The Tapestry of Kindness

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How do we understand kindness in our cities? The other week on two separate walks I noticed a dog bowl full of water, left on a nature strip; and a quirky “dog stop” painted on the side of a shopfront with a water bowl and an improvised catch to tie a leash.

It got me thinking about moments of kindness, how together they might form a tapestry and what the substance and nature of these tapestries might tell us about our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

Alternatively, we might think of how moments of kindness like this can puncture the hard, concrete and homogenised framework that defines so much of our cities.

The idea of kindness invites questions and further interrogation.  Who gives and receives these gestures of kindness?  And what forms can these gestures take? Two important insights emerge from the dog bowls:

  • That anyone can contribute to this tapestry of kindness, without a fully formed understanding of how it might be received.
  • That kindness can extend to humans and non-humans, directly and indirectly. A full dog bowl can benefit both owner and dog – or the assemblage of both together (let alone birds and other creatures that might stop off on a warm day).

Consider a flourishing grevillia in a park or front yard, which in full bloom provides abundant food for native birds and insects. Anyone who has watched a honeyeater flit through a feast of flowers will know the delight that comes from observing these spectacles: As the honeyeaters are nourished, so in turn is the observer with moments of delight and connection to nature. This is the start of a virtuous cycle, and puts an ecological tweak on Jane Jacobs’ idea of the sidewalk ballet.

Think of the ways we interact with other beings on the street – and how this infuses place in a yet-more fleeting but still important way.

I kept in mind this tapestry over the week ahead and found a book box at a tram stop on St George’s Road in Melbourne, full of worthy donations; and an impressive outdoor library made from recycled pallets at the Point Cook Pop-up Park.

Both community-produced, these libraries are not only gestures of giving, they increase the capacity of place to nourish.  Even if we don’t stop to read, they send messages of welcome and care. They also feed into a bigger discourse about who the public realm is for and how we might interact with it.

A definition of kindness emerges, around small acts that nourish place so that it in turn may be more nourishing. The most empowering thing about a tapestry of kindness, is not that we might benefit. It is that we can all become weavers that give and receive through the act of weaving.

For planners and designers, the opportunity and challenge grows further: How do we not only contribute to the tapestry ourselves, but create openings for others to weave their magic? And how do we address the opportunity and responsibility of weaving these threads?

The idea of the tapestry invites further research. It suggests that we might be able to map these moments in space and time at a variety of scales. What might this tell us about our neighbourhoods, and what we might do next?


  1. I like it when a building has an area before it that is open for all to use, even with seating, rather than stuck behind barriers. And on the micro level, I love it when neighbours leave bowls of fruit or vegetables for people to help themselves to, sharing the abundance.

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    1. Hi Colin – enjoy your work. You raise an important point about the subtle messages that design can send, as well as how kindness can work at multiple scales. If only my tomato crop was better this year…

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  2. This sounds very much like a type of spatial mindfulness – the awareness of surrounds, elements, noises, views, moments, and the immense value we can gain from noticing and appreciating these things right now (and now). Planning looks ahead, our goals are future-states, this provides the meaning and motive for our work. But real meaning is created when we notice and appreciate what we have now (created by those before us).

    My own spatial-mindfulness includes placing a hand on olds brick walls around Castlemaine and Bendigo, and the trunks of large street trees. It’s a moment of pause and connection, and I encourage my kids to stop and do the same. We also look ‘above the parapet’, and down laneways, for signs of former shop life, old doorways, old painted signs – the hidden layers, and stories, that make up our places.

    Great post Matt, as always.

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  3. Thanks for those well-composed and lovely thoughts,Matt, I enjoyed reading it.
    It connects with the understanding that it’s the spaces that site on the edge between public and private that have the capacity to add such richness. Like your examples of the dog bowls and street libraries, where property owners feel enough connection with the wider community that they take the initiative to be responsible for a small space that is outside their own property.
    The box of excess garden produce on the front step, the carefully swept footpath, verge gardens, or (as I’ve seen in cities that grew before cars were the dominant force) the seat built into the front fence halfway up a steep street so an elderly person can have a rest… little examples of community-mindedness that adds to the tapestry of kindness you describe.
    At a larger scale we can see that spaces managed by local government but leased to community organisations – sports clubs, or service clubs community gardens – are an aspect of this community-mindedness.
    But at the smaller scale as designers we can indeed facilitate a sense of ownership by creating spaces at the thresholds of our properties that are half public/half private.. Alexanders pattern 112 Entrance Transition.
    One of the huge opportunities I think is the space that is becoming more and more common, the driveway/entry/ lobby that is shared as part of a body corporate. Couldn’t these spaces be articulated to encourage these small acts of kindness? A well-placed seat, a piece of artwork, a place to share and swap, a fruit tree.. a dog bowl?

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