The work we do creates our cities

The development of new kinds of work is a collective survival skill for our species.  It enables us to shift and adjust to the changing conditions of the world.  Cities pay a particular role in this process, as physicist Geoffrey West has found: people collectively become more innovative as our cities get larger.  (See my post Cities are engines of innovation.)  Cities, then, are not just an engine of innovation, but a habitat for innovation.  Moreover, it is a habitat that make for ourselves. We make the very habitat that serves our survivals.

Figure A - Collective Work in City Habitat

In yesterday’s post, Development of cities is a survival skill, I reached the conclusion that a city with a well-developed economic life – where new work is created in response to changing conditions, in relationship with other work at various scales of complexity – is a city that has the ability to adjust and adapt and evolve.

Our collective work in cities, our economic life, takes place within – and in response to – the city habitat (Figure A).  We develop new ideas because we see a need for something different and better to happen.  When we implement new work, it takes hold and expands our economic life.  We choose, consciously or unconsciously, to implement new ideas to address the challenges we face, when the time is right.  A diversity of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things is key for both the development and expansion of economic life.

Cities begin with new work in habitat.  All settlements and cities begin with the implementation of new work with, as Jacobs puts it, at least one useful inheritance from Earth’s past development and expansion.[1]  All settlements and cities begin with new work in response to surrounding conditions, or habitat.  For our African ancestors described by Spencer Wells in Driven to do more than survive, it may have been the use of bone, making a longer lasting hunting tool that allowed hunters to explore.  Settlement at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada 500 years ago drew on vast cod stocks and a geography that placed the sheltered, ice-free harbour at the Eastern most point of land on North America (ie closest point to Europe).  Within this habitat new work was developed and implemented.  

New work builds on an inheritance of resources, existing work, new work, ideas, etc). The initial resources for settlements’ economies, writes Jacobs, “aren’t earned by export work, but all the same they’re earned in a different way – earned by combining gift resources with human effort.”[2]  A settlement begins with the resource, then subsequently what we choose to think, make and do with it.  The settlement at St. John’s built upon the gifts of abundant fish and geography.  The ongoing health of cities continues in this pattern: we must do something with our inheritance.  What we do with what we receive is critical; if we do more of the same, we stagnate.  If we create and implement a diversity of new work on the shoulders of existing work, we expand.  Exports do not suffice as the driving force for economic expansion: it is what we do with the inheritance, the energy received, before it is discharged as an export. [3]

The relationship between our economic life and our habitat is significant because our city habitat creates the basis for our economic life (our inheritance) and it creates the conditions for us to pursue new work.  Despite any rules or regulations we set up about what can happen where in cities, we self-organize to create habitats for new work.  Stephen Johnson describes this well:  “Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots.  Cobblers gather near cobblers, and button makers near other button makers.  Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination, ensuring that good ideas don’t die out.”[4]  People look for habitats that will support their desire and ability to pursue their work.  Cities serve us by creating a habitat to both develop new kinds of work and expand a greater diversity of work.

As our work evolves in relation to our physical habitat, it physically changes it.  Our choices every day – our work –  affect our physical habitat.  As we mine coal, or farm, we change the landscape, as we do when we build buildings, roads, parks, etc.  Each generation receives a habitat and each day, month, year and lifetime we continue to create our habitat.  It is given to us and we create it.  And then we create more new work to adjust to the new habitat we have created.  Cities, simply, are the habitat we build to create the conditions for new work and innovation.  Steven Johnson again: “Good ideas… want to connect, fuse, recombine.” [5]

The city is the natural habitat we both inherit and create with each generation.  Our economic life, the relationship between our work and economy, is a force that sparked the creation of, and our migration to, cities.  It continues to do so (see Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?)  New work creates cities and in return the conditions for new work are created again.  There is a cycle: our work creates our habitat (city), which in turn creates new work.  Cities are engines of innovation.  They are also engines of our migration – our evolution – when our innovation is developed and implemented in the context of our habitat.

Today, I am left with two questions:

  1. To what extent is our work, even new work, blind to our changing habitat?
  2. How would we change how we organize ourselves to consciously choose to create habitats for ourselves that serve our present and evolving needs and desires?


[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 54

[2]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 56

[3]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 52-53  (preceding sentences in this para)

[4]   Johnson, Steven, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, p. 108

[5]   Johnson, Steven, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 22


Note – For more on the evolution of St. John’s, please see my article, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Purposeful Evolution of Cities,” Plan Canada, Winter 2011, Vol. 51 No. 4, p. 26-31.  Digital archive not available.

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