What our surroundings say about us

How our neighbourhood is seen by others can open metaphorical – and, sometimes, actual – doors to us, or it can slam them in our faces. Where we live can lead people to conclude we are likely to be trustworthy or dishonest, rich or poor, working or unemployed, educated or unschooled, locally born and bred or an immigrant.

This “postcode prejudice” has real and profound effects.

It influences the chances of progressing in a chosen career.

It creates barriers within and between communities that, over time, impacts the trajectory of people’s lives.

What makes it worse is that – according to worldwide research – residents of poorer areas are not only often evaluated negatively in the wider community, but also tend to have a low opinion of themselves and their prospects.

Sadly, the truth is we are indeed more likely to think of ourselves as a failure if other people do.

The good news is that we have the power to change all this.

Thoughtful urban design that nurtures rather than neglects an area’s residents, and also incorporates their agenda into the creative process, provides an unspoken assurance that people – all people – are of value.

My research reveals that there are a few key things we can do to help ensure our surroundings reflect well on us and add to our sense of self-worth.

Perhaps the first thing to understand is that although the way a place looks is important, good urban design is not always about aesthetics or “attractiveness”.

Rather, it’s about how the place makes us feel about ourselves and others, the choices it invites us to make, and how it inspires us to behave.

A nurturing, welcoming neighbourhood reassures people that they are safe, and conveys the feeling that the place is cared for, and that the people who live there are important.

It also might empower people to meet their own challenges.

And it can also offer a range of experiences for them to take up and enjoy as their tastes and skills take them, rather than offering spaces dedicated to – or appropriated by – a “single use” that only serve some of the people.

These considerations can indeed make a huge difference to the momentum of a place.

And with it, the lives of the people who live there.

This approach will be expensive in time and money and require government to refocus its priorities.

However, if we accept that people’s surroundings can disadvantage them – through the messages it sends to both society and to the people themselves – then allowing poor urban design has profound impacts on quality of life.

These include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and depression.

These are major concerns that are increasingly blighting individuals, families and communities.

If we think about it like this, the question is not how can we afford good urban design.

It becomes, rather, how on earth can we afford not to?

Jenny Donovan is a practicing urban designer and lecturer in planning and urban design at La Trobe University, Bendigo.

Her latest book, Designing the Compassionate City: Creating Places Where People Thrive, was published this month.