Sacred Civics

Some Thoughts on Valuing the Sacred in the City

I wrote the following short essay in July 2019, as part of “Some Thoughts:” a collection of about 100 short essays, pulled together by Nasma Ahmed, Matthew Claudel, Zahra Ebrahim, Christopher Pandolfi, and Bianca Wylie. This collection is neither a project of philanthropy, nor of any organization, which is part of its power. It is a project which was informally put together in the aftermath of the Sidewalk Labs proposal for the Toronto waterfront in the summer of 2019. Five people decided to invite about 100 others to contribute short, standalone pieces regarding a policy, strategy, idea or practice that could expand the current conversation about cities. We all contributed as people — there is no organizational affiliation associated with the project. The result is a delightful and powerful mixture of thoughts, worldviews and ways of seeing, organized around “tables,” understood as groupings that might lend themselves well to dinner conversation. Some Thoughts is a convening of sorts that aims to make space for more collaboration and conversation in the future as we collectively think about how we (re)build our cities in this age of great transition. (Disclosure note: one of the organizers, Matthew Claudel, was a McConnell Cities for People Fellow with us in summer 2019). From that perspective, I wonder in future what the role of philanthropy could be in further opening this kind of space for collective dialogue and action? Thoughts and suggestions welcome!

‘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.

1. Space

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?

2. Time

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.

3. Agency

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.

4. Togetherness

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.

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