Content with invisibility

I’ve noticed lately that the work I do is invisible to most people.

Last weekend I played a lead role as MC and hosted generative conversations at the Council for Canadian Urbanists annual CanU Summit–I was not the topic of conversation. I provided little content and set people up to meet each other and explore how to move their work forward. While they got into conversation and the room buzzed and hummed, I tended to their well-being in invisible ways.

A highlight of the Summit was the conversation I hosted between Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and neighbouring Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin. In the conversation, the Mayor proposed a new national aboriginal museum that made the headlines. The picture that appeared in the newspaper is the Mayor and Chief sharing a laugh, as it should be. Only my microphone and paper are visible in the bottom right corner.

mayor-and-chief-at-canu8

Earlier this month I co-costed two conversations with citizens, business, government and community leaders about how the city learns–and how we can embrace being a city of learners. I found myself, as part of the hosting team, setting them up to make learning habitats, enabling them to identify and embody the living city systems of which they are a part. They did the work, they provided the content and they made meaning of their work. My content was invisible. It was not even my job to make meaning of their work: it was their work to do.

Photo: @britl
Photo: @britl

Nine years ago I walked away from a high-profile job in city hall and shelved the ambition that fuelled my ability to sustain that work. At the CanU Summit I watched the movers and shakers move and shake. I was out of the frame as the Mayor and Chief had a moving conversation. I was looking after plates and spilled coffee as my city figured out how it learns. I have to admit that my ego has a hard time being content with invisibility.

I’ve been wondering, what does the invisibility have to say? Here’s the response:

CONtent vs. conTENT

What are the gifts of invisibility? What is the CONtent I have to offer about invisibility? I realize that the invisible is asking to be made visible, and I also realize that I’ve been making the invisible visible these last few weeks in a series of blog posts. Here’s what I’ve seen and shared over the last few weeks.

About work:

About my approach to life: 

  • A scarcity mindset lends itself to fixing. An abundance mindset invites our expansion as citizens and as a species. (Improve vs. fix)

About hosting others in conversation: 


A big lesson from a participant in a workshop who felt lost and couldn’t find her place in an unfamiliar way of collective listening (listening through World Cafe vs surveys or interviews): I am only one voice in many. (Making meaning as a system).

The feeling of being invisible is part of what we have to grapple with to create cities and communities that will thrive for each and all of us.

Where do you find meaning in your invisibility? 


Note – This post was published in Nest City News on September 30, 2016.


Making meaning as a system

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me? This is the undercurrent of skepticism that surfaced in the closing circle at an event I co-hosted earlier this month. While the gathering generated a great deal of meaning for participants and the client, this question compels me to dig into listening and meaning-making. Who listens and who makes meaning?

If you didn’t personally hear my speak, how is it possible that you heard me?

Here’s the situation: we invited people to 3-hour workshops to explore how a city can be a learning city. We started with a World Cafe, a series of conversations in small groups with a variety of people, as a way for people to get to know each other and dive into the topic. (Our questions reflected the 4 pillars of the UNESCO pillars of learning: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together.)

After this ‘warm-up’, participants were ready for the big event: to make a 3D model of the city as a learning habitat.

As we making and exploring the models, the groups saw patterns in the metaphors and operating principles. They identified the qualities of the system that wants to come more fully into being. They could see:

  1. Connected webs of relationships with multiple layers of pathways and connections
  2. Circles of life
  3. Synergies and exchanges
  4. Nature and natural, organic processes
  5. Gathering places where people come together
  6. Inclusivity and diversity
  7. Beauty and art, whimsy and creativity, fun
  8. Sustainability and self-sufficiency
  9. Infinite possibilities
  10. A city that evolves by learning

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them. For my client, who is figuring out her role in stewarding a project to foster learning in the city, this vision is essential. Her work is to figure out how to nurture this system. Not be the system, or make the learning habitat alone, because one person is not responsible for the well-being of a system. Her role is help it be healthy, to live more fully into its pattern. She is one of many gardeners.

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them.

The challenge we face is the inertia of staying in familiar ways of relating with each other and being in relationship with the city around us. Just because we can see and feel a new way of operating does not mean we are ready to jump into it. This tension surfaced in our closing circle: one participant spoke to the work as a state of mind, another voiced skepticism about whether we got what we needed to move the project along. While the former could lean into a new way of ‘hearing’ the system, the latter could not.

The skepticism was about the ability of the process to listen. In a World Cafe the hosts–the ‘official’ listeners–don’t hear the conversations, which means that people are not heard–by the ‘official’ listeners. The assumption: if the ‘authority’ doesn’t hear me directly I am not heard.

Four questions come to mind:

  1. Who has something to say?
  2. Who needs to hear you?
  3. Who will digest what you say and make meaning of it?
  4. Who is responsible to respond to what you have to say?

The purpose of this gathering was not to figure out how one person and a steering committee will roll out a project, but how a whole city can live into a project, and the critical support it needs from the one person and a steering committee. This involves a very different kind of listening.

A conventional way of listening to many people is through an interview or survey, where someone sits down with you to hear what you have to say verbally, or reads what you have written. In this way of listening, you tell me what you know or think directly and then I turn around and make sense of what I have heard from you and everyone else I have heard from. An interview or survey is a familiar way of ‘speaking into’ a system; it’s what we know.

METHOD Interviews, Surveys World Cafe + Model Building
WHAT HAPPENS You tell me what you know and think with no interaction with other people You talk and think and go deeper with other people (who may have very different perspectives)
WHO SPEAKS Individuals Individuals and the whole
WHO LISTENS I listen We listen
WHO MAKES MEANING I analyze and make meaning alone We figure out what it means as a group
WHERE YOU FIT You remain outside the system We are inside and part of the system
OUTCOMES I see what’s happening and I tell you We see what’s happening and we build relationships with each other to figure out what’s next
RESPONSIBILITY  I maintain responsibility We share responsibility
WHY I want to know what people think  (informative) We want to know what we think and figure out our way forward together as a whole (collaborative)

Interviews and surveys are informative tools, with their time and place, not collaborative tools. Their purpose is not in helping a system see the relationships and patterns within itself. The choice for my client: informing herself or the city informing itself. The choice for citizens: rely on her to fix things, or jump in and help to improve (see improve vs. fix).

My client’s work, ultimately, will be to help people see and operate in a system that is not linear and tidy. That is the learning for a learning city. The challenge is to figure out how to nurture this system and do so in a way that honours the familiar, linear ways of learning as well.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many. Our choice: entrench in the familiar or expand into new ways of making meaning that include us all.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many.


 

The expert/theatre trap

At the outset of summer I found myself in the expert trap: I started talking and talking and talking, not leaving any room for anyone else.

Friend A was organizing a big lecture about community connection. Friend B, Friend C and I were talking about how ironic it was to have a bigwig speaker in town to tell us about community connection, with us all sitting there in passive listening mode in a theatre and that we would not make any new connections in our community. So Friend B got in touch with Friend A to see if she would like to circle up and see what could be done. (Friend A is of our tribe of people who see this kind of conundrum.)

The conundrum is that we don’t get to know each other when we sit like this:

theatre style

Deeply embedded in this shape is expertise and the assumption that she at the front of the room has it and we do not. It is an empty vessel approach, where we, as the audience, need to be filled with all the things we do not know. Moreover, even after we have listened for ages, we are given no opportunity to notice what we know and understand differently, to consolidate what we are learning. And we are not given this opportunity as an individual, or a small groups or large groups. We drink from the firehouse then leave with a few drops of nourishment.

It’s not that this mode of information exchange is not needed–it is, under the right circumstances (see last two posts: shapes of conversation and direction or discernment). My point is this: Friend A was caught in a swirling environment of assumption that the best way to talk about connection was to disconnect ourselves from ourselves, and each other, and assume that the expert outsider has more information on the matter than we do. The ‘machinery’ of the city is caught in the assumption that we need to be told what to do, that we are not capable of figuring this thing out. Embedded in this is the further assumption that if we are simply told, we will go and do it and the problem will be fixed.

Friend A pulled off a remarkable feat. She acknowledged the desire, and in fact the need, to hear what the expert had to say (in theatre mode), then created a new shape that allowed people to meet each other, connect with each other, and figure out what this new information meant for them, for our lives and for our city. She did this:

small circles

Instead of leaving with a only a few drops from the firehouse (as is what happens with a lecture), people left having met and connected with people new to them.  They met around topics of shared interest. They took some time to notice what the lecture meant to them in practical ways that will change their lives and the city around them; they began to integrate what they learned into their being as individuals and a loose collective. Friend A delivered on connection not just by inviting an expert in, but by creating the conditions for the audience–citizens–to truly hear the expert by connecting with themselves and each other.

I almost wrecked everything for Friend A it because when Friends B, C and I met with her I fell into the expert trap. We sat at an outdoor cafe table on a sunny early summer day and missed that we were sitting in a circle. I didn’t let others speak. I said what I see, much like is written above, and then said it again and again.

Passion, impatience and my own insecurity got the better of me.

One of the reasons I most appreciate the circle as a shape for conversation is that it helps me find my place with others in a way that allows others to also have their place in the conversation. It does not diminish me: it focuses me. And most importantly, it allows us–me and the people I am with–to better see what we need to see. It does not diminish my passion, but allows it to show up more appropriately.

And, of course, the irony is not lost on me. What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

_____

What opportunities do you see in your city to shift from the one-way “expert lecture” to create the conditions for collective discernment? What is your role in this?

_____

Learning journey contracts

NestCity-BlogPostWe signed a 30-page contract with a client last week, full of legal details and formalities. It took about 10 minutes to sign it all. As I was getting the corporate seal and my fancy blue pen all ready to do their work, I realized that this formal contract is not as important as the contracts behind the contract. Continue reading Learning journey contracts

Alternative prosperity

 

The words “alternative prosperity” are alive in me today. As I’m contemplating the work that I want to be doing in the coming year, it is about so much more than money – the usual form of measuring prosperity. What about all the other things?

What about the time I get to play with my family?

What about the time I get to flop around in bed, read a book, play in the snow, ride my bike?

What about the charge in my soul when I get spend time with fabulous people and we do great work together?

What about the great pioneering feeling I have when I understand something for the first time, and it fills me with joy?

What about the thrill of being paid to be me?

What about the feeling after an intense three day meeting, when I leave with more energy than I had when I arrived? The words I caught in our closing check-out circle were wise:

 

Alternative prosperity
 
Welcome in 
the layers
of a rippling universe
of blessings
in a fire
bursting
nursing
what’s to come
caring to ride
the alternative
prosperity
that accelerates
magic vows
healing
joy
welcoming
the layers 
of a rippling 
universe
 
 
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A poem caught in the closing circle of fantastic business meeting last week. Wow.

 

 

The core of Nordic public transportation

 

Does density bring better public transportation, or does better public transportation bring density? This is the question I’m grappling with after beginning a series of posts reflecting on my family’s winter holiday – a tour of the capital cities of the Nordic nations at the heart of winter.

I first noticed how our modes of transportation were so different from our life in Edmonton, a city on the Canadian Prairies. The city planner in me needs to explore what is structurally, there and here. When I explored the population density of the cities we explored, I found that most Nordic cities were far more dense than the large cities on the Canadian Prairies (Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg). For example, Copenhagen is six times more dense than Edmonton.

density by mun boundary

In my last post, Nordic density, I noted the physical differences of these densities. In this post, I take a look at public transportation, but before I do, let’s take a quick look at the population density of the urban area for each of these city-regions. (I’m using Thomas Brinkoff”s calculations based on the agglomeration of an urban area – a central city and the neighbouring communities linked to it by continuous built up areas or commuters.) This is an vital way to look at density without the inaccuracies of vast tracts of land that are undeveloped in some municipalities, and not others.

The numbers below reflect the density of the actual built-up area, regardless of the location of the municipal boundary. This is the number that most reveals what’s happening on the ground.

density by agglomeration

On the ground, Reykjavik, Oslo and Stockholm are the most dense cities. Edmonton and Winnipeg are the least dense. The reason why they are less dense is the large area of developed land, with low population. The bar charts below are using numbers relating to the built area – not the municipal boundaries.

population by agglomeration

Area by mun boundary

 

Some Public Transportation Numbers

Not all of these cities provide LRT or Metro/Subway transportation to residents (Winnipeg and Reykjavik do not). The first to start was Oslo in 1898. Stockholm was next in 1950 (with “pre-metro) service in 1930. Edmonton, Calgary and Helsinki completed LRT / Metro service between 1978 and 1982. Copenhagen added its Metro line in 2002.

Stockholm has the most kilometres of track at 105.7km, followed by Oslo at 86km.

lrt-metro km of track
Does not include commuter trains

Stockholm also moves the most passengers per day, at 898,630 by rail.

lrt-metro # passengers daily
Does not include commuter trains

To compliment LRT/Metro service, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki also provide tram/trolley options for movement in the city. Oslo and Helsinki accommodate an additional 132,000 and 200,000 riders daily. (I am unable to locate ridership for Stockholm.)

Edmonton had 90 km of tram service from 1908 to 1951, and 127km of trolleybus service from 1938 to 2009. Calgary had trolleybus service from 1947-1975 and is looking at its streetcar history for future transit. Winnipeg had 193km of streetcar service from 1918 to 1955. These services have been replaced by bus.

Stockholm moves a great number of people by bus, as do Edmonton and Helsinki. I am unable to find bus ridership numbers for Reykjavik and Copenhagen, but it is clear that ridership for Stockholm is again high, at 814,000 passengers, in addition to high numbers of passengers my Metro, and tram/streetcar.  Edmonton and Helsinki have higher numbers of passengers moving by bus than LRT/Metro.

bus incomplete
Missing – numbers for Reykjavik and Copenhagen

 

The Mesh and the Linear Patterns

Stockholm is both the most densely populated city and the city with the largest investment in track and the largest ridership. Oslo also has a significant investment in the T-bane.

Stockholm T-Bana map
Stockholm’s T-bana
Oslo T-Bane
Oslo’s T-Bane

Copenhagen has the most the recent rail system, first complete in 2002, and they are now constructing The City Circle line (not shown), which will add an additional 15.5km of track to the 20.4km system. The current system below, is 20.4 km.

Copenhagen metro districts
Copenhagen’s Metro (M1 and M2 shown). The Circle Line (M3 and M4 under construction).

In contrast, Edmonton’s 21 km of track, barely more than Copenhagen’s track, serves the city in a radically different way. Instead of serving the population at the core (remember there are many more people in the core of Copenhagen), the Edmonton system serves the population along a length of track.

Edmonotn existing lrt
Edmonton’s LRT (4lrt.com)

Even with the planned construction out to 2040, Edmonton continues to serve a sparse population with a sparse LRT.

Edmonton LRT built out
Edmonton’s LRT build out 2040 (4lrt.com)

Helsinki has 21.1 km of track. It, too, stretches in linear fashion through the city.

Helsinki Metro line
Orange – Helsinki Metro (urbanrail.net)

Calgary’s CTrain, at 60 km, is still fairly linear in nature.

Calgary CTrain map

There are two patterns at work here, and they are connected to density. The mesh of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm appear with higher population density. The linear pattern of Edmonton appears with low, sparse population.

Does density bring better public transportation, or does better public transportation bring density? 

_____

If you are interested in exploring the ground I’ve covered in reflecting on our visit to these winter cities in winter, here’s the thread of these Nordic posts:

  1. We chose to stay in nifty Nordic neighbourhoods
  2. Our Nordic modes of transportation were different than in Edmonton
  3. Nordic density is different from density in cities on the Canadian Prairies

_____

Sources:

Population, area and density:

  • Thomas Brinkhoff: City Population, http://www.citypopulation.de 

Transportation:

  • http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/ets/about_ets/ets-statistics.aspx
  • http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/2013_LRT_Passenger_Count_Report.pdf
  • https://www.calgarytransit.com/about-us/facts-and-figures/statistics
  • http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2014-q1-ridership-APTA.pdf
  • http://www.lta.gov.sg/ltaacademy/doc/13Sep105-Pan_KeyTransportStatistics.pdf
  • https://www.hsl.fi/sites/default/files/uploads/hsl_moves_us_all_1.pdf
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Nordic density

 

On Monday, I started a series of posts as part of my reflection on my family’s tour of the capital cities of the Nordic Nations with a post on our Nordic modes of transportation.

It seems there are two city pattern at work: one aimed at serving the movement of cars, and another aimed to serve the movement of people. The city planner in me needs to dig into what is different about cities there (Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki) and here.

Density by the numbers

I have chosen to compare the five Nordic cities with the three largest cities on the Canadian Prairies, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. With the exception of Reykjavik, the cities’ population ranges from just over 600,000 people to just over 1 million. (Note – the population of Copenhagen includes the municipality of Frederiksberg, which is surrounded by Copenhagen.)

population by mun boundary

Area by mun boundary

The Prairie cities and Oslo have cover the largest area of land, with Reykjavik and Copenhagen covering the least area of land to house their inhabitants.

The resulting density of inhabitants per square kilometre is remarkable. Copenhagen and Stockholm are the most densely populated, at 6792 and 4782 people per square kilometre. Edmonton is the least densely populated at 1122 people per square kilometre. Winnipeg and Calgary come in at 1492 and 1555 people per square kilometre.

density by mun boundary

These are very different cities.

 

A feel for the density

In each city, we chose to stay in neighbourhoods to get a feel for the city. In Copenhagen, we stayed in an apartment in Frederiksberg. Thanks to Google Maps, I can show you the primary city pattern that accommodates high density without high-rise buildings. The overwhelming pattern is 6-storey buildings around the edges of the block with a courtyard in the center.

Frederiksberg Flat in Copenhagen. Image: Google Maps

Every apartment has access to daylight. Every apartment has access to outdoor yard space that is semi-private. All services are stitched into the fabric of the neighbourhood. Businesses, schools and shopping centres are all at hand. So, too, are transportation systems to move people in various ways – by car, by bike, on foot, or bus. Nearby is a Metro station.

A Frederiksberg street
A Frederiksberg street

In contrast, my neighbourhood in Edmonton is mostly single family dwellings. When I moved in 7 years ago the neighbourhood was fighting a second tall building. Now there is spurts of uproar, though not always, about new rules that are allowing duplexes and secondary suites as a strategy to increase density in the city. There’s one tall building (look for it’s shadow) that raises the overall density, but the pattern is simple: 10 homes per block.

My neighbourhood, Glenora, in Edmonton

It’s not ugly. But it is different.

This low density pattern means that I have a 20 minute walk, one-way for groceries and some services. Adequate bus service is nearby. The streets are lined with wonderful trees. In short daylight hours of winter, the sun shines in to our homes. The low density means the use of cars is inevitable (though we are active and fit enough to walk or ride our bikes most often, or take the bus).

Copenhagen is 6 times more densely populated than Edmonton. Copenhagen and Edmonton exemplify two different cultural patterns of city building. One compels us to live physically closer to each other. The other compels to live physically apart from each other, creating space for us to be alone, both on our properties and in our cars. Both patterns have merits.

In my next post I will explore how public transportation infrastructure shows up in these cities and tease out how density relates to transportation infrastructure in practice.

In the meantime, which habitat feels more comfortable to you? The density of Copenhagen, or the expansiveness of Edmonton?  

Your choice shapes your city.

 

_____

Source:

Population, area and density: Thomas Brinkhoff: City Population, http://www.citypopulation.de 

 

 

 

Our Nordic modes of transportation

 

Our modes of transportation.png.001
Caveat – we did not travel by bicycle due to a broken arm in the family.

Last week I returned from my winter tour of the capital cities of the Nordic nations: Reykjavic, Iceland; Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and Helsinki, Finland. Over the next few weeks,  will be sorting and sifting through my thoughts about the trips, searching for better understanding of cities, both Nordic and those on the Canadian Prairies.

The first thing I noticed is that these Nordic Cities are not the same as my home city, Edmonton. The way we moved around was totally different.

We chose to stay in apartments in neighbourhoods in close proximity to the city center in each city. We were able to get groceries and all services within a couple minutes walk from each location. We were able to access public transportation in most cases right outside the building, or at most a 3 minute walk. We noticed each city had schools everywhere. We noticed streets that were alive with people and business. We noticed an explicit infrastructure for bicycles (and the bicycles!) on busy streets, along with cars and buses and trams and trolleys.

Copenhagen - multiple modes of transportation
Copenhagen, December 28, 2014

These city amenities are found in tiny pockets in Edmonton. They are are everywhere in these Nordic cities.

In contrast, our arrival was significant time in a car, stuck on a highway, then a freeway.

Back in Edmonton
Traffic no longer moving on the Anthony Henday, Edmonton, January 7, 2015

Over the next few posts, I will dig into two city patterns at work here: one that aims to serve the movement of cars, an other that aims to serve the movement of people. The cities were designed for different purposes.

The city planner in me needs to dig into what is different about there and here.

Nifty nordic neighbourhoods

In two weeks, my family and I are heading out on what we call Nordex, a wee expedition to explore – in winter – the capital cities of  Earth’s five Nordic Nations: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Source: www.chriskresser.com

The stage is set. Our journey starts with easy flights: Icelandair will take us to Reykjavik for a couple days, before taking us on to Oslo. From there we will take trains and and a boat to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, spending 4-5 days in each city.

The details are emerging. Our objective is to capture the experience of Nordic city life in winter. We don’t have a lot of time to spend in each place, so where we do spend our time matters. In choosing our accommodation, we are choosing our neighbourhoods carefully, to get a sense of the place and what life is like. This can not be done in hotels. Enter Airbnb.

Here’s how our trip is shaping up:

  • In Reykjavik, Siggi is hosting us in her downtown apartment, near the Hallgrimskirkja church. We are in walking distance of all we need, but will likely rent a car on day 2 to explore further afield.
  • We will spend the shortest day of the year in Oslo. Line is hosting us in her apartment located in an old factory building a 5 min walk from Grunerlokka, a former rundown industrial district, now a vibrant arty neighbourhood, according to The Guardian. We will have excellent public transport to Oslo (13 min to city centre).
  • On Christmas Eve, we will arrive in Copenhagen. Michael, Rikke and baby Vilfred welcome us to their apartment in Frederiksberg, before heading off for their family celebration. Frederiksberg is a municipality surrounded by the City of Copenhagen, one of many municipalities in Denmark’s Capital City Region. The physical layout of Frederiksberg is different than the rest of Copenhagen – more parks, larger villas and wider streets.
  • We will spend New Year’s in Stockholm, in Astrid’s apartment that overlooks the Sofia Church in the Sodermalm neighbourhood. We will be in “SoFo”, a neighbourhood full of eclectic shops, fashion and design stores, art galleries and good food.
  • For my birthday, we will be in the Kallio neighbourhood in Helsinki, an old labour district, where Ollie and Sarah are hosting us in their funky 1930’s apartment full of vintage Nordic design furniture. Helsinki’s traditional market square is across the street.

We’re set for an adventure, to explore the city from the inside out.

 

 

 

Citizens – change up the dance moves

 

At the end of Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, he argues that it is time for citizens to fight city hall. But the real fight in is in how we think about our cities and our relationships with each other and cities.

Here’s the great irony of the American (and Canadian) city as Montgomery sees it:

… a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities. Municipal governments, often with the counsel and assistance of land developers, lay down community plans complete with restrictive zoning long before residents arrive on the scene. Residents have no say about what their streets and parks and gathering places will look like. And once they move in, it is illegal for them to tinker with the shape of the public places they share, or, … to use their homes for anything beyond the dictates of strict zoning bylaws (p. 306).

The challenge is not that municipal governments and land developers need to be fought, but that the voices of citizens and civil society are weak and need to be strengthened. We have been building cities, without making cities that serve us well. (Montgomery’s premise is that cities are a happiness project, and that cities design our lives .)

Looking at the city as a whole system, there are four distinct voices and roles in city making (see my last post on Happy City, change the code, change the city): citizens are the voice of the city spirit, embodying the city’s values; civic managers are civic expertise, looking after our public institutions, serving as the city brain; civil society is the cultural voice of the city, the city’s heart; and the civic builders and developers invest in and build the infrastructure of the city. Civic managers (city hall) and civic builders and developers build the  city, giving it intelligence and physical form. Citizens and civil society add the psychological and cultural aspects of the city. Montgomery articulates an imbalance in today’s city, where we put emphasis on the building, without consciously considering what we are making.

_____

How we make our cities is evolving. They start with people building their own shelter, organizing paths, then roads and more formal buildings and transportation systems, along with water and wastewater systems etc. (Check out Is the unplanned city unplanned?) Cities are changing all the time to respond to the needs of its people, in their context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive. As this evolution takes place, our work evolves too. It gets more and more specialized. Just as we don’t do our own dentistry anymore, most of us don’t build our own homes, streets, cities, and sewer lines. But that does not mean we are not interested in them, and how they serve us. That is Montgomery’s point. They are not serving us well. He is calling for a recalibration of these four voices in the city.

The value of Montgomery’s work is that it helps citizens – and civic managers, civic builders and developers and civil society – see what we are building and consider how we could be building cities that serve citizens better. Stories of how citizens step up into work that improves the built form of  cities are useful and inspirational: intersection interventions, city repair. Citizens can dive in.

Citizens need to dive in. Citizens need to think about – and choose – the city that will best serve them. And they need to change how they think.

We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim great power (p. 295).

Montgomery names concrete ways in which we can think differently about city life, and there is great power in each of these:

  1. Think engagement and curiosity, rather than retreat. Today’s city is a design problem (in the realm of civici managers and builders) but also a psychological, cultural problem (citizens and civil society): “we have translated the uncertainty of city life into retreat instead of curiosity and engagement (p. 316).”
  2. Think trust and cooperation. There are parts of ourselves that are more inclined toward curiosity, trust, and cooperation, and these qualities of behaviour make us feel good. We are equally hardwired for dissatisfaction and status anxiety, as we we are for trust and cooperation.
  3. Think relationships. Between people, but also between the village and its villagers. Does the city welcome cooperators and walkers?
  4. Think of your place in the city. Confront your relationship with the city. Can you change your place in the city? Are your habits making you unhappy? Do you need to revisit what the good life looks like? Do you live where you can leave your car at home?
  5. Stand up with imagination. There is a struggle underway as citizens (and even some civic managers and civic builders) grapple with policies and practices that create unhappy cities. And there are lots of creative ways to create the changes we want. You can stand up in full-blown political ways, or simply changing your place in the city.

How we think about our cities, particularly when we align our minds and hearts with our action, is a political act.

This is the truth that shines over the journey toward the happy city. We do not need to wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build it by living it (p. 321). 
 

The four voices in the city are looking out for different things, so they don’t see eye to eye. But the tension in the city is not about ranking the perspective of one over the others, but rather figuring out the role of each in each challenge we face. It is a dance of voices and values; Montgomery invites citizens to change up the dance moves.