Cities – more like Titanic or iPhone?


At the Awesome Neighbourhoods for a  Sustainable City workshop I co-hosted last week with The Natural Step Canada, a question surfaced that is still simmering for me: Are cities more like the Titanic the iPhone?

Windmills to power the city – without noise

We started the day building models of awesome neighbourhoods that contribute to the city’s sustainability.  Citizens, developers, civil society and city managers (the four integral voices of the city) worked together to find what makes a neighbourhood look, feel, sound and smell awesome.  The models told the stories of what people are hungry for in our cities.  Andrea and Daniel, two participants from Workshop 1, summarized the stories.  It seems we are looking for neighbourhoods that:

  • Appeal aesthetically – beautiful buildings, visual diversity, artistic expression and public art, and interaction between buildings, transportation and open space
  • Generate sustainability – community based energy generation, increased density, and a shift in modes of transportation away from the automobile
  • Invite – a mix of public and private spaces, places for community activities and gathering, a great place
  • Meet basic needs – safe and secure, housing for all stages of life, places of worship, health services, schools, mixed land uses and affordability
Model under construction

After having built a neighbourhood and taken guided tours of each other’s neighbourhoods, we settled in to look at our collective work.  We noticed that cities are like the Titanic: hard to turn.  We explored this metaphor and found it both negative and positive.  The Titanic sunk and killed many.  We noted that the Titanic was ahead of her time; she represented great progress in that she was something we had never done before.   Unlike the Titanic that was unable to turn in time, we see that our cities are turning.  They are changing and evolving to be what we need.

Cities are changing and evolving because they are created by us and we are changing and evolving.  All of us, as citizens, as the folks that run our public institutions, the people that physically go out to build our city, and our civil society that organizes to live and speak our values and culture, play a role in how much we consciously respond to our surroundings.

We choose to stay in the fun dance hall at the heart of the Titanic, perhaps oblivious to our fate.  We choose to dare look out the window or go out on deck for fresh air and a view, looking out for the obstacles that could sink our ship.  We each choose, in our Titanic cities, to assume everything is okay or to look for feedback that may require our adaptation.  We choose the information we would like to have on our city/ship instrument panel.

Here’s where the iphone fits in: it is a platform for adaptation and customization.  It is a source of open, public feedback for our cities.  At the workshop, Carmen dreamed of knowing where all the saskatoon berry bushes are in Edmonton.  I imagine an iphone app where citizens upload geographic locations, enabling Carmen to harvest her favourite food across the city.  In Edmonton we tweet about where the food trucks mysteriously locate each day.  We have at our disposal unimaginable opportunities to share our cities with each other.  We have, as well, opportunities to share our understanding of whether our cities are serving us well or not.  This is the feedback we need to ensure our cities serve us well.

Tour of an awesome public gathering place

No one person or authority builds our cities.  We depend on ourselves and others to make sure we organize ourselves to build the ship and that she is sturdy enough for the voyage and flexible enough to meet our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to  have appropriate standards and oversight to ensure what we create meets our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to ensure that our cities reflect our evolving values and actively support the well-being of all inhabitants of the city and eco-region.

Our learning journey together revealed to me that cities are slow-turning Titanics that increasingly have inhabitants that create feedback loops.  The feedback within our ships/cities, between cities and among our planet of cities is improving.  These inhabitants are, from within the ship, creating new ways to turn and power cities so we no longer have the burden of the Titanic as a slow-moving ship heading to disaster.  Instead, we have ship that serves us well with a future of iPhonic feedback.

What makes your neighbourhood an awesome part of your sustainable city?  What would make it even more awesome?  


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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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