To organize ourselves to ensure our species is able to sustain itself, we need to fully contemplate the relationship we have with our work, and our work’s relationship with our habitat. Figure A illustrates this relationship.
The development of cities is a survival skill. When I say this, I mean the development of diverse and innovative work in cities is a survival skill. It forms what Jane Jacobs’ referred to as our economic life – the force that creates and sustains cities. The work we do creates our cities. This post begins to articulate further the relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat.
At the center of the illustration is economic life – the sphere where we work. Our work, at a minimum, is to ensure personal well-being of self and family. It most often involves a relationship with something, or someone else. If no one did any work, if no one ‘lifted a finger’ we would not exist. There is always work to do. We have to make an effort to survive; it doesn’t just happen.
The location of work varies greatly: it can be at home, out in the fields or the barn, on a construction site, in an office, or on a train. Our work is generally a transaction for something in return. When times are tight, work may be building shelter and growing food for family. If the skills to do this are not on hand, we work for others in return for those skills, or do something to barter for those skills. Moreover, the work done in cities is a transaction that results in money for the worker that is exchanged for shelter, food, clothing. And, if affluent enough, the worker purchases additional things for enjoyment. Or we may make work transactions with no money changing hands and instead a service changes hands, such as when we volunteer for a community event or work in our homes. There are paid and unpaid jobs everywhere.
The common thread in our work lives is a transaction with others. Very rarely, as a species, do we live alone. We are regularly in contact with others and we have chosen to live in communities, towns and ever-growing cities, and the source of our contact is in the exchange of work. Our economic life, the sphere in which we exchange our work with one another, is at the heart of the dynamic from which cities are created and recreate themselves. But it is not as simple as being in contact with each other. New work must be generated.
At the scale of the city, our economic life is the accumulation of all our work, combining and interacting, transacting. Our work creates our social, physical and economic worlds; this is what builds our cities. We inherit our physical habitat, but our work changes our habitat. We build settlements, roads, swimming pools and airports. We all build and create: individually we plant flowers, maintain our homes, build garages; collectively we build highways, schools, and businesses. The outer ring of the illustration is our physical habitat, which is both the habitat we are given and the habitat that is physically created by our work.
The outer ring of this illustration is the physical habitat in which we live. A city’s very existence hangs on its environmental (physical) context. Our economic life is very connected to our physical habitat. A settlement begins with the inheritance of a resource. As I write from Alberta, Canada, I am compelled to notice that my province’s economic life today relies on the oil and gas resources within our boundaries. As we have developed this resource, our physical habitat has changed along with our activity. Oil wells, mines, equipment and roads cover the landscape. We have grown cities and built new cities to accommodate the extraction of oil and gas for cities across the planet.
Our physical habitat also includes the spaces we do not include as traditionally being within the city. It must include all of the land that supports the city: the land and water from which food is grown and water is provided for citizens. It includes these resources and others that allow us the life we have: transportation, buildings, recreation, business, government, etc. It includes the impact of our activity, individually and locally, as well as collectively and globally, on our planet.
At the outset of a settlement, the physical habitat gives us the opportunity to develop new work with a resource. We have also, historically, created new work to accommodate a changing climate. New work in the context of our habitat continues to be an operating principle today. The habitat for most humans is now the city, which generates the conditions for more diverse work, which means we generate more change to which we must adapt. The physical habitat we build – cities – generates the conditions for more new work, which grows our cities. In the middle of these two elements is our social habitat, the connective tissue between our economic life and our physical habitat.
From our African ancestors until now, it is clear that we are social creatures that gather and work together to ensure we do more than simply survive. Whether implicit or explicit, the reason we gather is that it affords us the ability to create the conditions to find new and improved ways of doing things. Together, rather than alone, we best face the challenges put to us. Not only do we physically create cities to face our challenges, but we also create a social habitat conducive to this. The quality of our social life – our social habitat – has an impact on our economic life and our ability to create the conditions to thrive. Cities are where we organize ourselves with social structures to create the world we live in, and, of course, be recreated by what we create. Cities are the world in which we look after self and other.
The City Emergence Dynamic
Our economic life is at the heart of our ability to create and recreate cities that respond to our changing world. Our social and physical habitats are always in flux and we shift and adjust our behaviour – our economic life – to learn and evolve. Building cities is a never-ending quest to do much more than survive. This quest takes place at many scales in the city, in what Marilyn Hamilton has articulated as a nest of city systems (Figure B). Moreover, our very work to adjust (at any scale) creates new conditions to which we must respond again, and again, and again… Cities are the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.
In this week’s posts, I will explore:
- the relationships between economic life and habitat in more detail; and
- how these relationships show up at scale (self, neighbourhood, city etc.)