Jenny Donovan is an urban designer and author of the book, Designing the Compassionate City. Today she's sharing some key concepts from her book.


When Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us," he eloquently drew a line between the built characteristics of our surroundings and the social outcomes they foster. Winston would, no doubt, feel vindicated though probably saddened to see that over the intervening years his assertion has been proven by a wealth of research that links the design of our towns and cities with high levels of stress, lower propensity to be active and social stigma (amongst many other impacts). These bring with them real, largely predictable problems that stifle lives. These include greater vulnerability to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, mental health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence.  The causes of this are many and their interplay complex and extend far beyond just the way cities are designed. However, “there is a reciprocal relationship between urban social conditions and the built environment”, according to Dr Sharon Friel (Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the Australian National University).

So how does this process work and what can we do about it? One way of looking at this problem and potentially addressing it is to look at our surroundings in terms of the messages that are (often unwittingly) embedded in the built environment, influencing what people in that space can do and want to do. Some of these messages are subtle, whispered and hinted to us by designed characteristics that gently encourage or deter certain choices (Figure 1). Some of these messages will be anything but subtle, shouted at us with menace by hard edges such as barriers and gates 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 or by the way we behave in these places, we play a part in framing the range of experiences that others enjoy, endure or miss out on that will over time affect the trajectory of their lives.

 Figure 1 - Some of the messages we receive and embed in our surroundings

Figure 1 - Some of the messages we receive and embed in our surroundings

If we live in places, surrounded by messages from our environment that say “you would be crazy to walk here, best to drive," or “stay inside” (Figure 2) and saddest of all: “other people are your potential enemies." It takes a lot of personal motivation to ignore what your surroundings are telling you and 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 brave and determined get to enjoy these benefits. However, for others, their surroundings may invite them to walk, play and connect with others (Figure 3).

Both streets above are the same width and alignment boundary to boundary but send different messages.

The truth is that human beings are often not good at prioritizing our needs. 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, many will find these physical and social barriers prohibitive. For many, it is easier, feels safer and is way more familiar to stay at home and watch TV. We choose to drive rather than walk, even when walking is a reasonable alternative, we play indoors on screens rather than relax outside. We consume sports on TV rather than playing outside 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) not just possible but preferable. 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.

 Figure 4 - Key elements in a woonerf (Donovan 2018)

Figure 4 - Key elements in a woonerf (Donovan 2018)

As a professional urban designer with a lifelong interest in this issue I have been lucky enough to be able to set myself the challenge of shedding some light on how people and place can best interact to mutual benefit. Believing this to be a matter that merits a wider audience I wrote a book, Designing the Compassionate City, which gathers together the stories of a number of projects that sought to make places more supportive and fill in locally apparent gaps between what people need and what their neighborhoods provide.

These inspiring projects revealed that a number of key recurring themes play a key role in creating nurturing places that go beyond the typical designers’ prescriptions.  Some of these themes are:

  • 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.
  • 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, which comes from caring and passion is an unstable and volatile force, but it can be very powerful. Cultivated well, it can accumulate with successful involvement in meaningful projects. Financial capital depletes and projects with a focus on ‘big capital’ leaves a legacy of debt and puts the power in the hands of industry where surplus is almost invariably extracted as profit rather than community benefit.
  • Finally, avoid inadvertent appropriation. Nurturing places control uses that can overwhelm other uses, seeking to balance uses and minimize 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 still cater for vehicles but don’t allow them to dominate the street, allowing play, socialisation and nature to escape the private domain  (Figure 4). 

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About the Author

Jenny Donovan is the Principal of the Melbourne-based urban design practice, Inclusive Design. She set up the practice to focus on and advocate 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, which explores how urban design can be used to help communities recover after disasters and conflicts, published by CSIRO and Designing the Compassionate City which explores how urban design can be used to help those disadvantaged to better meet their needs and address social exclusion, published by Routledge