Over my 60 years, I have moved around enough to have been part of 8 different churches, with only 2 in the same denomination. The beauty of this background has been finding people in each group who honestly were seeking after God.
As a youth and then as an adult and a landscape architect, I often have been involved in helping to care for the church’s grounds. Most of the work was mundane: mowing, raking, pruning, and so on. Seldom did we take the time to do much more. We were volunteers, after all.
That history also fostered a curiosity about patterns in landscape design around churches. For a long time, I saw that a lot of church landscapes were mediocre (at best), but I did not zoom in on the issue.
Finally, in the second half of 2020, I took the time to do a sweeping study of churches all over the Roanoke region, to study the landscapes and land use in their churchyards. So far, it adds up to 80 churches in over a dozen denominations. The study was mostly windshield surveys of what was apparent to a careful observer, without going into great detail or meeting with anyone from that church. I also studied a few in Charleston, SC while I was vacationing near there.
Some very clear patterns emerged.
About 80% of the churches in the study had only the barest minimum of landscaping: mostly turf, some foundation plantings, and maybe a few trees. Usually, most of the church’s property was occupied by the building and parking, with a walkway to the main entrance, sometimes with a flourish of plantings around the entrance. Sometimes the entrance plantings were the only plantings on the entire property.
That’s fine. Simplicity can be lovely, and nobody wants to overwork the volunteers. But as often as not, plantings were poorly designed, under-maintained, and weedy, with misshapen shrubs and foliage blocking walkways, doorways, and windows.
And then there’s all that turf! Several churches probably spend a lot of time and money just on almost keeping up with the mowing.
Further, many of these churches did very little to screen views of their mechanical equipment, trash cans, and similar items.
On the other hand, quite a few of these sparsely landscaped churches had spaces outdoors where people could socialize casually before and after services, even if that space was just a very wide walkway to the main entrance - effectively, a plaza.
About 20% of the churches had a playground or tot lot. Some of these church playgrounds had play structures suitable for any public park: designed to meet modern safety guidelines, with proper safety surfacing underneath, and fenced in to help the adults keep track of the kids. But that same fencing often also made the playground seem unwelcoming to the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, most church tot lots had only the cheap plastic toys available from any big box store, and often the toys were strewn about with the result of looking, well, trashy.
Not surprisingly, the type of playground generally seemed dependent on the size and apparent wealth in the church, and on whether the church had its own pre-school or private school.
Just a few churches went a little further, adding what we could call “landscapes of meaning”, in two categories.
Memorial spaces included graveyards, memorial gardens, columbaria, and variations. Cemeteries were common in both rural areas and older urban churchyards, but not in suburban settings. Most of these spaces had some seating among the headstones, crypts, and vaults.
Meditation spaces included contemplation gardens, labyrinths, rose gardens, Bible gardens, and so on as places for quiet thinking. These were usually tucked out of the way where they might be insulated from activities and noises. In addition to seating, they usually had fountains, statuary, or other artwork.
Each type of space generally was associated with churches that seemed fairly prosperous, either now or at some earlier time. The meditation gardens and some columbaria often had labels indicating donors. Most of these spaces were maintained quite well, but some suffered from benign neglect.
Two churches went in still another direction: vegetable gardens. They committed grounds and funding so that volunteers could grow fresh produce for people in need in their local communities. They partnered with local food pantries for distribution of the produce. The gardens were not hidden from the public eye but were not very obvious either.
Where does your church fit in these tiers?
Do you have some features not described?
Does your church have something special that you want to share?
We would love to hear your thoughts and observations.
What differences can we see between urban churches versus suburban churches versus rural churches?