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Sacred Placemaking and Urban Policy: The Case of Tepoztlán, Mexico


Sacred places – ranging from religious to secular structures, human created or natural areas, or places with ritual, symbolic, or cultural significance - are rarely addressed by urban planners but are sources of great meaning for many communities. One reason for this neglect is the inherent difficulty in measuring the value and meaning of place for different individuals or groups. This research focused on this challenge by using ethnographic field research methods to gain an in-depth understanding of how people view and interact with sacred places in their community. The case study site of Tepoztlán is an urbanizing pueblo in central Mexico where sacred places play a significant role in daily life, rituals, and festivals and urban forms facilitate these interactions. I asked how sacred meaning was ascribed to places in Tepoztlán, how the built environment impacted behavior around these spaces, how communities preserved sacred places, and the impacts of urbanization on preservation efforts. Findings derived from 53 interviews and three months of field observations revealed five themes characteristic of sacred placemaking in Tepoztlán, including intricate patterns of neighborhood exchange, intergenerational beliefs in sacred mountains, collectivism, pedestrian oriented design, and community involvement in construction of the built environment. Indigenous placemaking is then contrasted with two top-down urban development policies that changed the character of the town and threatened sacred places and placemaking. A tourism program called Pueblos Mágicos [Magical Towns] and expansion of the Pera-Cuautla freeway have degraded and commodified sacred sites and perpetuated unequal distribution of development benefits. The research discusses how employing different views of people-environment interactions beyond dominant Western views can help planners to better understand and plan for preservation of meaningful spaces and in turn preserve and enhance community identity, culture, and self-sufficiency.

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