Cities are as good as we allow them


We limit ourselves greatly when we focus on what we have to fix.  It keeps us in the here and now, not the better world we have in mind.

Here’s a scenario.  Imagine I live east of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada.  Imagine I dream of surfing the ocean waves, an activity I can not do on the prairies.  I dream of getting to the West Coast and the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the mountains.

In fix mode, I will try to find ways to spend time in the water here.  I might try other sports, I might make do with windy lakes in the summer.  I might make periodic trips to the West Coast to surf from time to time.  However, if I really want to fulfill my passion of surfing I need to shift from fix mode to something else.  I need to find a way to make it happen.

I am not going to get to surfing life on the West Coast if I am making do with what I have.  When I am making do, I put all my energy into making do, not making it to where I want to go.  Equally, I will not get what I want if I put my energy into complaining about my current situation either.  I will not get to where I want to go pondering why it is that I am not there.  To get what I want, I have to shift my attention to what I want, in this case life on the West Coast.

Our cities are no different.  We recognize that there are many things at which our cities need be better.  We complain about traffic, homelessness, energy consumption, housing costs, pollution, etc.  There are endless studies underway to analyze why things are the way they are, and solutions to ‘fix’ the problems we are experiencing.  What we are missing is most critical – knowing what our cities do really well right now and what we can do to have more of what works.  Without knowing this, we are not in relationship with our city habitat.  We are not allowing it to serve us well.  (As I write this, I realize that if a city wanted to up and move to the West Coast, it can’t.  But its inhabitants can.  Cities are where we put them, where we want to be, not the other way around.)

Notice where the energy of the city (or any organization for that matter) is focused.  Is it on short-term decisions to make short-term course corrections, or is there a focus on where the city is going, looking out further ahead.  When riding a bicycle, or driving a car, if focused on the immediate future the ride is jerky.  When we look farther ahead, the ride is wiser, smoother.  The likelihood of wrong turns is lessened.  The likelihood of hitting a pot-hole is lessened.  The likelihood of hitting pedestrians or other vehicles is lessened.  We move through the world in a safer, wiser way.

Our choices as individuals and collectives shape the city.  In the back of my mind, I always ask, what am I allowing?  Am I making room for new possibilities to emerge?  Am I making way for what I want, what we want, rather than putting my attention and efforts in conscious or unconscious efforts to have more of the same.

Here is the trick with fixing what’s wrong.  First, it puts our attention on what is wrong, rather than what we want.  It tricks us into thinking that if we just sort ‘this’ out, things will be right.  Sounds a bit like a silver bullet, but it leads us to getting more of the same.

When we put our attention to where we are, we stay there.  When we put our attention to where we want to go, we move in a new direction.


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.




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