Habits of professionals


Two ideas of Charles Montgomery:

… cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being…

The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways, but also in the habits of professionals who make our cities.

A question of mine:

What role do professionals have in the design of our cities – and our entrenchment, replication and expansion of our current city pattern?

In a recent post, Cities design our lives, I touched on Charles Montgomery’s notion of autopoieisis in cities: that cities, like many other systems, are prone to reproduce themselves. So what is the role of the professional in this process? The engineers, architects, landscape architects and city planners?

Let’s start by getting clear on the roles in city making.  Marilyn Hamilton offers four perspectives of the city, each of which has a distinct and essential role in the creation and recreation of the city (check out Integral City):

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

  1. Citizens express the centre of gravity of the city’s values. In democratic countries, citizens have the power to elect and criticize the other voices in the city.  They have power as intentional consumers. They express the power of engagement and intention.  They are the voice of the city spirit.
  2. Civic managers are the voice of city expertise; they are the guides  that oversee the needs of the city.  They are the people who work at city hall, school boards, health institutions on our behalf.  They are the voice of the city brain.
  3. Civic developers are the people who traditionally ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’.  These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.
  4. Civil society are the cultural voice of the city. These are the social organizations and non-government organizations that attend to the social needs of the city. They are the voices of the city’s heart.

While the dispersed city is the result of the habits of professionals, it is also the result of what we expect of professionals.  City-building professionals are city managers work in city hall, reporting to the elected officials who are chosen by the citizens. City-building professionals also work for civic developers (or are developers) who are responding to the consumer choices of citizens, as well as to the rules and incentives established by the civic managers. Moveover, all of these roles are responding to the cultural voice of the city and civil society.

These roles are a network of feedback loops that, all together, are the dance of city making. The city-building professionals shape the perspectives, and are shaped themselves by the perspectives. The habits of professionals have influence and are influenced.

This means that the whole city system needs to see, and make, the shift toward a more sustainable, or happy, city. We are all a part of it. And yes, there are habits of professionals – and everyone else’s habits in what is expected of professionals.

Professions support the status quo and push new things, but the new things only happen when the decision makers decide to make the new things happen. And those decision makers are everywhere: in city hall, in living rooms, in board rooms, and in community centres. Everyone’s work on the margin, promoting and trying out new ideas, is essential for us to see what else is possible for our cities.

Remember this: city-building professionals are required to serve the public interest.

In your city, who is talking about whether your city is serving the public interest?



I’ve posted a couple times about Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design. Here they are for you to explore:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.