Harm happens, intended or not

Not intending to cause harm does not mean that harm is not caused. For those of us causing harm, we use this ‘lack of intention’ as a defence mechanism, to distance ourselves from the discomfort of knowing that we did cause harm. It’s a defence mechanism that makes learning unwelcome because it may mean I have to change my actions, and change my assumptions about who I believe myself to be.

A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change. Welcoming citizens and organizations examine how we maintains the status quo by denying that we cause harm — even if not intended.

A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed. 

Three examples this week:

First, 53% of of LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school compared to only 3% of heterosexual youth. 44% of LBGTQ youth reported having thoughts of suicide, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth. 50% of LGBTQ students reported participating in self-harming behaviours compared to 35% or heterosexual youth (see Edmonton Community Foundation’s 2017 Vital Signs Report). While we are making efforts, in the form of Gay Straight Alliances in any school where requested by students, for example, we have not created a world safe for LGBTQ students. Most adults don’t intend to hurt LGBTQ youth but we are.

Second, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls began in Edmonton this week. A few headlines involve harm, beyond the obvious harm to the missing and murdered women and girls (my synopsis of messages):

  • I feel alone without the support of the police to find my mother
  • No matter what my mom did, she’s still a missing person
  • They lost the police report
  • I just walked out of the police station – I felt let down
  • The systems in place to serve and protect and help us – what are they doing about violence?
  • RCMP destroyed her belongings before anyone was charged with her death
  • I was let down

(For a sense of what took place, see CBC article, I felt let down, and Metro News article, A sense of relief.)

Again, did anyone mean to cause harm? Most people working to investigate these missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls likely did not, yet harm was done.

A third example this week is the discussion of renaming the Edmonton Eskimos football team; it’s time to stop using the word ‘eskimo’. Several callers to a CBC radio call-in show were adamant that if no ill intent was in play decades ago, that it should not be offensive now. Then or now, the intent to cause harm is not relevant. Not intending to cause harm does not eliminate the fact that harm is caused. It merely helps us pretend we are not causing harm. We need to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we are fully able of causing harm — and then do what we can to mitigate the harm.
Harm is not decided by the person causing the harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed. It is not up to the people in power – the people causing harm – to decide if their actions are justified. It is up to the people in power, however, to listen well and allow themselves to be changed by what their hear. It is up to people harmed to be clear about what caused harm, to be clean ‘in themselves’ that the action and the harm are connected. (I have found myself mad at one person only to realize later that I was mad about something else, for example.)

Harm is not decided by the person causing harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed.

Moreover, writer Sarah Schulman offers a perspective on this:

In my experience, it is the the person who is suffering who wants things to get better, while the person who is repressing their own conflicts usually wants to be the one to feel better (Conflict is Not Abuse).

To all adults out there: if kids are asking for help and they have an idea about how to help themselves, get yourself out of the way.

To all the non-Indigenous / settler people out there, especially those of us in positions of power: listen well. Notice the power we have by virtue of being white, for example. Look for our bias to help us keep our power — its in our selves and the systems we create to continue the power imbalance.

To Edmonton Eskimo fans: there are mixed messages out there from the Inuit community. I hear some are not offended, I hear some are. We need to ask and listen and do what they ask. It has nothing to do with our intentions, or how long this team has been named the Eskimos, or how attached we are to it. It has nothing to do with what the word means. If it’s the right thing to do to keep it, keep it with newfound pride. And if it’s the right thing to let it go, do it with pride and celebration. Both options are in the spirit of reconciliation alive in Edmonton right now — if we listen and act on what we hear.

It’s a bold and uncomfortable place to be, acknowledging that we have caused harm when not intended. But its the right thing to do. A welcoming city accommodates a variety of transportation choices; it also examines how it defends itself from change, by denying that harm is caused.

Because admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice.

Admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice. 


Room where it happens

I found myself in the company of people a couple weeks ago who completely understand and respect others’ needs to set limits and boundaries for themselves, so we can enable each other to show up well. In the language of The Circle Way, this is the “ask for what you need” agreement. In reflection, I have learned that I am not always quick enough to realize what I need, let alone ask for it. I didn’t.

Here’s what happened. We circled up for a board meeting for a few days and we had a lot on our agenda so we met for long, full days. On day one, I got up early to maintain my morning practice of writing and walking. On day two I was feeling under the weather, so I chose to sleep in the morning. Still under the weather on day three I chose to sleep. My ability to function and contribute lessened and lessened with each day both because of not feeling well, but also because I did not give myself the things that nourish me every day: time to exercise and fresh air and time alone to write and read.

Over the last several years I have become more introverted; I need more time alone to figure out what I think and feel about things. A day full of other people (including mornings and evenings), let alone several days, is a challenge to my inner well-being. I need time alone to look after my introvert so I can be my best self, for me and others. Without this time my energy stores deplete and my ability to be my best self declines.

I need time alone to look after my introvert so I can be my best self, for me and others. 

Last week I didn’t take the initiative to make more time for myself, or to ask for our work schedule to change to allow more spaciousness. This opportunity to reflect has allowed me to see two underlying ideas.

First idea: I want to be in the room where it happens. Just like Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit Hamilton, I want to be there when great stuff happens. I don’t want to miss out on anything and I want to be a part of everything. If something neat is happening, I want to be a part of it.

Second idea: my needs are not as important as others’ needs. In my drive to be in the room where it happens, I fear rocking the boat, or letting other people down by either proposing something preposterous, or by simply not being available when needed.

Our meeting was productive and meaningful. It was a challenging time for us and we met each other well and yet I feel that for me, and how I show up for myself, there is room for improvement. How can I spend days with others, from dawn into the evening, in ways that maintain or even increase my energy stores?

Two contrasting shapes of how to spend three days together come to mind:

All together all the time
All together all the time
Meet the needs of the work and people who do the work
Meet the needs of the work and people who do the work

Here are five simple ideas about organizing full days of meeting:

  1. Understand the purpose of the gathering at all scales: the reason to gather, the intention for each day and each chunk of time in each day.
  2. Identify expectations and outcomes for the gathering that include both the tasks of the work and needs of the people to do that work. What kind of spaciousness is needed for what purpose?
  3. Start a bit later than usual to allow for the spaciousness of life in the morning (checking email or social media, exercise or meditation).
  4. Decide what works best for lunch and supper breaks. Is it a short break so the day can end early? Is it a longer break for spaciousness? Is the spaciousness needed before the meal or after? Are we sitting down together or can individuals go off on their own to eat?
  5. Designate chunks of time for the whole group to meet. When does everyone need to be together? When can people work on their own schedule? Remember: the days do not have to be the same.

Unscheduled time in our lives helps us do our work. Over a few days of meeting, it is essential to find play time both with others and alone. It helps a group be its best self. When we look away from the tasks at hand, for a moment even, we can see what needs to be done more clearly.

Unscheduled time in our lives helps us do our work.

In my case, I learned that I need to let go of the need to be in the room where it happens and give myself space to discern which room I want to be in. Further, I need to make room for the work to work me, for this is how I find my way, how I figure out what and how to contribute to the world around me.

Asking for what I need is about enabling myself to be me.

How do you make room for you to be you, for “it” to happen?


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.


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.

Improve vs. fix

Does what you say you want translate into what you do? Consider these questions:

  1. When you want to listen to people do you put yourself at the front of the room?
  2. When you want a group of people to figure something out do you give them directions?
  3. When you want to figure something out for yourself do you defer to experts around you?
  4. Does the work you do feed your soul or your desire to distract yourself from your self?

At the heart of these questions is our relationship with ourselves–and whether we believe we have the smarts and ability to do what we are called to do. The question beneath the questions: do we believe in ourselves?

The question beneath the questions: do we believe in ourselves? 

The beliefs we hold about ourselves shape our relationship with the world around us at every scale (self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, nation, species). If I believe I have all the answers–and no-one else out there has anything to add–then I set myself up as the expert. If I believe I am incapable of figuring things out for myself then I rely on the directions of others. I am a knower, a teller and a fixer, or someone who does not know, needs to be told, needs to be fixed.

In contrast, if I believe that I don’t have all the answers, that together we will find the right questions and answers, then I contribute to the creation of habitats where we explore questions  and discern right action. If I believe that I am capable, with all that I know and don’t know right now, I rely on my–and our–self direction. I contribute to our ability to see together rather than defer to others, and take action together. I am a learner and I help others be learners too.

When I look at myself and the world around me with a lens of scarcity I see all that is wrong. I see that there isn’t enough, there never will be enough, and that there are things to be fixed everywhere. This leads me to a stance where I prefer control, even though I have no control, as well as a stance where I take whatever I can because it might run out. I hoard information. I hoard goods. I hoard relationships. I accumulate all that I can because somehow it will protect me from what I am most afraid of: not having. Worse yet, I believe myself to be not good enough, in need of being fixed, usually expecting others to do the fixing.

When I look at myself and the world around me with a lens of abundance I see all the possibility inherently within each of us. Scarcity distracts us from being who we are because it tells us what is wrong with us. It does not answer, let alone pose the question, “who am I?” Abundance is a stance where I believe in myself and others. Further, it requires me to trust that who I am, and what I have, is more than enough. I don’t need to be “fixed”, but rather to continue my never-ending journey of learning who I am and who we are. Where scarcity constricts, abundance invites our expansion as citizens and as a species.

Where scarcity constricts, abundance invites our expansion as citizens and as a species. 

This is about mindset–about me and my world. Do I choose a stance where everything is wrong and begs to be fixed, or do I choose a stance full of trust? I choose the latter, driven by a desire to improve, rather than fix, the world.

The distinction between improve and fix is significant. A fix is simple, mechanical and linear, and keeps us in the present, perhaps the past (we spend great energy fixing things that are no longer a problem). An improvement, in contrast, is more complicated and complex and reaches for a better future. Where a fix can be finished like a task on a check-list, improvements are continuous. Where a fix may be a destination, an improvement is about moving in a direction that will get more clear over time. Where a fix assumes brokenness, improvement accepts that something is not good enough and moves us along.

As we work in our cities this is an important distinction. When we trust what is happening we grow in whole new ways that provide everyone with what they need.



Mindful consumption

Does the work you do feed your soul or your desire to distract yourself from yourself?

I notice the thrill of consuming, and the indulgence and addictive feelings that surface in me when buying and acquiring new things. (I’m thinking of addiction here as  “an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something (Merriam-Webster).”) I recognize in me the cravings, compulsion, and fixation to consume. I know I can be weak when there is a new shiny object that I feel I need, or I feel will fill me with joy, but truly do not need and the joy will be fleeting, if I am honest with myself. So I have been observing my consumption of goods, wondering what the word consumption really means.

Consumption as a noun:

  • the act or process of consuming: by using up (use, utilization, expenditure, depletion, exhaustion), or waste (squandering, draining, dissipation)
  • the utilization of economic goods in the satisfaction of wants or in the process of production resulting in their destruction, deterioration, or transformation
  • a progressive wasting away of the body especially from pulmonary tuberculosis

To consume as a verb:

  • to do away with completely: destroy
  • to spend wastefully: squander
  • to use up
  • to eat or drink, especially in great quantity
  • to enjoy avidly: devour
  • to engage fully: engross
  • to utilize as a customer

This word carries a lot with it. It can mean simply the using of something and it can also mean the wasting and destroying and elimination of something. It can also mean the physical wasting away of humans. I propose this: when we use economic goods with a fixation that feeds our cravings and compulsions, we are creating the conditions for our own wasting away.

When we use economic goods with a fixation that feeds our cravings and compulsions, we are creating the conditions for our own wasting away. 

In economic terms, consumption is the using of things, of economic goods. But the goods we use–and the work we do to create those goods–are always in relation to our physical habitat. If we are in a poor relationship with the world around us we will deplete it, we will consume it and in so doing we will waste away. If we are in a good relationship with the world around us we will shift and adjust our work to be responsible and responsive to both our needs and the needs of our habitat. When addicted to consuming we are in an unhealthy relationship with our habitat, unable to see that we are fowling our nest. “Consumption” can be the measure of what we use, or it can be a significant–and harmful–distraction from the interrelationships we have with the physical, social and economic habitats around us.

City Emergence Dynamic by hand

This question of how much we consume is related to the work we choose to do because our work is either driven from our soul, when we do the work that we know we are called to do, or is work driven by how we want to appear to the outside world. The latter is driven by status, by having and accumulating, by keeping up with the Joneses, and with endless consumption. The latter also results in people doing work they don’t want to be doing because they need to pay the bills that come with endless consumption.

The work we do creates our cities, and if the work we do feeds addictive consumption we are creating cities that are, and will, waste away. The habitat we make for ourselves is only as good as we choose to make it. The work we choose shapes our cities–it is a survival skill. This means that if the work we each choose is based in addictive consumption we are harming our city and ourselves. The choice: feed our addictions or feed the habitat that will feed us.

The choice: feed our addictions or feed the habitat that will feed us.

I recognize that addictions are hard to kick. Here’s another economic term to consider: opportunity cost, the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. While consuming goods with abandon I abandon who I am. I consume to feel more like me but it is a trick because it takes me away from me. Consuming connects me to the material world outside me but it also distracts me from my inner world, where I connect with myself and find the work that I truly want to be doing. The same thing happens at the scale of the city. The more we work with abandon, to consume more and more, we are distracted from who we truly are and the work we truly want to be doing. You know this.

Does the work you do feed your soul or your desire to distract yourself from your Self? 

Does the work you do feed your soul or your desire to distract yourself from your Self? If you are distracting yourself, you are contributing to your own wasting away, and our wasting away.

I propose mindful consumption. I propose that a citizen that serves the city well is one that is doing the work s/he loves to do. That citizen consumes what s/he needs, s/he takes what s/he needs, and leaves the rest for others. S/he is ever more mindful of how the choices made affect our economic, social and physical habitats. S/he is every more self-aware of mindless action and not so easily distracted from where s/he fits in the world.


Note – Definitions from oxford dictionaries.com and merriam-webster.com.


Transition cycles


Death is taking people around people dear to me: the violent murder of a co-worker, the suicide of an old friend, the passing of a dad who’s lived a full life, and an uncle released from a long battle with mysterious illness. In contrast, spring is about to pop out in bright green glory.

As life comes to a close, whether peacefully or violently, new life comes.

Transition is life – and the relationship I have with the transitions within and around me is essential to how I make my way through the world.

I pause to notice transitions and the potential within them…

  • The end – today – of 5 years service to the Alberta Professional Planners Institute
  • A book substantially complete and the question of where now to put my energy?
  • A call to serve my city – as a living museum
  • A call to work with cities as habitats that need the care and attention of their citizens

I pause also to notice that these transitions are cyclical. While the content and questions may change, it is a natural and regular occurrence to feel wobbly and uncertain. It’s not possible to manage change. It is possible to live well with changing.

What transitions are alive and cycling in you?





What is the meta for?


To get where we want to go, a clear purpose – our sense of direction – is everything. If we don’t know where we are going, and why were are going there, anywhere will do.

Let’s use the metaphor of a city bike tour. The organizers have come together because they know they want to offer something. Their overall purpose is to offer an experience that allows citizens to see their city in a new way, to feel more connected to the city. They imagine that after the bike tour, the impact on citizens is inspiration to find new ways to participate in their city, to simply enjoy it and work to improve it. To pull off a good event, the organizers then need to dig deeper, more specifically, into the purposes of the bike tour, and the purposes of the events that will happen along the way. They have a few options.

They could explore the bike trails along the river the city:


They could visit the best three diners in the city:


They could visit the top four parks:


They could simply head out, unsure of what they would do:


There is nothing wrong with any of the above options; they all meet the overall, ‘intrinsic’ purpose of going on a bike tour to see the city in new ways. There is another layer of purposes that needs to be held: the instrumental purposes of each stop along the way. Once they are known, they will start a dance with the overall purpose and they inform each other. For Steve McIntosh, intrinsic and instrumental purposes are the nature of evolutionary progress. This dynamic takes place even when designing a bike tour of the city.

Knowing what the purpose of each stop along the way is instrumental. If unknown, we lose the overall purpose.

Intrinsic and instrumental purposes.003

Designing a process without purpose in mind – whether the overall or instrumental purposes of the stops along the way – is not design. It is exploration. Both of these are valuable activities – when aligned with purpose. Sometimes exploration is the purpose…


A clear invitation needs clear purposes. 

When the organizers of the bike tour have a clear purposes, they will be able to craft a clear invitation to put out into the world; people to have a clear choice of what kind of bike tour to sign up for. The next layer of purposes are needed – the overall purpose is not enough. For example, for the river valley trail tour, there could be radically different offerings that meet the overall purpose:

  1. Ride the trails of your city river with friends and family. You will have all the support you need along the way, from washrooms, snacks and technical support. Ride the whole thing, or part. The choice is up to you. See the city from a new angle!
  2. Learn about the wild in our city. On our bikes, we will take a day to ride the length of city trails with stops along the way to learn about geologic and natural features of our land from local experts. Lunch and bikes provided.
  3. Explore the wilderness in our city. Bring your journal and your geocaching skills to explore, and navigate, your self and your city. Bring your own lunch and be prepared to look after your own technological troubles. Washrooms will be provided.

The instrumental purposes of each of these invitations are very different. The first is about providing an opportunity for families to explore the river trail system in a relaxed and supportive way. The  second event is about offering a traditional learning environment in the natural habitat, learning specific things about nature in the city from experts. The third is a way for individuals to spend time alone in the valley, learning both about themselves and nature. The instrumental purposes shape the overall purpose.

Each of these invitations has a different vibe to which people respond. Knowing the purposes mean we know what we are inviting.


Why the metaphor?

While designing social social habitats, I find it useful to try metaphors on for size, to tease out purposes. I used the metaphor of a city bike tour to figure out what I had to say about purposes here. (I had an email this morning about organizing a bike tour this am!) It helped me reach for the ‘meta’, high level information I was looking for to inform a discussion in a hosting team I am part of, about the need for purpose to be articulated sooner than later.

Metaphor is a great way to explore and define purpose. And once purpose is known, metaphor is an effective way to test if the design is aligned with purpose, a good way to look sideways at our work. Is the purpose of the bike tour more like a fun run, a traditional classroom, or a personal wilderness learning journey?


A note on designing with purpose vs exploring for purpose.

If we start organizing a bike tour by laying out the routes and sites and people we want to use out before us, and start putting them together in ways that make sense to us, we are exploring. We are figuring out what needs to be figured out and in this journey we may find the purpose of the design, but the purpose comes at the end. What have designed only if what we craft reflects the purpose that came at the end.

There is a big trap in designing social processes: while exploring we may think we are designing and miss knowing purpose, or neglect to test our work against the purpose. If we gather a series of tools and methodologies that feel good together and assemble them into a process, we miss the mark because we have not connected to the purpose of the gathering, and the purposes of each part of the gathering. We can even fall into the trap of naming outcomes that will come from the process and feel good about those. It may look good, and feel good – and be false.

Design takes place when purpose is in mind; activities are chosen because they meet the purpose.


WARNING: Purpose can be hard to find. 

It is tough slogging to find purpose, as though ‘purpose’ is purposely making itself hard to find. That’s because it’s important.

One of the reasons we fall into the trap of thinking we are designing when we are not is because it is easy and familiar. It is easy to pull out the familiar ideas, or the things we are dying to try, lay out all the ideas and put them to work in ways that feel good. And if after our time exploring we nail down the overall purpose of the event, the smaller purposes are then hard to pin down. It seems to never end, but the pursuit of purpose is necessary for the ultimate design to serve well.

I offer this meta view of purpose as a window into intentional design.




The city’s right on schedule

Assume for a moment that the city is broken. Then consider this question, posed by Charles Montgomery in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design:

Do you save a broken city by fixing its hardware, its public space and infrastructure, or do you save it by fixing its software – the attitudes and behavior [sic] of its citizens? 

Montgomery tells the story of two mayors of Bogata, Columbia – Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa – who in recent years have radically improved life in their cities. Mockus built a new culture of citizenship and respect. Penalosa built the culture of respect into the city’s body, its infrastructure (p. 231-234) with these big philosophical and political questions:

Who should share in public wealth of the city?
Who should have access to parks and beautiful places?
Who should have the privilege of easy mobility?

In his stories about urban innovations to share the public wealth of the city, to allow vast access to parks and beautiful places, and to expand the privilege of easy mobility, Montgomery finds resistance.  Efforts to build infrastructure for public transportation and bicycles meets resistance. Efforts to provide access to beautiful areas of the city to the “riffraff” meet resistance. Choosing schools and sewers, over elevated highways meets resistance.

For Montgomery, citizens resist urban innovations for two reasons: “deeply held beliefs about the relationship between urban form and culture, and what it means to be free in cities (p. 240-241).” It shows up as an equity war where those that enjoy the benefits of urban systems are inconvenienced when the benefits are reapportioned (p. 241). The sprawling, dispersed city is embedded deep within us. It shapes how we think about our cities, and our streets and roads that allow us to move around our cities.

Take cars for example. For those of us that benefit from the car, any change to how we move about our city in our cars is a challenge to our deep beliefs in freedom of movement. The prospect of having to share our roads with bicycles and public transit, or lose car lanes to bicycles and public transit, sparks a war where car users decry that it is not fair. For Montgomery, this is an equity debate that the car can not win, because, “Today’s urban mobility systems are flat-out unfair, especially in North America… one in every three people [are] at the mercy of scarce public transit or dependent upon someone else to chauffeur him around (p. 241).”

We are not designing for everyone. We are designing for the privilege of the car.

So happiness is fairness.

Happiness is organizing ourselves in cities to share wealth, to share beauty. And the geography of the city matters. Stepping into Montgomery’s challenge to view the city as a share project means that the improvements we make are also shared. Physical improvements in only affluent districts, for example, is not equitable. Creating districts in our city that segregate incomes and cultures is not equitable. The shared city is a city where people are mixed. Mixing is the mark, the mark of civilized, democratic and ethical society (p. 248).”

Montgomery’s enduring lessons for cities (p. 250):

By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone’s experience, life can get easier and more pleasant for everyone. We can make cities that are more generous and less cruel. We can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active, and more free. We just have to decide who are cities are for. And we have to believe that they can change. 

We just have to decide who are cities are for.

And we have to believe that they can change.


Assume for a moment that the city is exactly where we need it to be, asking of us exactly what we need to better serve our city habitat and ourselves.

Assume for a moment that we are right on schedule.



Pause to hear what you heard


After hours and hours of listening to the public – and answering tough questions – during a series of public engagement events, my client took a few moments to hear what they heard. It was powerful.

My client is an organization at the beginning of a multi-year negotiation process with another organization. Caught in the middle are a number of citizens that will be directly affected by how this shakes out.  After a series of meetings with the affected citizens, my client pulled together all staff involved in the engagements to debrief. The objective of our debrief was simple – to pause and hear what we heard over the last month.

We took the first 15 minutes of our hour-long meeting to pass a talking piece around the table, allowing each of the 15 of us to notice our response to this question.

With all that you have heard, what is resonating in you?

Here’s what they noticed:

  • Citizens are searching for a place for their voice to be heard
  • Citizens are searching for a place in the decision making
  • Citizens are confused by mixed messages
  • Citizens want to know how the proposal will affect them personally
  • There are many voices among citizens – they are not unified
  • There are varied reactions to the proposal; for some it’s a threat, for others an opportunity

They moved past the information collected, and they moved past the process used to collect the information. They discerned the undercurrents of the work they are doing.

The process underway is complicated and complex and will take years, the result of which is uncertainty and confusion. Most importantly, they recognized that their work affects peoples’ lives in real ways.

Here’s what they noticed about themselves:

  • We are here to serve citizens
  • “Us vs. Them” does not serve us – or citizens
  • As an organization, we need to step up
  • When threatened, it is hard to listen
  • We need to demonstrate that we care. Saying it is not enough
  • We have a lot of work to do internally to ensure we can deliver what we say we will deliver

They learned to take a few steps in others’ shoes, and they let those steps change how they dance with others. Wonderful.

As you read this, what resonates with you?


10 ways to thwart, not support


I’m coming out of a weekend of meetings with a facilitator who should not have called himself a facilitator. He tried to do all the work – and this is the first sign of poor practice in hosting others.

Warning signs of when you may be thwarting the people you are with:

  1. You do nothing to make people feel welcome. You keep your distance from start to finish. You do not help people get to know each other and warm up to the hard work ahead. When we feel connected, we work light years better. 
  2. You make all the decisions. Discern when a decision is yours to make. If you are making all or most of the decisions, that is a sign that you are driving the agenda, leaving little room for others to engage. Are you sensitive to a balance where there is just enough structure and not too much?
  3. You stick to the agenda no matter what. Are you open to the needs of the group? Flexible to adjust your plan to support them on their journey? Notice how attached you are to the process you envisioned at the outset. Can you live with aiming for outcomes and respect that how to get there might be different? (And who knows, maybe the outcomes could change on you. Can you trust that the group knows if they are doing the right thing?)
  4. You keep notes for yourself. The flip charts you use are a visual resource for everyone. They are not your notes for later, that only you have to be able to read or discern. Don’t hide them. They are a crucial tool to confirm
  5. You do the organizing. Inevitably, when a group gathers to plan and organize, there are oodles of ideas to keep track of. Do you keep track of them in your head, or find visual ways for them to see and organize what they have? If you have visuals, do you do all the work, or let them?
  6. You work rigidly in your mode of learning. Some people need to see what is going on. Others need to hear it. Some need to work in small groups, others in large. How you make sense of things is not necessarily how others make sense of things. You are serving them, so adjust to there mode.
  7. You reject offers to help. When people step up to help you help them, it is an indication that they feel ownership of what is underway and they choose to engage. Your rejection not only closes you off from learning in the moment, but it puts a big chasm between you and the group.
  8. You ridicule those who help. This is an easy way to distance yourself from the people you work with. That paper on the wall? Useless. The illustration that broke the log-jam? Inconsequential. That document put on the screen to make sure we all understood and agreed to key wording? A distraction.
  9. You lose track of who’s turn it is to speak and what they’re talking about. If you are going to go to the trouble of telling someone they are next, make sure they are next. If someone is three speakers away, let them know. And remember – it is confusing to talk about more than one thing at once. Use a speaker’s list on topic.
  10. You do the same thing, all day long. The same process, all day is soul sucking. Mix it up. Serve others

How it turned out…

Before this guy, we had the benefit of strong process that allows us to establish foundational relationships. In the end, we made the meeting work and we had a lot of success. I so deeply appreciate the dedication and determination of our group to working well together and work forward. We overcame our nuisance facilitator.

To support and serve the people you are with – be open to learning along the way, grow antenna to enable you to see what needs to happen, and respond in the moment.