So far, the study includes quite a few denominations:
There was no strategic choice to look at these types of churches. They are simply what presented themselves when I had an occasional free moment to stop, but the breakdown probably represents the area well.
As a rule, there was not much of a pattern between denominations as to how they treated their grounds and landscaping. Other variables seemed far more influential, such as the apparent wealth of the congregation and the presence of a school or pre-school. And, as we will see below, what their development context was.
Where were they?
There were fairly clear patterns between urban, suburban, and rural churches. Being 21st Century America, nearly all of them unavoidably had parking, although some urban churches clearly depended on public on-street parking.
Urban churches were more likely to be built wall to wall, as it were: every bit of the property was in use as buildings, parking, walkways, and service areas. Some had cemeteries filling all of the unbuilt ground, while others had zero unbuilt ground, with the same result: no room for anything else.
Some urban churches had memorial spaces and charming plantings, while others did nothing special with their “leftover” space: turf, weeds, overgrown shrubs, and maintenance yards. These looked like missed opportunities, especially for the churches that looked like they had more resources at their disposal.
Urban churches also tended to have fences. One might infer that they have had problems with trespassing, but the fences often looked very unfriendly and exclusionary. That might be a fence’s function, but it seems at odds with a church’s mission. Of course, there probably is more to it than that.
Suburban churches tended to have large, paved parking lots, usually designed and built to modern expectations. Most localities now require plantings in islands in parking lots, but those plantings are often pretty ineffective.
Several suburban churches had real playground equipment that was very visible to the public but sometimes fenced off from public use. Many suburban churches had an outbuilding (or several), presumably for maintenance equipment and supplies, but perhaps also for general storage.
Most suburban churches had lots of turf; sometimes, acres and acres of it, with no apparent recreational or aesthetic use. The cost in time, funding, fertilizer, pesticides, and so on must be quite burdensome, and in my opinion, usually unnecessary. Depending on local ordinances, much of it could be allowed to revert to wildflower meadows, which could become valued features. But I digress.
Suburban churches tended also to put more attention on plantings. Some of these plantings were quite attractive and effective and probably would have year-round interest, but most plantings were just predictable evergreen globes along the foundation, with limited ornamental benefit. Management of the plantings varied: some were clearly well kept, but others were obviously being ignored. Given that these observations were during the COVID shutdown, we can expect that it was an "out of sight, out of mind" situation.
Rural churches tended to have little more than parking lots and minimal plantings. It was easy to think that they relied on the beauty of the forests and fields around them, rather than beautifying their own properties.
Many rural churches had a picnic shelter and/or a tot lot, usually with the cheaper plastic toys. Several with larger, flatter properties had softball diamonds, usually very basic but probably serviceable despite minimal maintenance.
Those 80 windshield surveys were focused mostly on land use and landscape design issues, but more site issues will deserve attention going forward.
Most churches intend and expect to be welcoming to everybody, but architectural barriers can undercut that intention.
Universal accessibility is both valuable and important to how a church lives out its mission. The buildings or grounds should not exclude people with special needs from the fellowship they need with God and in His church. But accessibility also can be challenging, especially in the rolling and hilly terrains of southwest Virginia.
America has taken accessibility quite seriously since enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, so by now most church buildings and grounds have either been built to or retrofitted to meet the ADA’s guidelines, in some specific ways.
A handful of churches in the study seemed to have barriers without alternatives; the buildings looked older, and the churches appeared to have limited resources to make the improvements.
Another level of accessibility is called “mainstreaming”, in which people with disabilities take the same routes as everybody else, as opposed to taking a ramp around the stairway or having to go in a special door to get to the elevator.
In southwest Virginia, from October to March, the sun rises late and sets early, so that any church events and activities that happen after 5pm (a.k.a., after work) will be in the dark unless the church lights things up. Some localities include minimum lighting standards in their site development ordinances, but those will only apply when a site plan or building permit is needed.
Lighting can be valuable for safety, security, convenience, and comfort.
And tied to all of those are the issue of liability. Your insurance carrier can advise you on your exposure if a lack of lighting contributes to someone getting injured or being victimized.
A few ideas and design concepts, mostly unique to churches.