The “wall of peace”: Meiji Jingu shrine, Tokyo. Photo: Simon Carter

Tranquility in our cities is a prerequisite for wellbeing and sustainability, and the creation of tranquil places demands to be on the sustainable buildings and cities agenda.

Urban density – a core pillar of sustainability – is bringing us into much closer proximity. We are creating more vibrant, dynamic and global cities. Digitalisation is making life faster and more stimulating, connected and disconnected; we walk around with our faces in our phones.

Meanwhile, wellbeing has emerged as a major sustainability theme in property and increasing attention is being given to mental health. Forty-five per cent of Australians will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime and in any given year one million will have depression and two million will have anxiety, according to beyondblue.

On the upside there is increasing acknowledgement that enhanced mental wellbeing can provide quality of life and productivity benefits across the whole population. Indeed, at an Australian Institute of Company Directors course I attended recently, mindfulness practices on boards were actively encouraged.

Where in our inner cities can people go for peace, to relax the mind and ground themselves? Such places are more often scarce, hidden or inconvenient to reach, particularly within our CBDs where our white-collar workforce needs to be most productive. Where can the typical office worker go for 15 minutes to clear their head or even practice meditation?

Balancing our cities with sufficient amounts of tranquil places should be a goal of our sustainability movement. It is a vital counterpoint to our highly stimulating cities and improves mental wellbeing.

Tranquil places can take on many forms. Some might be secluded and private spaces and others open and shared. They might be public, private or in the spaces in-between. Having a good mix available in a given area, proportional to density of population, is key.

I recently wandered into the garden in the middle of the Darling Park office complex in Sydney and was surprised at how tranquil it was despite being between three large towers and a major road and occupied by groups conducting business meetings, training exercises and socialising. The design of the space absorbed the activity well, making it a great complement to its more intensive surroundings.

On a trip to Tokyo a friend took me to the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the Shibuya area and warned me in advance that passing through the entrance was like hitting a “wall of peace”. Indeed it was, a powerful experience.

The approach was through a large park with bush that was thick and wild, providing insulation from the metropolis that surrounds it – the world’s largest. The Shinto architecture is simple and serene and people move slowly and respectfully in this space. It was very beautiful and uplifting.

I was taken back by the gentleness of Tokyo overall. The Japanese of course are very gentle and courteous, including on the roads. Their small cars do not fill or dominate the streets, as I once experienced in the extreme on a Brooklyn street where large black SUVs lined both sides of a neighbourhood high street, essentially chopping it into three shadowy channels. Australia’s inner city streets often tend this way.

Back in Tokyo, the details also make the difference. Timber stools or chairs left on the narrow pavements in front of homes in a suburb I visited suggested welcome and rest, and allowed for interaction between locals and visitors. They create a very simple transition space between the flow of the street and homes where people could pause.

Some ingredients that might support great tranquil places include:

  • architectural detail, art and symbolism
  • spaciousness and slow rather than rushed flow of spaces – places to pause
  • simplicity and avoidance of clutter
  • stillness
  • light quality and sunlight
  • quietness or music
  • temperature – cooling on hot days
  • a beautiful view
  • style of operation and behavioural norms in the space
  • nature

The last ingredient in this brainstormed list is potentially the most powerful, and wild nature perhaps more beneficial than ordered gardens. We all know the positive effect that simply stepping into the wilderness has on us. How might we weave some wilderness back into our central cities?

There is no formula for the creation of such places. They are a design challenge requiring a high level of sensitivity, an art more than a science. It might well just be one or two ingredients from the list above that creates the result, such as quietness and a view.

We need to focus on the creation of distinct tranquil places across our cities, such as gardens or quiet rooms, but also look to calm whole areas. We can calm streets and also footpaths; retail that engages pedestrians with gentle subtlety rather than intensity of signage could slow foot traffic and help relax customers. We can soften urban surfaces; green walls cool outdoor spaces and also make them feel calmer.

Technology can be harnessed to support this in various ways, such as through helping people find tranquil places in the city or the advent of quieter and less aggressive driverless cars with which passengers and pedestrians can relax. Or, if we fail to create the necessary tranquility in our physical cities, we might find ourselves hiding in virtual reality headsets…

Some might argue that achieving peace of mind is an internal mater and not dependent on the external environment. Nelson Mandela achieved it in his cell on Robben Island and Hong Kongese practise Tai Chi on pedestrian over-bridges with people rushing to work around them. However, mindfulness-based traditions recommend supportive environments for practices and the vast majority of us are not skilful practitioners, and need all the external support we can get.

The built environment does of course shape us. People in intense cities become more intense. The converse must also hold true.

Our state of mind is pivotal to a sustainable future. It can be argued that the state of mind that has had us consume at the levels we do is largely the source of our unsustainability. The wellbeing movement needs to be about more than just sustaining our workforces or communities. Mental wellbeing needs to be front and centre to the creation of a sustainable way of living and the built environment needs to underpin this.

Dense cities without tranquility will fail and digitalisation without grounding our minds in the real world will be a disaster for humanity. Creating a future from a place of calm reflection provides real hope. Cities with the right mix of intensity and tranquility will be the most creative.

Simon Carter is director of sustainability strategy practice Morphosis.

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  1. Great article, well articulated.

    I find water particularly soothing – whether it’s a flat pond or lake, running stream, fountain or canal, whether you’re admiring the flat horizon view of the ocean, giving a sense of space that counters the claustrophobia of the city, or indeed swimming underwater – I’ve had a very calming swim in a temporary pool in the middle of one of London’s largest regeneration scheme’s construction sites!

  2. Simon,

    Absolutely agree with you analysis. My strongest take out from my experience with Tokyo was the stark contrast between utter chaos of the urban environment and the overwhelming tranquillity of the many parks, gardens and temples.

    What I would add to your list is scale. I believe spaces that work best in creating supportive environments have the appropriate scale relating to their context. As with the Meiji Jingu shrine, part of that scale experience is distance that enables you to shed the tension of the surrounding environment by the time you get to the shrine itself.

    These spaces don’t have to be large either. One strong memory I have from my only visit to New York many years ago was coming across a small pocket park right in the centre called Paley Park on E53rd St. It’s just a building block sized space with a small waterfall whose sound drowns out the surrounding urban environment, deciduous shade tree, seating and a mobile hot dog stand (at least back in 1985).