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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Reinventing Cities as Sacred Landscape: An Eco-centric View of Infrastructure Renewal

Presented by Dennis Winters and Roberto Chiotti at the 5th Annual Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality – Glastonbury Abbey, 2013

Urban transportation infrastructure based on half-century old planning and technology is approaching obsolescence requiring significant investment of resources. Reformulating the nature of spiritual experience and its relationship to the urban landscape provides dramatic opportunities to restructure cities to improve quality of life with long-term, cost-effective capital and operational expenditure. Thomas Berry’s imperative to achieve a more mutually beneficent relationship between humans and the rest of creation and the Six Signs of Sacred Landscapes provide a foundation and qualitative index for designing and evaluating cities to enhance the quality of urban life.

Historical precedence for natural/spiritual based urban design had important environmental ramifications. While reacting against exploitation, they gave expression to natural qualities and features underlying sacred landscapes where people were drawn for spiritual renewal and clearly sensed significant values of landscape. Shinto was called the ‘way of the kami’, referring to ‘a sense of the mystic rules of nature’. Prince Shotoku, of 7th century Japan, said:

We are told that our imperial ancestors, in governing the nation, bent humbly under heaven and walked softly on earth. They venerated the kami of heaven and earth, and established shrines on the mountains and by the rivers, whereby they were in constant touch with the power of nature. Hence the winter and summer elements (yin and yang) were kept in harmony, and their creative powers blended together. And now during our reign, it would be unthinkable to neglect the veneration of the kami of heaven and earth

Reinventing cities

The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.

Our two case studies in Toronto and Montreal originated as transportation infrastructure renewal proposals of symbiotic human-earth relationships articulated by cultural historian Thomas Berry. Based upon his ‘New Cosmology,’ our approaches forfeited anthropocentrism; instead we took the wellbeing of natural systems as primary and human needs as derivative.

Berry’s cosmogenesis presented a dynamic and continuously unfolding universe as a communion of subjects sharing a common genetic lineage (not a collection of disparate objects) that burst forth fourteen and a half billion years ago. Having psychic-spiritual dimensions, the evolution of human consciousness enabled the universe to reflect upon itself as an expression of unbound wonder and reverence for its diversity of life and existence. Berry suggested that the fecundity of the natural world provided the primary revelatory experience of divinity, inspiring a functional cosmology of mutually enhancing relationships among humans and the earth community.

Landscape design with such accord means no less than caring and maintaining a spiritual relationship with landscape, intimately woven with beauty. Sustainability, spirituality and aesthetics – spoken with the same breath. The 1992 Rio de Janeiro International NGO Forum Preamble to The Earth Charter stated:

The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust. The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature.

To transform Thomas Berry’s cosmology into physical form and space, we reinvented Toronto and Montreal through an Eco-centric View of Infrastructure Renewal, adopting the Six Signs of Sacred Landscape for grounding. Abiding by their prescriptions enabled spiritual experience to become tangible as form and space, offering a barometer to assess physical, mental, emotional and spiritual attributes of landscape.

Case study one: ‘Parkway of Least Resistance’, Don Valley, Toronto

Indigenous cultures viewed the lakeshore and ravines to be sacred space; with the Don River, the central of Toronto’s main three waterways, carrying the city’s subtle life force into the largest marshland of the Great Lakes. The warm waters of Toronto’s 'Inner Harbour' were considered sacred landscapes of healing.

However, Toronto planners and developers obviated traditional beliefs, filled the lakeshore, channelized the river and constructed continual six-lane highways through the river valley and along the lakeshore. Today, the Don Valley Parkway is an outdated and dysfunctional mode of transportation, constructed when rotary telephones and long distance operators represented state of the art technology.

Equivalent to modernizing communication systems, we believe it necessary to challenge current views and conflicts among land and water uses of the urban river valley, eliminate these obsolete transportation modes and establish visionary systems based on symbiotic ‘big picture systems thinking’ with transit as one of many planning components.

Following the voice of the river, we offered radically new proposals for movement patterns and connections beyond the year 2040. We established mutually acceptable accords between highway location and the natural systems critical to the city’s long-term viability: economic strength, social well being, ecological fertility, good health and well being. Our proposals for movement, patterns and connections with the Don Valley included:

  1. Removing cars and trucks from the existing DVP roadway
  2. Reconfiguring the existing roadway for public transit and trail systems
  3. Creating new, state-of-circa-2040 engineering 'auto' connections to the 401 and the Lakeshore on existing city road corridors, including portions of the Bayview Extension
  4. Transforming the Don Valley tributary systems into a natural system from the Portlands to the 401 worthy of national urban park designation, with continual access for Toronto citizens.

Case study two: ‘Creating a New Cosmology from Trudeau Airport to Downtown Montreal’ for the YUL – MTL Motorway Competition (with landscape architect Julie Perreault)

After Montréal was officially designated a UNESCO City of Design, an international ideas competition was held to revision the 17 km highway linking Trudeau Airport with Downtown Montréal. Wretched for a UNESCO – awarded city, the route is embroidered with a quodlibet of overpasses, shipping container storage lots and abandoned rail yards in a rubble of dire straits.

To best serve the island and the rest of Canada, landscape architect Julie Perreault and I designed the YUL-MTL Corridor as a living spine (in need of more than chakra rebalancing) to deal with generations of ill-conceived anachronistic infrastructure; and designed Montréal as sacred landscape, reviving a cosmological framework woven by mountain–water–sky to adeptly rejuvenate Montréal as physical–mental–emotional–spiritual form and space.

Montreal’s auspicious setting grounded the design, owing to its sacred quality of location near the conjunction of the St. Lawrence – Ottawa River, with Mont-Royale as one of the region's nine sister granitic intrusions. We gave clarity to urban form and space by reconfiguring the airport, relocating the Trans-Canada Highway, and reintroducing agriculture and green space to define urbanity. We removed existing highways, locating and structuring them with design simplicity high above ground, allowing continuous interplay of agriculture, recreation and green space. Intersections became clear objects of significance, with changes of direction given exclamation, as when making way through sacred landscape.

At the singular place on the corridor where Mont-Royal actually is visible – on the east terminal entry ramp – we relocated the entire terminal so Trudeau Airport and Mont-Royal could flirt with each other. We transformed the irregular airport boundary into a clearly defined circle; from the air, you knew you had arrived at a particular place. We curved the highway corridor with ‘Context Sensitive Design’ for next generation Maglev-type vehicles, 70kph roundabout interchanges and highway salt treatment marshes, embracing the Airport, Mont-Royal, the St. Lawrence River and canals.


Cities draw great power from the lands, waters and skies, especially if located and designed as sacred landscape. Urban vitality increases exponentially by taking advantage of the potent life forces emanating from sources of power.