Creating Open & Sacred Spaces To Improve Health

Jan 21, 2015, 7:23 PM

In 1995, Tom Stoner and his wife Kitty discovered a tiny urban park in the middle of a busy London neighborhood that had been used as a refuge during World War II. On the backs of many of the park’s benches, the Stoners found loving thoughts and peacetime memories that had been etched by Londoners during the horrors of war. They realized that if an urban park could be a source of quiet and solace during a time of bombing and destruction, then similar natural environments could certainly offer spaces for reflection, recovery and respite for people dealing with the stress of modern life. With that idea the Stoners created the TKF Foundation to support the creation of urban green spaces.

“The speed, violence and alienation that characterize our current period in human history create an important need for open spaces, sacred places,” says Tom Stoner.

In 2010 Tom and Kitty began the National Nature Sacred Awards Initiative, designed to support the creation of public greenspaces to serve as demonstration and research sites to study the impact of nature on the human spirit. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Tom Stoner about the intersection of green space and improved health and lives.  

Tom’s thoughts are transcribed below, and lightly edited for clarity and length.


Tom Stoner: When my wife Kitty and I came up with this idea of creating Open Spaces Sacred Places they were intended to be places of solace, refuge and community, particularly for people dealing with high levels of stress. Even 20 some-odd years ago, we felt that the whole country was becoming more stressed.

At that point, I had spent my whole life in the media business. I knew many people spent so much of their time watching television and listening to the radio, because that’s the business I was in. At the same time, the American population was spreading out into the suburbs, and individuals were not supporting their neighbors as they used to do. I felt that as a nation we needed some place to bring people together, and spaces for people to individually reflect during what has become a very hectic time.

If that reality was true 22 years ago, it is on steroids today. If you look at the use of drugs prescribed for stress you see the numbers going straight up in terms of their sales, which is a great indicator of what has happened. And then, of course, the cellphone has in many ways connected us, but also separated us from our human interaction.

So, what started as a small effort to create these kinds of spaces has really grown. Early on our partners included regional community organizations, hospitals - and in some cases - business organizations. We’ve funded the creation of more than a hundred greenspaces across the country.

While initially we planned to simply create places of respite in a busy world, today we have built an effort designed to create places of healing. We certainly didn’t start out that way, but the healing aspect of our urban spaces now plays a central role. I would say more than 90% of the grants we have funded have been made to people who want to find a place in nature to heal.

One of the most interesting examples is the green roof labyrinth, which is right behind Union Station in Washington, D.C. The labyrinth is a partnership between the World Resource Institute and the American Psychological Association. The American Psychological Association was interested in mental health and the World Resource Institute was interested in greening, and they came together to create this urban space. Thanks to this partnership, today thousands of people, many of whom work inside cubicles, have a green space ten stories up in the air, in which to escape the stresses of daily life in the city.

Now that we’ve created these green spaces, we’re interested in building an evidence base that shows the power of these spaces to heal. We must also connect with others who share in our belief of the healing power of nature so we’re looking to do just that. We’re seeking ways to connect with other foundations and institutions interested in public health so that the healing power of nature can become an integral part of the effort to help individuals live healthier, longer and happier lives.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.