By Linda Dottor
Reimagining religious buildings begins with realizing what you already have.
Imagine a culinary incubator for “foodie-preneurs,” affordable housing with a day program for seniors, a Night Market showcasing healthy food and live music, a women’s self-defense training center or a basketball clinic where both kids and adults can raise their game.
These are just some of the ideas that came out of three community task force meetings hosted through the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces initiative. The goal? To envision community-oriented programs that can co-exist - and actually enhance - the worship spaces, administration offices and Sunday schools typically found in sacred places.
A Collaborative Design Challenge
Through Sacred Places/Civic Spaces, the Community Design Collaborative and Partners for Sacred Places matched congregations with community groups and design teams to inspire new ideas and models for growing sacred places as civic spaces. They invited congregations, community groups and design teams to apply.
“There are no easy answers,” says Heidi Segall Levy, director of design services for the Community Design Collaborative. “Historic sacred places have their own unique set of challenges including aging infrastructure, lack of accessibility and both large and small underutilized spaces. That’s why this process brought together congregations, community and design teams to pool their collective knowledge on what could be possible. The congregations were interested in a new approach and the design teams were intrigued by the opportunities.”
In June 2018, three congregations, each paired with a community-based organization, were selected and matched with three multi-disciplinary design teams. Together, they began the design challenge with in-depth tours of the site, gathering important information for the next step in the design process.
Mapping a Community’s Strengths
“Asset mapping is a group exercise with people from different walks of life and interests. Their common bond is that they each have something to offer - their perspective, enthusiasm, connections, support, curiosity and creativity. They work together to identify specific strengths and resources within the community,” explains Joshua Castaño, director of community engagement services for Partners for Sacred Places.
In July, Sacred Places/Civic Spaces brought together leaders and members of the congregations, neighborhood residents, local schools, community-based nonprofits, designers, real estate professionals, public agencies and elected officials for community task force meetings. Over 50 people attended each meeting.
The meetings began with a site tour and conditions assessment to give everyone a basic grounding in the sacred places. Then attendees broke into asset mapping groups led by Partners for Sacred Places.
A Sense of Discovery
Asset mapping encourages participants to venture beyond the concrete (organizations, infrastructure and buildings) to identify their own gifts - of knowledge, skills and heart - and to tell stories that shed light on each community. Unlike traditional planning, asset-based community development focuses on the good things already in place, the gifts and talents of the people in the community and the stewardship of relationships between them.
As each group shared their ideas, the power of asset mapping to foster original thinking was clear. Each group’s proposals reflected a deep sense of place and community. Assets were called out, written down on sticky notes and put up on the wall. The second step was to rearrange these assets to reveal new ways they could be connected or combined into a program and vision that bore the unique stamp of the community.
Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, says, “I love this approach. There’s a sense of discovery. You see people making connections - between each other and the assets their community has in place.”
Beth Miller, executive director for the Community Design Collaborative, adds, “This work will yield ideas and models for sacred places as civic spaces both citywide and nationally.”