Persistent practical problems


As I explored the role of destination as we organize our cities in previous posts, I reached the conclusion that where we are headed is both alive and adrift. We know – and we don’t know exactly – what we want to achieve at the same time. When we have a destination in mind, but it shifts and adjusts to changing life conditions, something new has emerged. When we notice that we are moving in a direction, even if not yet able to define that direction and it feels adrift, it is alive. Our purposes are planned and unplanned.

When we have a clear destination in mind, it is easy to lay out a course of action because it is clear, linear and rational. When we trust we are moving in a direction, we only know we are moving in a direction when we come upon thresholds – indicators that something is happening.

In our cities, Jane Jacobs notices that new activities must take place for cities to develop – or they stagnate. She wrote this passage in her book, The Economy of Cities, in 1969:

Once a serious practical problem has appeared in an economy, it can only be eliminated by adding new goods and services into economic life. From this solution to city problems comes true economic growth and abundance. No city by itself develops all the various goods and services required to overcome its complex practical problems, at least not in historic times and probably not in prehistoric times either. Cities copy each others’ solutions, often very swiftly. They also support each others’ solutions, by importing relevant goods to solve problems. 

Practical problems that persist and accumulate in cities are symptoms of arrested development. The point is seldom admitted. It has become conventional, for instance, to blame congested and excessive automobile traffic, air pollution and noise upon ‘rapid technological progress.’ But the automobiles, the fumes, the sewage and the noise are not new, and the persistently unsolved problems they afford only demonstrate lack of progress. Many evils conventionally blamed upon progress are, rather, evils of stagnation. 

I was born 6 days into the year 1970, and the list of persistent practical problems that Jacobs articulates has not lessened in my lifetime. I agree that this indicates stagnation while simultaneously I would argue that we have made progress in other areas of city life. But regardless of the progress made, the persistent problems persist and this should capture our attention.

There are three significant points made in this passage:

    1. New work is essential to address the challenges of today’s life conditions.
    2. New work replicates itself – as appropriate, and as determined by us – across and city and from city to city.
    3. Persistent problems are an indicator of arrested development, a lack of progress, stagnation of our individual and collective development.

Jacobs is highlighting the need to notice when it is time to learn – to know and understand the world differently.  In an earlier post, I highlight the conditions for evolutionary expansion articulated by Beck and Cowan: openness to the potential for change, exploration of solutions, a sense of dissonance with way things are, a realistic understanding of barriers to change, insight into new patterns, and consolidation of understanding.

Jacobs is telling us, from 1969, that the well-being of our cities has everything to do with how we show up – our willingness to grow and learn as individuals and as whole cities. Persistent practical problems in our cities are an indicator of OUR stagnation, our lack of emergence.

The next series of posts will highlight forms of thresholds that tell us that the conditions are there, should we choose, to know and understand our world differently. To emerge.


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Sources / Further reading

Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities

Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity

Don Edward Beck and Christopher C. Cowan, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change 

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This post forms part of Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

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