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October 16, 2008

Public Spaces as Sacred, Healing Spaces

Tom and Kitty Stoner show imagination and courage in creating scores of "sacred havens" in major cities.

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Tom and Kitty Stoner accidentally learned the power of community gardens as a place apart in London when they happened upon a small, quiet patch of green near Hyde Park. Impressed by the sense of serenity in the noisy, threatening urban landscape, they started a foundation to help create more than 120 public places in Maryland and neighboring states. They have spent more than $7 million to date creating sacred havens in mostly poor sections of cities such as Baltimore.

As recounted by Anne Ravner in the New York Times (10/16/08), the Stoners realized they wanted to create places that “transform you, where you are willing to give yourself up.” One of the key elements in designing such places, reports Ravner, is making the places “an active part of the surrounding community, and open to anyone, without locked gates.” Most are in low-income neighborhoods, where peaceful open spaces are rare.” Partners in building the spaces must contribute some of their own money or in-kind services.

The Times article describes how the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in east Baltimore built the Amazing Port Street Sacred Commons on a site that once had abandoned houses used by drug dealers. Ravner writes:

As more people began to use the Commons, the dealers went elsewhere and drug users started clearing up after themselves. “One day, two of them were sitting on the bench, just drinking their beer,” [a resident] said. “When they left, one of them threw his bottle down and the other guy said, No, we don’t do that here.”

The Stoners have collected the stories of their journey to create healing public spaces into a new book, Open Spaces, Sacred Spaces, published by the TKF Foundation of Annapolis, Maryland.