VALUING THE SACRED IN THE CITY
‘The teachings of our elders are not about the past but about the future.’ Douglas Cardinal, Indigenous elder, philosopher, architect and city planner
In the twilight pre 2020s, climate and inequality crises loom. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 will require reassessing what we value and how we attribute value. The notion of ‘sacred value’ is instructive for cities, which are key sites of societal transition.
Sacred values are visceral. They are tied to humanity and all life, rather than religion. They include: freedom, health, nature, equality, trust, participation, honour, and justice. They reflect rights to voice, difference, and human flourishing; and rights of nature and future generations. Sacred values hold transcendental significance. They are often non-negotiable and protected from trade-offs with non-sacred values (e.g. money), because they tap into ethical principles. People are sometimes willing to die for sacred values. Following are four civic dimensions.
The site is to the city what the cell is to the body. Each land parcel merits care – not merely for its ‘highest and best use’ (non-sacred value), but for its sacred value contribution. Questions arise: Could accounting rules change to recognize rights of nature and thereby strengthen community and disaster resilience and create regenerative infrastructure and practices? Should urban street trees, aquifers and other ecosystem assets be on the balance sheets of cities?
Manifesting past, present and future in cities means embedding wisdom of ancestors, nourishment of people living now, and rights of future generations. Regulating for ‘seven generation cities’ would require that we were answerable today as ancestors of the future. This would strengthen capacity to think long- term, raise expectations, reveal imaginaries of future possibilities, and write new narratives about what cities can be.
Agency is the power of all people to co-create society. Everyday expressions include collective cooking, making and repairing, bicycle sharing, etc. Agency extends to human-nature collaborations such as gardening, stream-daylighting and re-naturalizing formerly paved space. Agency also entails the right to escape in the city -- to be anonymous and not under surveillance. Collective agency is sometimes expressed in ‘right to the city’ charters.
City-building is about managing our co-existence in shared space. It fosters inclusivity if we understand the city as a commons where people care for resources and each other and ‘make kin’ with all forms of life. By designing for practical participation – in libraries, public squares and other civic commons, we can build social infrastructure for everyday community resilience as well as times of crisis.
City-building reflects values and how we attribute and extract value. A sacred value lens begs questions like: Can ‘smart’ cities foster equality, public trust, regenerative design, and biophilia? What are the technologies and systems financing tools required to value what is sacred? Are we building physical, digital and social infrastructures such that children in seven generations will thrive in green and just cities? How are Indigenous wisdom, intercultural worldviews and artists inspiring and shaping visions of possibility for future cities?
If we are to be good ancestors, we must see beyond the daunting limitations of current city-building and co-create paradigms for a new sacred civics.