What are you inviting?


The invitation you send out into the world matters – it says everything.

An invitation is both the physical (or digital) thing you send out into the world for an event, and it is also the vibe you send out ahead of it, with it, and afterwards. It is physical and non-physical. Two clients last week exemplify this.

First, a city planner colleague responsible to write a new affordable housing policy for his employer, a municipal government, knows that he doesn’t know everything he needs to know to do this. He wants to check in with a range of people to discern the municipality’s role – in today’s context. He knows he needs to know more. He’s actively inviting a range of voices to influence what he will write.

Second, a school division initiating gay straight alliance groups in its schools has reached a subtle but big understanding – there are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults in schools that need care and attention. They have realized that for schools to show up well for kids, the adults also need love, generosity and support. This is the conversation they are stepping into.

What is significant about these folks is the clarity with which they are inviting others to join them in conversations about their work – whether about housing or teaching. Long before an invitation to gather is extended, they are taking the time to get clear about why they need to gather, and deepening into the purpose of each gathering they will call. This is information they will share with the people they gather, and each time we gather, we will spend our time to serve the need and purpose articulated.

As you ponder any invitations you send out into the world, here is a virtuous circle I keep in mind:

  • When full of love, I invite compassion
  • When full of compassion I invite trust
  • When full of trust, I invite brilliance
  • When full of brilliance, I invite clarity
  • When full of clarity, I invite vision
  • When full of vision, I invite passion
  • When full of passion, I invite love






Our cities need us

Nest City News Overall Small

When you follow your passion in your work to make the world a better place, you create the force that generates and regenerates our cities. You are what our cities need. We are what our cities need. A Habitat Manifesto explains why.

I have just published the latest edition of the Nest City News – A Habitat Manifesto. The special feature of this newsletter is a link to what has come of the first series of posts from the Nest City Blog. As its own publication now in draft form, A Habitat Manifesto explores our evolutionary impulse to build, organize and thrive in cities. I am inviting folks to review this document before formal publication.

Only subscribers have the first chance to explore A Habitat Manifesto and explicitly feed and nourish each other in our work for cities and citizens.

Leave your name and email address to the right to stay in touch.



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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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The wild reaches in, the city reaches out


A few weeks ago, as I was walking through my city, right in the middle of it, I came across a bold and wild coyote.  We stopped and looked at each other for a bit, but as I looked away for a moment to put my hand on my phone for a picture, it vanished. It was a wonderful reminder of how the city is in relationship with its region ecologically as well as socially and economically.

The coyote is an example of how the wild reaches into the city.  Wild animal life reaches into the city, either straight in across the land or through the tentacles of rivers and the natural landscape.  The wild also flies overhead, or burrows underground. We are surrounded by the wild.

The city itself reaches out beyond its boundaries into the wild.  The development of the oil sands in northern Alberta’s boreal forest is an example of the city reaching out into the wild. This development is taking place because of our energy demands around the world, which in so many ways are related to city life.

Our vast network of settlements, large and small are in relationship with each other and the wild. As settlements began, the relationship with the wild was very explicit: food supply, resource extraction for trade, transportation routes, etc. Over time, what our cities offer other cities and citizens evolves. An article in today’s Edmonton Journal on the new Kaye Edmonton Clinic is a prime example:

The influence of the clinic is far beyond Edmonton. People who come from a significant distance will have the potential to do many things with one trip ~ Dr. Dylan Taylor.  

Each city is in relationship with far more than the citizens within its boundaries.  The Kaye Edmonton Clinic will serve citizens in the Edmonton area as well as northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. This facility’s reach is far beyond its host city; in fact, it reaches into the wild.

The wild reaches in and the city reaches out.

Where is the wild in your city?

How does your city reach out into the wild?

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Interested in urban coyotes?  Check out the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project, a study out of the University of Alberta about coyote habitat, coyote diet and the knowledge and perceptions of residents about coyotes.  It seems that coyotes have been inhabiting cities across North America at increasing rates over the last 20 years.  They are in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.


A hole in the roof

My home, my nest, is getting an overhaul.  And it has a hole in its roof.  The truth is, we put the hole in on purpose, which is a little counter intuitive.  But we have our reasons.

Our home is a post-war building with very little insulation, and little or no ventilation, so we are installing a new roof on top of the old roof to improve the building’s ability to keep itself and it’s occupants warm and dry.

We decided not to simply replace the shingles, for that only solves a portion of the building’s challenges.  We have chosen to improve how the whole roof system works for the building.  We decided not to build a whole new nest; we are making an investment in this one.  She has lots to give us yet if we look after her.

So the whole in the roof…

There is a part of us that would love to make massive changes to the building.  We realize that the space gained with an addition will not be needed in less than a decade (kids are 12 and 14).  We also don’t have the strength to organize ourselves for a big reno.  We also don’t wish to put our money in a big reno.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to treat ourselves.  We chose a skylight to light up the stairwell and serve as a solar chimney on hot days.  So our contractor cut a hole in the roof.

As we stood in the stairwell today, the kids and I looked through the roof out, over the neighbourhood, right through the fresh air.  In the evening it is covered with a tarp, but as we move up and down the stairs we can hear the hum of the city.  When it rained last night, it sounded like we were sleeping in our tent.

As I was falling asleep last night listening to the rain I realized that roof has an important job.  For our species, we need to have somewhere warm and dry, our shelter, to survive.  The very roof we choose to build on our shelters reflects our life conditions.  Our home was built in a time when energy  to heat homes was abundant and cheap.  Energy is more scarce and more expensive and we are compelled to improve our building.  Our context changes and we eventually change too, and our structures, our physical habitats, with us.

It took a hole in the roof for me to realize that the new roof is really about, at a family scale, fixing our nest, our family habitat.  We are doing what we need to do to make sure the building functions well.  We are also moving beyond pure function and sorting out as a family how we can ‘dress up’ the building so it conveys our style, our identity.

We have a chance to put our mark on our nest.  As we come and go from our nest, we come and go from a place we have created for ourselves.  A home can pull on the heart strings and we are choosing colours and materials that pull on our heart strings.  We are also adding to the neighbourhood’s identity of itself. Collectively with our neighbours, we make our streets and neighbourhood.  Everyone’s choices accumulate to a feeling about our place and our collective identity.

When we chose to put in a skylight, it felt gratuitous.  But I am glad we put the hole in the roof.

Every time I travel the stairs I will be able to see the neighbourhood, the treetops and the stars from a new vantage point.


Time to build the nest we need

The staggering rate of population and city growth alone are enough for me to recognize that something, at some point, is going to give.  We are going to have to adjust to something.  And given the rate of change, we are going to have to learn how to adjust quickly.  That means we have to welcome change, quickly examine what adjustments are necessary, and take timely, appropriate action.  Debating whether or not something is happening, such as green house gas emissions, is a distraction from what we need to do: learn how to organize ourselves to be adaptable.  Adaptability will ensure we survive and thrive and, as it turns out, adaptability is what got us here in the first place.

(This post concludes a series of 14 posts that constitute my first efforts to blog my book, Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  For readers wanting to go to the first post, here is a link.  These first posts assemble into Chapter One: The City Impulse.)

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

There is within us an evolutionary impulse to do more than merely survive.  At the core of this impulse is our work – the efforts we make to innovate and find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  And this impulse to innovate generates cities (and cities generate innovation too).  Developing cities, then, is a survival skill.  And the role of our work – and our approach to our work – in cities can not be understated because it creates cities.  All of this happens in the context of our physical habitat (see Figure A).  Our ability to evolve, along with our cities, is a survival skill.

The dynamic relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat is only as healthy as the feedback that flows back and forth.  Cities are, in fact, a result of this relationship. In this dynamic, our social habitat is the conduit between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is the sphere where we allow, or disallow, connections to be made between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is where we create the conditions individually and collectively to notice what is happening around us and integrate our world with our work, our work with our world.  Or, more appropriately, where we integrate our cities with our work, our work with our cities.  Our cities need quality feedback.

Innovation hinges on looking at things in new ways, but it is the innovative quality of our work in the context of our habitat that drives whether a city declines or thrives, not just the fact that we are innovative.  More of the same work – without innovation and adaptation – makes us busy, but it does not mean we learn and grow.  More and more new work, for the sake of innovation, does not mean we adapt either.  Innovation in the context of our life conditions, which are constantly changing, means we adapt – and evolve.  Innovation + adaptation means we are thinking, making and doing new things.  This is a critical understanding in light of the challenges we face as a species with a quickly growing population.

As citizens we have choices about the work we do and our awareness of whether the work we do is responsive to our life conditions.  We must be brave enough to look at life conditions, let alone acknowledge them.  We must be brave enough to notice what is happening and to respond appropriately.  This bravery is needed at many scales – in citizens, in organizations, in cities, in society.  How do we create the conditions for this kind of courage?

Figure B

Jane Jacobs suggested that it is sensible to foster desirable new work and select from those worth fostering further.  Our evolutionary path isn’t about simple generating more and more and more new work, endless innovating.  The word ‘select’ implies that someone will do the selecting and that we know the criteria to choose the work that will work.  But we will never have criteria for this kind of work because we have never been here before.  Each moment ahead of us is new, and the criteria we have used for previous situations are criteria for previous situations – not the present or the future.  But it is a far more diffused, yet simple, process than that.  We need to know the direction we face and we need to ‘notice’ what works along the way, to get us there.

The work ahead of us is about creating cities – our habitat – that allow us to change the work we do and how we go about doing it.  It is about creating cities, right now, that work for us.  The challenge is recognizing that our work, whether paid or unpaid, and our desire to improve our work is an innovation-generating evolutionary impulse.   This impulse is the force that creates  and recreates cities, which in turn creates the conditions for further innovation.  We shape the city and in return it shapes us.  We build the nest that nurtures us.  It is time to notice how we go about organizing ourselves to get what we need from this relationship.

Figure C

We have never been here before.  We are at a point in time unlike any other and our efforts to understand the world in the ways we have always tried to understand the world are not accurate.  We face together a world full of uncertainty and unpredictability.  Any actions we take as individuals and as collectives have unexpected ripple effects in ways we can not contemplate or anticipate, which means that each of us is connected to others in significant and unimaginable ways.  We are in this experiment of humanity together.  To be dynamically stable – to steer well – we need to be willing to receive feedback and we need to explicitly seek feedback, even if it is telling us information we do not want to hear.  We need this feedback to do our work well, and our cities need this feedback as well.  We simply need to be awake to notice things around us.

This will take great courage, because to invite honest feedback is to invite hearing that we are not getting the results we would like.  It is time for us to organize ourselves in such a way that we are clear about our destination, that we provide ourselves with the support we need to be courageous enough to be awake on the journey, and we create the conditions for success within our world of unpredictability by self-organizing so the best possible way forward will emerge.  It is time to consciously create our nest city.  It is time to jump into the driver’s seat of our own evolution.

The next series of posts will revolve around what it means to plan our cities.  Are cities really planned?  What patterns can be discerned in how we go about creating our cities?  The dynamic that generates cities is not linear, yet our current efforts in North America to create sustainable cities are limited to linear approaches.  The next round of posts will make the case that a new way of designing for cities that serve their citizens well is emerging.  You can aid an abet its emergence by exploring these questions:


What can my city do for me?

What can I do for my city?

What can our city do for us?

What can we do for our city?



Note –
For those interested in exploring the preceding posts that form Chapter One: The City Impulse, here they are in order:
  1. Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?
  2. Driven to do more than merely survive
  3. Cities are engines of innovation
  4. The development of cities is a survival skill
  5. The work we do creates our cities
  6. Evolving cities is a survival skill
  7. Be a part of feedback loops in your city
  8. Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat
  9. Cities need quality feedback from habitat
  10. Dynamically steering cities into the future
  11. Work at scale to serve the city
  12. Inter-city tournaments
  13. The city as a nest


The city as a nest

Thinking of our cities as nests means we understand that our cities are what we build for ourselves.  Like other species we build our most immediate habitat: our shelter from the elements.  We also build structures that, once our survival needs are met, nurture our families and our well-being.  As a collective, we build larger and larger communities that address the needs of more than just a family.  Over the course of our evolution we build infrastructure to protect ourselves and our livelihoods (fortifications) and we build infrastructure to ensure order (transportation systems, government facilities).  We also build infrastructure to enjoy the opportunities that present themselves to enjoy life (recreation facilities, art galleries, sports arenas, etc.).  All of this is enabled because of our relationship with the resources that surround the beginnings of settlement and the subsequent work we have developed and expanded over decades, centuries and millenia.

Consider a simple definition of nest – a place or structure made or chosen:

  • in which to lay and incubate eggs or give birth to young
  • where a number of animals of the same species and their young occupying a common habitat: an ants’ nest
  • where an animal or insect breeds or shelters: an ants’ nest

The qualities of a nest are various.  A nest has some density.  Perhaps as a snug retreat, or tucked away all by itself, it is where a concentration of a species calls home.  A nest is also warm, safe and comfortable.  Whether a nest for birds, or a nest of shredded paper to hold a fragile bowl, a nest is a container that holds, protects and supports its contents.  A nest is pocket-like, usually a more or less circular structure.  It is a refuge from the elements.  It is home.

At a basic level, “nest” describes the habitat humans build for themselves very appropriately.  Our cities are made by us.  We build our homes and cities for ourselves as a species and with each generation.  More and more humans are choosing cities as their habitat.  In addition, cities provide heightened care for our young (specialized health care).

The qualities of a nest also coincide with those of a city.  People conglomerate in the city.  The city – at its best – provides shelter for more and more humans as more and more humans make cities their home.  At a minimum, we go to cities with the intention of making a better life, pursuing our work, looking for opportunities.  Geographical constraints aside, our cities take a circular form.  Cities are the habitat that holds, protects and supports the generation of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  Cities cultivate innovation, the very thing we need to ensure the cities we build are able to hold, protect and support us, citizens of the city.  We make the nest – the city – in which we settle.

In exploring definitions of nest, I found that as soon as the word nest is associated with humans, a shadow side emerges: a place filled with undesirable people, activity or things; a place or situation that is full of bad people or activities; or a place that fosters something undesirable.  The examples: a nest of spies, a nest of thievery.  It certainly is the case that as more and more good things happen in the city, more bad things will also take place.  The city is not a perfect phenomenon.  Our work in cities must acknowledge and attend to the healthy and unhealthy aspects of our nest.  Which do we wish our city nests to nurture?

We build our nest cities to serve ourselves – to survive and thrive.  We build our nest cities to allow us to grow and develop – to emerge into what we need to be in order to survive and thrive.  We have a choice about whether to create cities that serve us poorly or well.  They are the place from which we leap to new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  They are the place from which we fly to new nests, as we reshape our cities and what happens in them now at an unprecedented rate.

Figure A

As we think about our nest cities and our relationship with them, we must consider the nested hierarchy of systems that make up the city (Figure A).  (Three posts have explored the nested hierarchy of city systems: Work at scale to serve the city, The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.)  A city is full of similar things of different sizes that fit inside each other, where the smaller element fits in a lower position in a hierarchy: a nest of tables, organisms classified in a series of nested sets.  This involves a set of things in graduated sizes that fit together.  The notion of hierarchy offers yet another way of looking at the city and its systems.

There is a lot for a Nest City to hold.  It is simple and complex and it is ever changing.  Knowing this changes how we look at our cities.  It changes how we design our cities.  It changes the very process by which we create our cities.  Nest City requires us to host ourselves and our evolution well.   

Nested elements of a city: economic, social and physical

Resources that may be of interest



Work at scale to serve the city

In Wednesday’s post, Dynamically steering cities into the future, I reached the conclusion that it is only with feedback that we can adjust our path appropriately when needed.  Without feedback, any adjustment is simply uninformed action.  The world is changing in so many ways, it is not even possible to know what is changing and what it will turn into.  The true work at hand is learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future.  We need to know our destination and then find the adjustments that will get us there.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

Figure A

The intelligence of the city lays at many scales, and each of us work at many scales in each moment, each day, in each of our lives.  In two posts (The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat) I have referred to Marilyn Hamilton’s nested hierarchy, or holarchy, of city systems (Figure A).  This is one of four key maps Hamilton uses to chart the intelligence of a city.  This particular map articulates the city as a human system made up of a series of systems that are each, themselves, whole.  (If you would like to read more please explore her book, Integral City, or the Integral City website.)

I recognize each of these ‘wholes’ in my economic life as I work (paid and unpaid) at several scales:

  1. As an individual, I follow my passion and look for people with whom I can exchange my passion for what I need for my livelihood.
  2. As a family, we work together to create a social and physical habitat that will support us, right down to this summer’s project: a new roof.
  3. My extended family goes for a backcountry hike each summer.  This takes a lot of work to organize, and the payoff is time spent with each other and reconnection.
  4. I work as a consultant to a variety of organizations: cities, NGOs, corporations.
  5. I serve my neighbourhood organization as a volunteer.
  6. Much of my consulting work serves the whole city and its well-being.
  7. I am conscious of my actions that strengthen the connection between my city and its eco-region in my consulting work and our spending choices as a family.
There are three additional scales at which I serve cities: I serve as president of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, a body of 903 professionals serving human settlements Alberta, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.  In a year’s time, I will be serving as APPI’s representative on the board of the Canadian Institute of Planners.  I also serve as a founding member of a fledgling group, the Center for Human Emergence: Canada, part of a global constellation of organizations aiming to create the conditions for human understanding of, and responsibility for, the health of people and the planet, recognizing that everything and everyone is interwoven.
At each scale, I can tease out the size and character of my habitat.  As the scale grows, my habitat becomes larger and more complex.  While the illustration in Figure A conveys that each city system is nested within larger systems, it does not convey that each larger system includes several, many, or thousands, or millions of the smaller systems.  As the scale increases, the complexity increases. Over time, as our cities become larger and larger, they become more complex, but the importance of smaller city systems does not decline.
Our work as individuals remains as critical as it ever was, for this is the scale at which we make our contributions.  The city is only as healthy as each whole system – including each of us – that make up the city.  Our work at every scale matters.
My next post will tie back in to where this first series of posts began – cities and innovation – and conclude this series of posts on the city impulse with these questions (at two scales):
  1. What can my city do for me?
  2. What can I do for my city? 
  3. What can our city do for us?
  4. What can we do for our city?

Dynamically steering cities to the future

Figure A - City Dynamic

In yesterday’s post, I reached the conclusion that the quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  We create cities for the purpose of our individual and collective growth.  We create them to support our evolution.

Feedback Activity

Consider this simplified illustration of the city dynamic (Figure A), where the red center is our economic life, and green and blue are our social and physical habitats.  (For more information on the relationships between these three elements, please visit Cities need quality feedback.)  The feedback between our economic life and our habitat is the information that flows back and forth.  Feedback between our social and economic life is critical, as is feedback between our physical habitat and our economic life.  The more activity between these spheres, the more responsive a city is to the needs of its inhabitants.  For example, the illustration of activity in Figure B is less healthy than that of activity in Figure C in that it offers less feedback.  Less feedback may mean lower adaptation of our economic life to meet the demands of our changing social and physical habitat.

Figure B - City Dynamic (less activity)
Figure C - City Dynamic (more activity)

This perspective of the city’s habitats nests the physical, social and economic worlds.  This understanding builds on the lineage of our current understanding of sustainable development, rooted in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, often referred to as the Brundtland Commission.  (Two links that might be of interest: the story, the report itself.)  The inheritance offered by this report is the insertion, into our collective planetary consciousness, of the relationship between our physical, social and economic lives.  This is now, rather conventionally, shown graphically as a Venn diagram (Figure D).

Figure D - Sustainable Development

The dynamic of the city habitat as I have described it here and in previous posts rearranges our understanding of sustainable development.  Looking at cities from an evolutionary perspective, our physical habitat holds everything. Within that we have evolved socially to create opportunities for new work, a feature of our economic life that generates cities, and in turn recreates our physical habitat.  The city dynamic consists of endless feedback loops, going in all directions all at once (Figure C).  Each sphere is critical, but with distinct roles to play.  Unlike the Venn Diagram, each element is never fully on its own.  It is all interwoven and interrelated.

The nature of these relationships is such that the healthier the city, the more interactions across and within the layers.  Remember these three patterns about how new work (innovation in our economic life) works (see earlier posts for more on this – development of cities, and our work creates cities):

  1. The development of new work means new ideas in response to life conditions.
  2. The expansion of new work means implementation in response to life conditions.
  3. The link between development and expansion of new work is habitat: life conditions.

These principles and how they behave give us clues about how to organize ourselves, such that we tune into, and be in tune with our habitat.  The interaction between these spheres is where the future lies for our cities.  How we organize our cities to gain this feedback and respond to it is a necessary survival skill.  With feedback, and appropriate responses to that feedback, we can adjust our path; without we can not.

Feedback and Adjustment

We need to approach our city systems in ways that allow for feedback and adjustment.  Brian Robertson, and his work on holacracy, describes this as dynamic steering, where a system receives regular, real feedback and immediately adjusts.  Imagine the system is you riding a bicycle.  As you move along, you start to tip, you adjust.  You see a pothole head, you adjust.  You see what is coming and you adjust, but the truth is you never know ahead of time what will come and what the appropriate adjustment will be.  Yet you are able to do it.

Most systems we are familiar with, such as organizations, operate in predict-and-control mode, where we anticipate what is going to happen and make the adjustment prior to even seeing if the event unfolds as expected.  We also make adjustments after events, assuming that future events will be the same and will need the same reaction.  Predict-and-control mode does not allow for appropriate responses to life conditions because it allows only minimal feedback between the habitats of the city.   Imagine riding a bicycle with arms out stiff in front of you; it doesn’t allow you to be responsive.  We need cities to be responsive.

In our cities, as when we ride a bicycle, our ability to keep our eyes on where we are going matters.  Our ability to notice when we have moved off track matters.  Our ability to choose to get back on track matters.  Our ability to do the work at hand matters.  Our very approach to our work matters.  It also means that we have to have a bicycle that is in good working condition and does what we ask it to do.

In today’s cities, with today’s challenges, we have an opportunity to be explicit about the cities we are creating and how they shape us in return.  We have an opportunity to integrate our economic, social and physical worlds in such a way that will allow us to respond to the changing conditions in our world.  Debating climate change is moot when the world is changing in so many ways.  It is a distraction from the true work at hand – learning how to dynamically steer our cities into the future that allows life to flourish.  Learning to be even more adaptable than we have been is key.  It means being open to feedback and willing to take action – at any and all scales.  There is lots of work for us to do.

The next post will touch on the scales at which we work in our cities.  Does the scale we work at matter?  

Cities need quality feedback from habitat

Figure A - City Dynamic

A city that meets our needs pays attention to three critical relationships within the city’s habitats:

  1. between economic life and social habitat;
  2. between social habitat and physical habitat; and
  3. between economic life, through social habitat to physical habitat.

In the first relationship, between our economic life and our social habitat, we make personal investments to come up with ideas and turn them into new work. Likewise, how we organize ourselves shapes our collective investment in the idea – the labour we put to it, the skills we put to it, or simply the ‘human potentialities’, as Jane Jacobs put it, shape what becomes of the idea.  In the workplace or in a community, for example, new ways of thinking, making and doing new things emerge when welcome; they likely remain invisible or nonexistent if the social habitat is hostile.

At a societal level, sometimes we just are not ready yet for new things until conditions change.  Sixty years ago my home was built with no insulation.  Energy prices were low and the notion of human-caused climate change did not exist.  In contrast, today we have building codes with minimal requirements for energy efficiency and government grants to upgrade older homes.  As our social habitat changes, so does our work.  And as our work changes, so does our social habitat.  Notice the adjustments we have made to life with computers, the internet, social media, etc.

This relationship between our social habitat and our economic life is critical to Jacobs’ refueling principle: “… no matter how efficient a cow may be, if it doesn’t self-refuel, it’s a dead cow.  Self-refueling is so fundamental to survival, and to all other process of life made possible by survival, that conceptions of whether it is a good or bad thing are pointless.”[1]  The ideas that survive in cities (new work) must be applied or used for economic life to thrive.  This is the essence of refueling – capture the good ideas, let new ideas emerge from them, try them out, see if more new ideas emerge.  The more this takes place, the stronger and healthier our economic life.  In our social habitat, we must create the appropriate ‘equipment’ to capture and make use of the ideas, as well as finding additional ways to capture ideas.  The social habitat supports, hinders, or removes our ability to self-refuel.  This is where we demonstrate our tolerance for diversity, new work and change.

The second relationship in the city habitat is between the social habitat and the physical habitat.  This is where we notice our physical conditions and whether they are changing or not.  This relationship is about our receptivity to our physical reality, when we notice how habitat creates us and how we create habitat. An open relationship between our social and physical habitats is exemplified by our ability to take in the good and bad news.

The third relationship in the city habitat, between economic life and physical habitat involves travelling through the social habitat.  Our social habitat creates the conditions for a relationship with our physical habitat and our economic life and between our physical habitat and our economic life.  In this relationship we recognize explicitly that the city affects our work and that our work affects our city.  We boldly look for feedback to link the three spheres.

Each of these relationships involves our social habitat, where there are degrees of mutual support and information exchange.  On a continuum, we are either open to the exchanges between habitats, or closed.  Like a tap, the choice is open with maximum flow, or closed with no flow.  In the middle the tap is open partway, with flow constricted.  And the degree of relationship compounds: the first two relationships must be open in order for the third relationship to take place.  If one is open only partially, the third relationship will also be partial; it is only as open as its constituent relationships.

As a whole, the city is a habitat that encompasses our economic, social and physical habitats.   Our social habitat allows the new work that creates and recreates our cities to take place in the context of our physical habitat.  This means that new work is needed to create a social sphere that allows the necessary data to go back and forth between our physical environment and our economic life.  The quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  

This framing reorganizes how we think of balancing the well-being of economic, social and physical factors for sustainable development.   My next post will explore the value of reorganizing these elements.  

[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 68

Cites: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

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.

Economic Life

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.

Physical Habitat

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.

Social 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:

    1. the relationships between economic life and habitat in more detail; and
    2. how these relationships show up at scale (self, neighbourhood, city etc.)