Designing the compassionate city

Thursday 12 April 2018

Jenny Donovan, Melbourne Catholic magazine

In 2015 the Holy Father’s encyclical Laudato si’  (On care for our common home) reminded us that the earth’s bounty and beauty can no longer be taken for granted and that we are impairing its ability to meet our needs. Couching our responsibilities in love and a respect for the inherent dignity of all people, he posed the question, ‘What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to the children who are now growing up?’
This is a question that resonated strongly with me. It lays down challenges for all of us in this rapidly urbanising world but, for people like myself—a professional urban designer with the benefit of a good education and access to some of the levers of power—there is a particular sense of obligation. We have been given the great privilege and responsibility of helping to mould the environments within which other people live.
The challenge as urban designers is to create places where both nature and people can thrive.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, the changes we design embed messages in the built environment that influence people to see and use their surroundings in particular ways. Some of these messages are subtle, created by designed characteristics that gently encourage or deter certain choices. Some of these messages are anything but subtle, created by hard edges such as barriers and gates, reinforced by threats that enforce or prohibit what we experience and where we go. This can have profound effects, framing the range of experiences we enjoy, endure or miss out on and that will over time affect the trajectory of our lives.
Like any other influence on our lives, the messages we receive from our surroundings can be good or bad. They are good when they help us to do all the things we need to do to fulfil our potential and meet our needs. They are bad when they misdirect or deter us from doing these things. Places rich in these ‘good’ messages nurture the people who experience them.
Such places make it relatively easy to stay healthy, connect with one another and forge the bonds of family, friendships and community. People are inspired by surroundings that are beautiful and enjoy experiences that they find challenging, interesting and fun. They can find opportunities that suit their needs, interests and talents. There is a wealth of research that suggests walkable, safe, attractive places, with a range of diverse places for people to experience nature and find the things that inspire them, will help cultivate physical health, emotional and cognitive development, deepen the bonds of connection and create a safety net of belonging to a community.
On the other hand, in a neglectful place the ‘helpful messages’ that facilitate these outcomes are absent or obscured by contra messages that seduce people to choose unhealthy, isolating and unsustainable behaviours. People who live in such places are disadvantaged by their surroundings and the unhealthy behaviours those environments encourage. These barriers created by such neglectful surroundings are usually not intended as such but are made by fear, distance, prejudice, lack of awareness or social stratification, reinforced by a qualitatively inadequate physical environment. The people disadvantaged by these neglectful surroundings often find it difficult to change them as the levers of power are not available to them and they are marked by stigma that disempowers them.
Many living in sprawling suburbs might see their surroundings as neglectful. In such places research tells us that people are more likely to be lonely, removed from nature and each other, and to be dependent on cars that isolate them further and make them vulnerable to the availability and cost of fossil fuels. The same research tells us that for these people, poor physical and emotional health and lower educational attainment become more likely.
That is not to say that these places aren’t without their good points, nor am I suggesting that people who live in these places do not overcome these disadvantages and thrive; many of them do, fired by inspirational resilience and the strength of the human spirit. But some won’t. Their lives will be diminished because of the environments we built for them and the invitations we embed into the landscape. I would suggest we need to define our much vaunted liveability and the success of our cities in terms of how nurturing they are and how much they invite us to meet our needs and fulfil our potential.
This awareness inspired me to ask what I can do to align the messages people get from their surroundings so they are assisted and encouraged to meet their needs, thrive and fulfil their potential. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to document these thoughts in a book, Designing the compassionate city. The book allowed me to look at a number of projects spread around the globe that have sought to make places richer in meeting people’s needs and to help heal a damaged earth.
In essence, my research tells me that the compassionate city looks very different in different parts of the world, as climate, culture and the genus animi (the soul of the place) all influence the appropriate outcome. However, whatever it looks like it seeks to make behaviours that fulfil needs, such as walking, cycling, playing, engaging with others, and expressing yourself, not only possible but preferable. It seeks to create places where everyone feels safe. It seeks to give people a wealth of choices about whom they interact with and what they do, so they have choice and a sense of self-determination.
The compassionate city ensures that nature can be experienced without having to go out of your way, incidental to doing all the day-to-day tasks that people have to do.

It seeks to provide a wealth of places that many different people with different needs and values can look upon and find welcoming and relevant to them. This requires careful design and balancing diverse needs with thoughtful engagement with the existing community and consideration of future challenges.
As Laudito si’ reminds us, we must not see the solution to the environmental crises engulfing the world as merely a matter of changing environmental policy. Respecting nature and each other must find expression in all aspects of our life. Reflecting this, embedding compassionate design in our towns and cities is as much about making changes in hearts and minds as on the ground. For designers it means listening and empowering people to see their surroundings as a place they can contribute to and learn from.
Making such profound change will be difficult and expensive; but the costs of not doing so and consigning people to diminished lives, as our cities presently do, will be far more expensive—indeed, it is an ongoing tragedy. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, not ‘How can we afford these changes?’ but instead, ‘How can we afford not to do this?’ 
Jenny Donovan is the principal of the Melbourne-based urban design practice Inclusive Design, which advocates for urban design that aims to improve social outcomes. Her book Designing the compassionate city is available via the following link:
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