Human Settlements and Spirituality

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 20:31
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Ethics    Topic: Human Settlements and Spirituality

Human beings are a social species, and naturally cluster in communities of various sizes from extended families to mega-cities. These human settlements are not simply physical concentrations of people engaged in various material and economic activities, they have significant social, cultural and even spiritual functions that must be considered in any programme for human settlements.

At the heart of any community must be some unity of purpose, and this unity results from applying some basic principles of community life. Consultation and participation allow everyone to express their needs and desires.

Respect for all components of the community, including its minorities, and encouragement for the expression of a diversity of perspectives, provides a broad foundation for united action.

The community is the most appropriate unit for implementing principles of solidarity and concern for the poor and handicapped. The Bahá'í concept of community includes a democratically elected administrative council, a regular town meeting where everyone can express their views, and a financial mechanism supported by various revenues, including a graduated income tax after basic needs are met, providing social services so that no one is left in poverty, and so that farmers, for instance, have their costs covered even in bad years. Everyone should receive the education and training necessary to contribute to society, and the community must give everyone the opportunity to use those skills in service to the whole.

The spiritual dimension of human settlements planning cannot be neglected. Coming together to worship is as important to community life as coming together to buy and sell. Just as a temple, church or mosque has often been a traditional centre of community activity, so Bahá'ís see the community of the future as having a place of worship in the centre where those of every faith can gather for prayer before going about their daily occupations. Around this will be various institutions of social service: schools and university, hospice, hospital, home for the aged, orphanage, etc. The material form of the community would thus reflect its spiritual and social realities.

A major issue for human settlements is the appropriate scale of human concentration. Over-crowding at high density is known to produce behavioural abnormalities. Many aspects of healthy community life operate best at a smaller, more "human" scale, as expressed in the natural formation of neighbourhoods in large cities when the infrastructure permits. Now that information and communications technologies have provided new mechanisms for human organization, it is time to rethink the optimal size of human settlements in the light of their social and cultural as well as economic functions. The distributed nature of many renewable energy resources, for instance, might suggest a more distributed and decentralized pattern of human settlements as well.

The future of human settlements that succeed in meeting the economic, social, cultural and religious needs of their inhabitants must lie in achieving a better balance between the material and spiritual in their physical design and political and social organization. Only then will the settlements be transformed into truly sustainable communities.


Based on an IEF statement "Sustainable Human Settlements - An Integrated Approach" to the 12th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, April 2004

Article last updated 3 April 2006

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