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?