Designing Mindfully

Seventeen Theses for a Mindful City


14. Reducing Urban Clutter
The contemporary city can easily overwhelm us with its sensory stimuli, fast pace, distractions and restlessness. These conditions can actually result in a dulling of our senses and an impoverished life experience in the midst of plenty. Mindful urban design can help address this problem by reducing visual and other clutter in the urban landscape, and city dwellers can use mindfulness practice to recover the sharpness of their senses even in the face of considerable clutter.

15. From Individualistic Striving to Collective Thriving
Cities are but a reflection of their inhabitants’ egoic tendencies. Looking up at the average skyline of an American city we see buildings competing with each other for height, attention and luster, while on the ground we witness the privatization of public spaces in opulent shopping malls and glitzy entertainment districts. Narcissism, domination and exclusion are the “dark side” of these eye-catching designs and seductive spaces. Mindfulness can bring about a re-centering in the design and in the observer and redirect our creative focus from individualistic striving to collective thriving.

16. Design for Unconditioned Consciousness
Cities, like all human creations, tend to solicit streams of interpretation in the observer or user. Buildings, roadways and entire neighborhoods are subject to interpretation, to being assigned “meaning” based on their location, design, function or state of repair. In her famous essay “Against Interpretation,” the writer and activist Susan Sontag sums up the toll of this human inclination to interpret when she says: “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’… The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” Sontag concludes her essay with an emphatic appeal: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” (1) As urban designers we can help this process along, for example, by including as many natural elements in our cities as possible – elements that have their origin outside human thought. Trees, rivers, creeks, rocks, sunlight and wildlife open in the observer the door to a consciousness that is less conditioned by interpretation and judgment. They encourage a state of simple, alert sensing and point the way to an intuitive knowing that is separate from rational thought but all too often buried by it.

17. Healing the City in the Here and Now
Healing our cities from their current dis-ease isn’t something that always requires designers, planners, committees, budgets, construction or a wrecking ball. Sometimes all that is needed is a fresh look through an awakened heart to bestow a new sheen or a glow of sacredness onto our surroundings. Take a moment to look with eyes of understanding at the overgrown corner lot, the abandoned building, the ugly freeway or the aging strip mall. Silently say “thank you for your (past) service,” or “I embrace my city wholly as it goes through many changes.” This practice of urban meditation can take many forms and can be performed alone or with others almost anywhere. The simple act of pausing, taking a conscious breath and shining the light of mindfulness onto our city will produce a miracle of healing right away and at no cost at all.

(1) Against Interpretation. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1966.