Park Space: Stewardship and Sustainability

Park51, the Community and Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan, plans to be a LEED-certified building. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is the certification (or grading) system most widely recognized for green buildings. LEED-certified buildings take many factors into account, including: energy and water use, site planning, building materials, indoor environmental quality, design innovation and use. According to Nour Mousa, a managing partner of Soho Properties and one of the visionaries behind Park51, the goal is high – Platinum-level certification.

Many people, including Muslims, are unaware that sustainability is fundamental in Islam. The phrase, “the earth is a mosque” is often interpreted to mean that prayer is welcome everywhere (not just in houses of worship). A wider interpretation of this guidance is that the entire Earth deserves to be taken care of as the holy place that sustains us.

Regarding environmental responsibility, Islamic ethics are intrinsic. Ponder the meaning of the following: the universality of God and creation (tawhid), recognizing the signs of God (ayat), respecting the trust (amana) we have with God to be good stewards (khalifa) of the planet, seeking social and environmental justice (adl) and finding balance in nature (mizan). For a more extensive discussion on necessity of caring for the environment from an Islamic perspective, check out Brooklyn native Ibrahim Abdul-Matin’s new book, Green Deen.

Soho Properties (the developers of Park51) intends to make the community center an example for others to follow. Mousa believes that today, it’s crucial for community-focused projects to embrace sustainability. According to Urban Green Council, the Park51 building will be in good company. The Battery Park City Authority, also in downtown New York, “embraced the LEED Green Building Rating System early on and now has the greatest concentration of LEED high-rise buildings in the country. It is home to the Solaire, a LEED Gold-certified building, and the first green high-rise residential project in North America.” The developers of Park51 recognize that while there are additional costs involved in green building, these are made up over time through energy savings, tax incentives, and other means. What is important is how the building affects those who use it and those who live and work near it.

When talking about sustainability, it is easy to get caught up in energy use, carbon output, water flows, and nontoxic and recycled building materials. What often gets overlooked is how creating green within can sustain the community of people without. Currently, many worthwhile programs (Sustainable South Bronx, for example) train people for “green jobs.” But with construction still limited in New York City, graduates have few opportunities to use these skills. Park51 will create 150 full-time jobs and innumerable part time hours.

Additionally, one of the first projects to begin (before construction happens) will involve support for victims of domestic violence and family counseling. This program will be open to people from all over New York City (not just Muslims), easing a heavy burden from both government and nonprofit agencies in the area. Financial sustainability is another concern. Mousa suggests that even in the economic crisis, Jewish and Christian models of community centers are thriving around the country. The Park51 project is not unique in its model – it follows in the footsteps of the YMCA and YM/YWHA, along with secular community centers, such as Asphalt Green. What is different is the location and the foundational faith. The need is great in both. The intention is for Park51 to meet those needs, and in a manner that is responsible to the Earth and to the communities. Don’t be surprised to see work similar to Green Faith coming out of Park51.

Check back for updates as the project takes shape.

Peace and blessings.

Chris Turner works in the development department of a major Manhattan church and worships with a Dervish community. He founded and manages the Palestine Fair Trade Alliance to create international market opportunities for Palestinian artisans and craft workers. Chris recently received his MA in Sustainable Business and Communities from Goddard College and is now looking into PhD programs.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Park51.

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