A welcoming city has transportation choices

It doesn’t feel good when people in your city scream at you. Last month I was on my bike, on a downtown street, making my way to the new bike lanes a few blocks away. A truck driver yelled at the top of his lungs: USE THE F$&#ING BIKE LANES!!!

Only three days before this happened, I jumped on a bicycle, rode 15 minutes on streets of various sizes that accommodated many modes of transportation — bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and trams – to get to Utrecht’s Central Station in the Netherlands. I got on a train with my bicycle and in 30 minutes was emerging from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a map in my pocket and two hands on handlebars, to make my way on bustling unfamiliar medieval streets to Park Museumplein and the surrounding sights. I was in the busy throng of people moving in many ways through the city.

There were choices about how to move in Utrecht and Amsterdam. I could choose to move by car, on foot, on a bicycle powered by me or electricity or gas, or by bus, tram or train. The city is designed for choice and the inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves. There are people who choose cars. There are people who choose bicycles or scooters. There are people who choose buses, trams and trains. And there are people who choose it all. Most importantly, those choices are available just about everywhere. There is significant public investment made to do this, in the streets and even bicycle parking lots. (Check out this article about the Utrecht Central Station bicycle parking facilities for 22000 bicycles.)

The inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves.

There are sensible separations that are responsive to scale and speed, always with a the larger intention to allow choice. There are no bicyles on highways, but bicyles can be on trains or you can ride your bike between cities. In the city proper, bicycles are everywhere and the city is made for it. Make a sidewalk a bit wider, paint it a different colour and there’s room for bicycles on a busy street of any size. On a small local street, bicycles are on the street with the cars. Intersections are made for all modes of transportation and while messy compared to the simplicity of an intersections only for cars, it works perfectly. All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

Back in Edmonton, in North America, my experience is a startling contrast. In one 20 minute ride into downtown and back home I realize:

  1. There is no place for me to be. I have to choose to be like a car and be on the road or choose to be like a pedestrian and be on the sidewalk. My ride starts on a quiet street so I choose the street. When the car traffic gets busier I ride on the sidewalk. I don’t like to do this.
  2. The new bicycle path does not go to where I am going, so I choose not to use it, despite wanting to support the public investment.
  3. Friendly drivers don’t know what do to. On a quiet street I choose to ride on the street. At an intersection where I have the stop sign, a driver stops and waves me on. This is nice, but she would not stop like this if I was a car.
  4. The streets with new bicycle lanes downtown do not go where I am going. As I travel through downtown, I pass cross streets with bicycle lanes. I could move south, away from where I am going, to be on a bicycle lane, but that is out of my way and doesn’t feel right. I stay on the street because there are few vehicles.
  5. There isn’t a place to park my bike. I arrive at my destination, Edmonton Tower, for a meeting with City of Edmonton colleagues. There is room for 12 bicycles to park and it is full. I ask, again, for the security personnel to pass along to the management that more facilities for bicycle parking are needed.

    Bicycle parking at Edmonton Tower is oversubscribed.
  6. Some drivers are ANGRY. On my way home, I decide to go out of my way to use one of the new bicycle lanes, so there is one more visible cyclist using this investment. On my way there I find myself on a narrow street with no sidewalk because of construction. This is when the driver screams out his window: USE THE F&%$ING BIKE LANE!!!! I was in the only place I could be to get to the bike lane.
  7. Another driver is ANGRY. A bit later, while crossing a street (on the street like a car) a driver honks his horn at me. I look (maybe it’s someone I know?) and see him moving his fingers as if I should be walking across the street. I shrug my shoulders. He honks again. Longer.

This is not the Edmonton I want to be, where the power of the car dominates the choices of its citizens. But lets be clear — we give the car its power. It is our choice. We attach ourselves to the car life and feel threatened by the choices that are available to all of us. The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. This is, however, a form of power over people who by choice or need do not use a car. More of us have control – in the form of choices – if more of us have choices about how to move around in our city.

To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision for Edmonton:

  1. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens. This means both physical access (is the infrastructure there) but also the financial means of the user. This takes place both on the street and also across the city. (Note – street here means the entire public right-of-way.)
  2. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens EVERYWHERE. It isn’t about choosing specific places where bicycles and buses and trains will go. It’s about choosing specific places where bicycles will not go. Bicycle infrastructure is cheap and easy. Just do it. This takes place both on the street and also across the city.
  3. There are clear rules for how street users behave because there is a clear place for them. Pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle drivers all have their own place to be on the street and know what to expect of each other. The bicycle is not a pedestrian or a car or a train, but since we don’t have a place for bicycles, we have unnecessary conflict between street users.
  4. All street users are courteous and patient. It’s easy to navigate a street for cars or a street for pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street for cars and pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trams and scooters, but it is doable. Millions of humans live this in various parts of the world. The choice is ours, but it will take courage to behave in ways that are courteous and patient both as we recreate our city and figure out how to relate to each other and our city differently.

There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. This is a gargantuan task, but is not the biggest task. The biggest task is to be civil and friendly with each other while doing the difficult work of making cities that serve citizens well.

Some of the bicycle parking at Rotterdam’s Blaak Station near Markthal.

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 shapes of conversations

The shape of a meeting reflects the purpose of the meeting: telling or listening. Both are appropriate depending on the intentional purpose of the meeting, and often telling and listening purposes are simultaneous. Here are questions I ask to figure out what shape I will use in preparing for a meeting:

  • What is the purpose of the gathering?
  • What needs to be told and who needs to tell it?
  • Who will be listening and to whom are they listening?
  • What are we listening for?
  • What is the shape that serves the purpose?

We are most familiar with two shapes of conversation: the board table and the theatre. These shapes, and our behaviour in these shapes, is about expertise and power; at the front of the room, or at the head of the table, is the one from whom we expect will tell us what to do, the boss or the expert. One person has the answers and the rest expect the answers. One person knows what to do and the others will make it happen.

board and theatre
Shapes of telling and following: the board table and the theatre

These are shapes for telling and following, for providing direction.

We all participate in these shapes: the boss/expert expects others to follow and the subordinates have steep expectations of the boss/expert. The boss will say how things will unfold. Subordinates expect clear directions.

The shapes of telling and following are the right choice in the right circumstances. A doctor friend has extensive expertise is infectious diseases and she has a role in the health care system to serve as a resource for front-line doctors. She has knowledge they need in their work; when something strange happens in their practice she tells them what they need to know as a speaker at a conference, at meetings around board tables or by teleconference, or a one-on-one consult. While there is room for questions from front-line doctors to understand what she is telling them, they trust the information she conveys, take it and use it directly. My doctor friend is in the telling role. The front-liners listen and follow.

Listening is a crucial part of telling and following. The subordinates, or the audience, are there to listen and are expected but the boss/expert to listen. This is listening as an individual: I hear what the boss/expert has to say, I take some notes, and I will adjust my actions as dictated.

The shape of a conversation shifts dramatically if the gathering has a purpose different from telling and listening. The intentional purpose of a conversation may be to explore and digest, and figure out a way forward together. In this case, the shape shifts to circle, where the expertise and contributions of everyone–rather than one or select few–are welcomed. The listening is done by individuals and the group because the purpose of the conversation is about collective discernment: we have something to figure out together.

circles
Shapes for collective listening and discernment: the circle of many sizes

These are shapes for listening–as individuals and as a group–that lead to wise action.

Shapes of listening and discernment are the right choice in the right circumstances. A city planner colleague of mine is working to create a new set of rules to guide infill development in his city and he recognizes that there are people with different perspectives on this that need to be taken into account: other people in city hall, builders and developers, and citizens and community organizations. He recognizes that they all have pieces to the city-puzzle we are making. He needs to listen to them all and he recognizes that as these different perspectives listen to each other, better solutions come forward. He offers, around little tables and within the whole group, ways for people to listen to each other and find ways forward that look after a wide range of interests. This tangibly helps him in his work and it enables everyone else make a city that serves them well.

All of these shapes are right in the right time and place. It all depends on the purpose: telling or listening, direction or conversation.

As you design and prepare for your next gathering, ponder these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the gathering?
  • What needs to be told and who needs to tell it?
  • Who will be listening and to whom are they listening?
  • What are we listening for?
  • What is the shape that serves the purpose?

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Interested in learning more about circle? You might be interested in The Circle Way Practicum and/or exploring The Circle Way.

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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

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.

 

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Source:

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

 

 

 

Civic practice for the city

Everything a city does – or does not do – is a result of our actions as citizens, community organizations, the business community and our public institutions. How each of us show up in the city affects how the city serves us, individually and collectively. (Remember the difference between the corporate ‘City’ government and the ‘city‘ habitat we build for ourselves.)

Back in September, in village in the city, I connected the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea on the purpose of a village to the purpose of the city. The result was another a twist on what a city does for its citizens (a reminder of city purposes).

To show up well, in any of the roles we play in the city, we need to be conscious of our civic practice. After our basic survival needs are met, we engage in story and this feeds everything in the city, at every scale. Imagine the village again, where we share stories to ensure our collective survival. Our stories are also full of passion and they feed pride and identity. We will even battle and fight when our stories are threatened. In a village, we are called to be clear about our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable to each other, to be fair and just. As a village develops, we are also compelled to take action on what needs to be done, and be creative and entrepreneurial, allowing our drive to thrive to fuel us.  Eventually, we are able to see and learn and benefit from everyone’s contributions and gifts. The village becomes a place where we learn to live with conflicting truths and uncertainties, allowing us to live the ‘village’ everywhere. It is a place where we can integrate feeling and knowing, and simply be in awe of how the world works.

The Spiral reveals that there are layers of civic practice:

  1. Once our survival needs are met, we …
  2. Connect with each other through our stories. We belong to each other.
  3. Allow our stories to fuel our passion, feed our identity and pride as individuals and as a group.
  4. Seek clarity in our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable, to be fair and just.
  5. Take action on what needs action, allowing our drive to be creative to serve us as opportunities arise.
  6. Look after each other, our diverse needs, and chase our diverse desires.
  7. Explore what’s necessary, natural and next, learning anywhere, everywhere with anyone.
  8. Integrate feeling and knowing, with radical optimism.

For the graphically inclined, here’s how they the layers of civic practice show up on the Spiral:

Civic practice spiral

 

How do you nurture your civic practice? How do you ensure you show up well for your city? 

 

 

Village in the city

 

The purpose of a village is also the purpose of a city. For Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, a village does many things at once: protects and looks after its inhabitants; feeds them and ensures the goods and services needed are on hand; supports the varied work of villagers so they can participate in community commerce; educates and initiates; governs with a social structure of shared mores; builds webs of identity and relationships; and grows the spirit of the place with traditions of meaning.

Baldwin, Linnea, what is a village and what does it do
Source – Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, What is a village and what does it do?

A village is doing many things at once, each of which connects to the story, the heart, of a place. The story is what connects and binds us to each other and is a foundation on which we build our cities.

In any human system, there is a progression of values, and our intelligence, that we experience that form our stories as individuals and any scale of collective (family, organization, village, city). I took at look at how these levels of values show up in the city. We begin with our full attention on our survival, and once that is looked after, our attention expands to focus on: collective survival; economic and military power; authority and moral codes; prosperity and entrepreneurship; diversity of knowledge; then systemic flow and global life force. (For more details on these levels of values, please explore my primer on Spiral Dynamics integral. For their application to the city, start with Is the unplanned city unplanned – part 4.)

As I look at Baldwin and Linnea’s model, I can see several layers of the Spiral. The village looks after the basic survival needs of villagers. It will step in and protect if need be. It has rules and protocols. It recognizes that it is a place where learning takes place. It recognizes that at the heart of the village is story, the glue that binds us. Here’s what happens if I look at the purpose of the city with “villageness” in mind:

What does a city do? 

  1. Meet basic needs of citizens
  2. Nurture shared sense of belonging, for collective survival 
  3. Cultivate pride and identity / protect city from danger
  4. Provide necessary structure to meet citizens’ needs (physical, economic, social)
  5. Create the conditions for property, development and growth
  6. Create the conditions for expanding knowledge, receiving and giving knowledge
  7. Learn to flex and flow with uncertainty and conflicting truths
  8. Serve as Gaia’s reflective organ

A city, just as a village, does many things at once. Not every citizen is doing each of these things all at the same time, but collectively, as our attention shifts to meet the demands of each moment, the city shifts too. The graphic at the top of this post is purposely purple, for the notion of village is firmly rooted in the early stages of human evolution, when we are grappling for collective survival, and where myths, mystery and story were our tools to understand the world.

Cultivating the village in the city is not about going back in time, but rather a way to cultivate a new story to tell ourselves about our cities and our roles in them as citizens. When we do, it will reshape all the layers we have created above the story.

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purpose of village-city on spiral

 

 

The art of Seattle

 

[They] sought to create art that consciously responded to the world events surrounding them. All saw art as a form of spiritual quest.

I found these words in the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) pamphlet on their summer exhibition: Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Myths & the Mystical, describing the work of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson.  As I explored their work, and the text provided by SAM, here are some juicy bits:

visualizations of the world in flux, of the human spirit transcendent, or of the cosmos. 
 
If there was any hope that the world could survive the threat of annihilation, . . .  it was found  . . .  from the closely observed cycle of life.
 
. . . symbols . . .  through close observation of the world around them – in the energy of the wartime city or in the fight for survival that defines the natural world. . .
 
. . . the visual language of Northwest Coast people as a . . .  lexicon of symbols for conveying universal brotherhood, a common spirituality  and a belief in the primacy of the laws of nature. . .

And I was compelled to see how the titles of their artwork could fit together:

The mythic and the mystical form
follows man, a rummage of
moving moments 
riding on the mountain
in the white night
searching for the morning
dove of the inner eye
to find on the seventh day
the seed was in itself

And Seattle? She was beautiful too. She is her own artwork.

 

Let the happy city grow you

 

Over the course of the summer I have been rereading Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, teasing out the city essentials for city life. Here are some big ideas that have surfaced for me in the posts related to / sparked by Happy City:

  1. The city is a shared project that allows us to thrive together, and the shared tension is necessary for our growth and happiness. Ultimately, the city is a happiness project.
  2. Our social habitats struggle when our physical city habitat is dispersed (longer commute times; less trust among people in mono functional, car-dependant neighbourhoods than in walkable neighbourhoods with diverse house in, shops and places to work). How we design – to be in close proximity to each other – matters. The cities we design design our lives. We can choose to build places that make us feel good.
  3. The professionals who design our cities are only part of the picture. Citizens also play a role, as do the business community and our community organizations. It’s not just city hall. At the end of the day, the habits of professionals are as we expect them to be because their job is to serve the public interest.
  4. Everyone, everywhere can actively work to build the city to save the world. It means we have to recognize that we are hardwired to be dissatisfied make bad decisions all the time. And happiness moves – so every time we reach what would make us happy, it moves on and we are dissatisfied. It’s a journey that requires us at every turn to be present to the changes demanded of us. This never ending journey is the force that allows us to improve our cities – and save the world.
  5. People want to be close to each other and apart at the same timethe proximity/retreat conundrum. The design of cities needs to embrace this challenge. We can effectively retrofit our cities by weaving nature into the city at every scale and designing for conviviality.
  6. A city is not happy when the only way to move around is by carHappy mobility is in multiple modes. A happy city allows for choices in how we move around, gives us destinations in reach, and provides connections.
  7. Happiness in the city is about fairness, which means designing cities that accommodate everyone’s experience of the city. But what if the city is not broken, but right on schedule? What if we are where we should be – compelled to improve…
  8. Multiple modes of transportation, rather than a focus primarily on the car, allows us to tap into the abundance of everything, everywhere. The interconnections everywhere in city life are our resilience strategy. Montgomery inspires a new story of the city that gives us much more than we expect.
  9. Change the code, change the city, in two ways. First, if we change the rules that guide the physical developmen of the city, we will change the physical shape of the city. Further, this requires thinking of the city, and our role in it, differently.
  10. Citizens can change the city by thinking about it differently. You don’t have to be an engineer or a city planner to get a better city for yourself. Rethink how you think of it, your relationship with others, and your relationship with the city itself. And when you do, the rest of the city will recalibrate itself. Change up the dance moves, and the others will have to too.

You are a city maker.

And as you explore what you can do to make your city better, as you find your way in the city, you are letting your city find you, and grow you.

 

 

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.

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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.