These designed characteristics play an important role in framing the range of experiences that people enjoy, endure or miss out on. Over time this affects the trajectory of their lives, which has significant implications for human well-being.
If we consider the biases as messages we receive from our surroundings, we need to ask: are these messages biased towards helping or hindering us? Do they invite us to meet our needs? That is the fundamental precondition to thriving and fulfilling our potential.
The truth of it is that we are usually not good at prioritising our needs. Despite the wealth of evidence and awareness of the benefits of being active and engaging in social interaction, many people choose sedentary lifestyles and do not cultivate their social connections.
Unfortunately we are easily distracted by our wants and prone to prioritising some needs to the detriment of others. For example, we choose the security of staying indoors over the need to stay active.
Good design can improve the choices we make
That’s where good urban design comes in. By being aware of human needs and weaving in the right qualities, urban design can tilt the balance of influences so the people who experience our handiwork are more likely to perceive that healthy, needs-fulfilling experiences are not just possible but preferable.
Welcome to the woonerf
A good example of this are the woonerfs, literally “living yards”, which are new or reworked streets that have been developed in the Netherlands since the 1970s. These allow play, socialisation and nature to safely escape the private domain and spread into the shared domain.
Woonerfs do this by using design props that invite walking, playing, socialising and cycling. At the same time, they tightly control car movements so the “vehicle domain” does not overwhelm these other activities.
Polyvalence is a term borrowed from chemistry where one thing can act in two or more ways at once. It is used here to describe the quality of designing places to give off multiple messages that different people will receive as relevant to whatever their needs are at the time.
Next we need to create adornable public spaces. Man is man’s greatest joy, as the Icelandic saying goes. Whatever we make can be made better by adding people.
Adornable spaces are spaces such as footpaths, parks, squares, street furniture and so on that are good as they are, but can be enhanced when people interact with or adorn them. Examples include features that invite children to play, that invite adults to stay long enough to bump into someone they know, that are enlivened by smiles, laughs, artworks, and just by the presence of others.
These ideas don’t quite fit easily into the silos of policy or practice. Nurturing these qualities will be challenging.
Doing nothing, however, means towns and cities stay places that stifle many of their inhabitants’ human potential, with all that entails. The question we need to ask ourselves shouldn’t be “can we afford this?”, but “how can we afford not to?”
This article originally appeared on The Conversation.