The compassionate city

Jenny Donovan

‘We shape our cities, and afterwards our cities shape us', to paraphrase Winston Churchill. In this he eloquently drew a line between the built characteristics of our surroundings and the social outcomes they point towards. Winston would no doubt feel vindicated though maybe not pleased to see his assertion backed up by a wealth of research that connects particular built-form characteristics with high levels of stress, the propensity to be active and social stigma, amongst other things.1 These bring with them real and largely predictable problems that stifle lives. These include greater vulnerability to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, mental health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence.2 The causes of these ills are many and their interplay complex, and they extend far beyond urban design. However, as Sharon Friel has observed, ‘there is a reciprocal relationship between urban social conditions and the built environment’.3

An important factor to note is that the geography of these disadvantages concentrates their impacts on some whilst sparing others almost completely. For those adversely affected, the impacts can echo through generations as children grow up with less personal, family or community experience of attainment or opportunity. They are often exposed to high levels of crime and the evidence of the world around them can suggest no alternative but to resign themselves to a diminished life.4 They are further separated from positive experiences and more exposed to negative ones that model shorter, less healthy, more isolated and more stressful lives.5 They are denied an equal opportunity to explore and expand their abilities, to develop their latent skills and realise raw talents. Thus they are denied a fair shot at fulfilment and we are all denied their social contribution.

This is a tragedy and injustice of the highest order. Yet such deprivation seems endemic in our towns and cities, despite the tireless commitment of many civically minded people in government and society who have sought to address the problem. I would like to suggest a way of looking at the problem and potentially help to address it by changing the messages we (often unwittingly) embed in the built environment.  

As I see it, when we design, build, manage, occupy or even just pass through a place, we change it. Whether we are conscious of it or not, these changes can embellish, adorn, colour, tint or taint that place in the eyes of the people who share it. These differences provoke an emotional response and influence the people who receive them to see and use a place in particular ways, making it more or less appealing for particular activities. Some of these messages will be subtle, whispered and hinted to us by designed characteristics that gently encourage or deter certain choices (Figure 1). Some of the messages will be anything but subtle, shouted at us with menace by hard edges such as barriers, gates and strictly enforced rules that enforce or prohibit what we experience and where we go. When we embed these messages in the built environment, either through conscious design of physical places, by the rules we enforce, or by our behaviours in these places, we bias that place and play a part in framing the range of experiences that others enjoy, endure or miss out on that, over time, will affect the trajectory of their lives.

Some people are fortunate enough to enjoy surroundings that invite them to enjoy a wide choice of inspiring and interesting ‘people’ and ‘place’ experiences that they can easily move between as they wish as their needs change (for example, when they become tired or hungry). Their surroundings invite them to walk, they make them feel safe and comfortable and assist them to get to places that they value—that matter to them—without causing problems for others. When these places have designed qualities that inspire their inhabitants to challenge and express themselves, they can build a deeper understanding of who they are, their potential and their role in society. The negative experiences of city living, although inescapable, do not dominate, their adverse effects mitigated by the experience of restorative environments that assist them overcome stresses.6 People are likely to be aware that their neighbourhood has these beneficial attributes and be equally aware that other people know that too, and can bask in the awareness that their surroundings reflect well on them. If these experiences have allowed them to acquire positive memories, feel reassured about the people they come across and feel welcomed, they are likely to feel a sense of belonging.

I would say that such a place helps people meet their needs. You might say that these people enjoy nurturing surroundings.

For other people however, the messages they get from their surroundings either overwhelm them or deter them from enjoying nurturing activities by adding an extra layer of difficulty from exposure to risk, confusion and discomfort. For these people, their disadvantages may be compounded by stigma associated with their neighbourhood, whether because of perceptions of crime, poverty, poor taste, lack of intelligence, making them feel their surroundings reflect badly on them, with the closed doors that result from coming from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’.7

If we live in such places, surrounded by messages from our surroundings that say you would be crazy to walk here, best to drive (Figure 3), or stay at home, or saddest of all, other people are your potential enemies, it can take a lot of personal motivation to go for walks, seek to share activities and places, find the emotional, cognitive and physical nourishment that comes from being active and connecting with others. Only the braver and more determined get to enjoy these benefits.

Unfortunately most who live in these neighbourhoods will find that barriers of class, distance, lack of awareness, to say nothing of physical barriers such as busy roads, separate them from these positive environments. Unfortunately it is not enough for our surroundings to just offer healthy, nurturing experiences. Many a town has unused footpaths, abandoned parks, poorly used cycle-ways and poorly attended community events, despite the best intentions and diligence of municipal officers and community workers. If these opportunities are to be taken up, people need to interpret the messages of their surroundings and conclude that it is not only possible to be active, social, to enjoy nature, to learn or to do any of the other things we need to thrive, it needs to be preferable

The truth of it is we human beings are often not good at prioritising our needs.8 Even though we know at one level that getting out and about, having exercise and interacting with people is good for us, if our surroundings make these things difficult, some will overcome the challenges but many will find the physical and social barriers prohibitive. For many, it is easier, feels safer and is way more familiar to stay at home and watch the TV. We choose to drive rather than walk, even when walking is a reasonable alternative.9 We choose indoor screen-based play rather than activity outside. We consume sport on TV rather than playing it ourselves.

That’s where good urban design comes in. Urban designers can intervene in our surroundings to make nurturing behaviours like being active, sharing space and activities, and experiencing nature (amongst other things) more appealing. By weaving in the right qualities, urban design can tilt the balance of influences on our lives so we are more likely to be swayed by the opportunities and want to enjoy these healthy experiences.

This then raises the question: how should designers wield their pens to achieve this outcome? In my book, Designing the Compassionate City, I build a model of human needs and gather together the stories of a number of projects from many countries that have all sought to make places that better help people to meet those needs. These inspiring projects revealed that, in addition to the well-known spatial qualities readers will be familiar with, there are a number of key recurring themes that might play an important role in creating nurturing places. Some of these themes are:

Changing in hearts and minds are as important as those on the ground. The impacts of the messages we get from our surroundings can be changed either by changing the message or the way it is interpreted. Sometimes all that needs to happen is for people to look on their surroundings differently, which can be achieved by giving greater weight and value to the things that facilitate us to meet our needs and diminishing the things that distract or deter us.

Allow buy in. People can achieve great things when they are facilitated to set their minds to the challenges they determine for themselves. Emotional capital, cultivated by the care and passion people have for their surroundings, is unstable and volatile but can be very powerful. Cultivated well with the help of respectful professionals, it can accumulate with successful involvement in meaningful projects. Relying on financial capital, which focuses on ‘big capital’, leaves a legacy of debt and puts the power in the hands of industry where a surplus is almost invariably extracted as profit rather than community benefit.

Design out appropriation. Nurturing places control uses that can overwhelm other uses, seeking to balance uses and minimise intrusion. A good example of appropriation are the busy roads that blight pedestrian life on the adjacent sidewalks, and an example of overcoming it are the woonerfs of the Netherlands that cater for vehicles but don’t allow them to dominate the street, allowing play, socialisation and nature to escape the private domain (Figure 4). 

Create adornable public spaces. These are spaces that serve a core purpose and contribute to our amenity just by being there, such as footpaths, parks, squares, street furniture etc., but they can provide us with a further level of delight and interest when they are adorned by people; for example, features that invite children to play, that invite adults to stay long enough to bump into someone else they know, that are enlivened by smiles, laughs, artworks and just by occupation by others (Figure 5).

Finally think ‘legacy’. Cities are complex biological and physical systems that are acted upon by many people with many different agendas to take the city in a certain direction. Sometimes these forces leave people with a sense of powerlessness and eroded self-esteem that comes from being unable to meaningfully help their self, family or community. With care we can change this momentum and foster self-worth by giving people compelling evidence that walking, cycling, engaging with others is fun, and by empowering them with new skills and insights so their ‘islands of competence’ might grow and coalesce; in this way, offering experience of overcoming new challenges.

As you can probably see, these ideas don’t fit easily into the silos of policy or practice. Implementing and co-ordinating these concepts will be challenging and expensive. However, if doing nothing means towns and cities stay places that stifle many of their inhabitants’ human potential, with all that entails, then the question we need to ask ourselves shouldn’t be ‘how can we afford to make the changes necessary to design the compassionate city?’ but ‘how can we afford not to?’

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Jenny Donovan is the Principal of the Melbourne-based urban design practice, Inclusive Design, which focuses on and advocates for urban design that emphasizes improved social outcomes. Her work spans urban and landscape design, social and environmental planning and neighbourhood renewal in Australia, the UK, Palestine, Ireland, Ethiopia, Kosovo and Sri Lanka. She is the author of Designing to Heal, co-author and co-editor of Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery, and most resently, author of Designing the Compassionate City (Routledge: 2017), from which rhe ideas in this article are drawn.

1. See, for example: Lederbogen, F, et al (June 23rd, 2011) City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature 474: 498–501; Australian Government Department of Health (2011) The Health Consequences of Physical Inactivity and the Benefits of Physical Activity; Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (2008) Inclusion by Design: Equality, Diversity and the Built Environment. CABE.

2. Mazda, A (2011) Urban Stress and Mental Health, Cities Health and Well-being. Urban Age Conference Newspaper.

3. Friel, S (2011) The Determinants of Urban Healthy Equity. LSE Cities. Accessed October 2016.

4. Kelly, M (2006) Inequality and crime. Review of Economics and Statistics 82(4): 530–9. Accessed July 2016.

5. Friel, S, and The Australian National Preventative Health Task Force & Australian National University & University College, London. Dept. of Epidemiology and Public Health (2009) Health Equity in Australia: A Policy Framework Based on Action on the Social Determinants of Obesity, Alcohol and Tobacco. Canberra: Australian National Preventative Health Taskforce.

6. Weinstein, N, Przybylski, A, and Ryan, R (2009) Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

7. Parsons, J (2016) Sydney: We need to talk about our postcode prejudice. Guardian.

8. Mazda, A (2011) Urban Stress and Mental Health, Cities Health and Well-being. Urban Age Conference Newspaper. Accessed November 2014.

9. Montgomery, C (2013) Happy City. Penguin Books.