Town Centre Living: We are developing and inviting a conversation on a Caring Place through our social media channels and on this website. This blog comes from Carnegie Associate Zoë Ferguson, author of The Place of Kindness: Combating loneliness and building stronger communities.
Designing in kindness
In the work I undertook for the Carnegie UK Trust to explore how we might encourage more kindness the nature of places emerged as one of the key factors.
Before discussing that it might be worth a word on why kindness matters. Connections, relationships, everyday help and support are important to everyone. With growing isolation and loneliness in society, we believe that we need to be talking about kindness as a key component in improving wellbeing. Loneliness affects not just the elderly and is not just a problem for those experiencing it; it erodes solidarity. While recognising the vital platform provided by the public and voluntary sector, we need to think beyond services. Intuitively knowing and caring about the people we live near underpins genuine community empowerment.
The Glasgow Centre for Population Health found that areas which have similar socio-economic circumstances can differ significantly in social capital citing distinctive histories and defining events as instrumental in shaping the way in which people connect and relate to each other. This question of why similar places have different atmospheres, which make warmth and friendliness more or less likely, was one that I kept coming back to as I followed seven organisations over the course of a year.
I imagine finding that poorly designed physical space has a strong negative impact on the ability to make connections is not news to an A&DS audience. Other findings relating to civic space might be less intuitive. Karen Anderson in her blog talks about the need for connection, shareable spaces and welcome. But what makes places welcoming? We found that often the places we might first think of as places to come together are not always the most welcoming to all. Many public and voluntary sector provided spaces are connected with an agenda (directing people towards ‘improving activities’) and we found people choosing the supermarket as an easier place just to be with others. In the original study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which prompted our work on kindness, people in Maryhill who had been asked to keep a journal of everyday interactions often mentioned the importance of Tesco. We found that what makes places welcoming is largely to do with the people in them but there are some questions for design. Tesco Maryhill doesn’t look like a cosy community resource. It is a cavernous Extra store with an entrance one floor up from street level and all the generic signage. In short, much as I and countless others love that Tesco, it is certainly not beautiful. Neither was a damp, run down community flat in another area. But that too was well used in contrast to the light, airy, well designed new community centre provided in its place. We found that beauty, as it might be judged through a design lens, is not always positive in creating accessibility and welcome. Why does looking good and feeling welcome often seem at odds and how can we have both?
Zoe Ferguson is an Associate at the Carnegie UK Trust. Her report on Kindness sets out the Trust’s learning, and identifies major factors that get in the way of encouraging kindness in both individuals and organisations. A short film is available for more information.