart", THE HEART OF PLACE, Bender, 1993.
10 ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN PRIMER, Bender, 1973; and THE HEART OF PLACE, above.
11 "Assessing the Significance of the Geo-Arts", Henry Dorst, I.C.E.R. Journal, Fall-Winter 1992.
12 THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE, Hawken.
13 "Transforming Tourism", Bender, EARTH ETHICS, Summer
14 "Making Sacred Places", Bender, in THE POWER OF PLACE, James Swan, ed. 1991; and "Towards a Sacred Society", Bender, URBAN ECOLOGY, Spring 1993.