Last week I returned from my winter tour of the capital cities of the Nordic nations: Reykjavic, Iceland; Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and Helsinki, Finland. Over the next few weeks, will be sorting and sifting through my thoughts about the trips, searching for better understanding of cities, both Nordic and those on the Canadian Prairies.
The first thing I noticed is that these Nordic Cities are not the same as my home city, Edmonton. The way we moved around was totally different.
We chose to stay in apartments in neighbourhoods in close proximity to the city center in each city. We were able to get groceries and all services within a couple minutes walk from each location. We were able to access public transportation in most cases right outside the building, or at most a 3 minute walk. We noticed each city had schools everywhere. We noticed streets that were alive with people and business. We noticed an explicit infrastructure for bicycles (and the bicycles!) on busy streets, along with cars and buses and trams and trolleys.
These city amenities are found in tiny pockets in Edmonton. They are are everywhere in these Nordic cities.
In contrast, our arrival was significant time in a car, stuck on a highway, then a freeway.
Over the next few posts, I will dig into two city patterns at work here: one that aims to serve the movement of cars, an other that aims to serve the movement of people. The cities were designed for different purposes.
The city planner in me needs to dig into what is different about there and here.
Everything a city does – or does not do – is a result of our actions as citizens, community organizations, the business community and our public institutions. How each of us show up in the city affects how the city serves us, individually and collectively. (Remember the difference between the corporate ‘City’ government and the ‘city‘ habitat we build for ourselves.)
Back in September, in village in the city, I connected the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea on the purpose of a village to the purpose of the city. The result was another a twist on what a city does for its citizens (a reminder of city purposes).
To show up well, in any of the roles we play in the city, we need to be conscious of our civic practice. After our basic survival needs are met, we engage in story and this feeds everything in the city, at every scale. Imagine the village again, where we share stories to ensure our collective survival. Our stories are also full of passion and they feed pride and identity. We will even battle and fight when our stories are threatened. In a village, we are called to be clear about our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable to each other, to be fair and just. As a village develops, we are also compelled to take action on what needs to be done, and be creative and entrepreneurial, allowing our drive to thrive to fuel us. Eventually, we are able to see and learn and benefit from everyone’s contributions and gifts. The village becomes a place where we learn to live with conflicting truths and uncertainties, allowing us to live the ‘village’ everywhere. It is a place where we can integrate feeling and knowing, and simply be in awe of how the world works.
The Spiral reveals that there are layers of civic practice:
Once our survival needs are met, we …
Connect with each other through our stories. We belong to each other.
Allow our stories to fuel our passion, feed our identity and pride as individuals and as a group.
Seek clarity in our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable, to be fair and just.
Take action on what needs action, allowing our drive to be creative to serve us as opportunities arise.
Look after each other, our diverse needs, and chase our diverse desires.
Explore what’s necessary, natural and next, learning anywhere, everywhere with anyone.
Integrate feeling and knowing, with radical optimism.
For the graphically inclined, here’s how they the layers of civic practice show up on the Spiral:
How do you nurture your civic practice? How do you ensure you show up well for your city?
The purpose of a village is also the purpose of a city. For Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, a village does many things at once: protects and looks after its inhabitants; feeds them and ensures the goods and services needed are on hand; supports the varied work of villagers so they can participate in community commerce; educates and initiates; governs with a social structure of shared mores; builds webs of identity and relationships; and grows the spirit of the place with traditions of meaning.
A village is doing many things at once, each of which connects to the story, the heart, of a place. The story is what connects and binds us to each other and is a foundation on which we build our cities.
In any human system, there is a progression of values, and our intelligence, that we experience that form our stories as individuals and any scale of collective (family, organization, village, city). I took at look at how these levels of values show up in the city. We begin with our full attention on our survival, and once that is looked after, our attention expands to focus on: collective survival; economic and military power; authority and moral codes; prosperity and entrepreneurship; diversity of knowledge; then systemic flow and global life force. (For more details on these levels of values, please explore my primer on Spiral Dynamics integral. For their application to the city, start with Is the unplanned city unplanned – part 4.)
As I look at Baldwin and Linnea’s model, I can see several layers of the Spiral. The village looks after the basic survival needs of villagers. It will step in and protect if need be. It has rules and protocols. It recognizes that it is a place where learning takes place. It recognizes that at the heart of the village is story, the glue that binds us. Here’s what happens if I look at the purpose of the city with “villageness” in mind:
What does a city do?
Meet basic needs of citizens
Nurture shared sense of belonging, for collective survival
Cultivate pride and identity / protect city from danger
Provide necessary structure to meet citizens’ needs (physical, economic, social)
Create the conditions for property, development and growth
Create the conditions for expanding knowledge, receiving and giving knowledge
Learn to flex and flow with uncertainty and conflicting truths
Serve as Gaia’s reflective organ
A city, just as a village, does many things at once. Not every citizen is doing each of these things all at the same time, but collectively, as our attention shifts to meet the demands of each moment, the city shifts too. The graphic at the top of this post is purposely purple, for the notion of village is firmly rooted in the early stages of human evolution, when we are grappling for collective survival, and where myths, mystery and story were our tools to understand the world.
Cultivating the village in the city is not about going back in time, but rather a way to cultivate a new story to tell ourselves about our cities and our roles in them as citizens. When we do, it will reshape all the layers we have created above the story.
[They] sought to create art that consciously responded to the world events surrounding them. All saw art as a form of spiritual quest.
I found these words in the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) pamphlet on their summer exhibition: Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Myths & the Mystical, describing the work of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. As I explored their work, and the text provided by SAM, here are some juicy bits:
visualizations of the world in flux, of the human spirit transcendent, or of the cosmos.If there was any hope that the world could survive the threat of annihilation, . . . it was found . . . from the closely observed cycle of life.. . . symbols . . . through close observation of the world around them – in the energy of the wartime city or in the fight for survival that defines the natural world. . .. . . the visual language of Northwest Coast people as a . . . lexicon of symbols for conveying universal brotherhood, a common spirituality and a belief in the primacy of the laws of nature. . .
And I was compelled to see how the titles of their artwork could fit together:
The mythic and the mystical formfollows man, a rummage ofmoving moments riding on the mountainin the white nightsearching for the morningdove of the inner eyeto find on the seventh daythe seed was in itself
And Seattle? She was beautiful too. She is her own artwork.
Over the course of the summer I have been rereading Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, teasing out the city essentials for city life. Here are some big ideas that have surfaced for me in the posts related to / sparked by Happy City:
The city is a shared project that allows us to thrive together, and the shared tension is necessary for our growth and happiness. Ultimately, the city is a happiness project.
Our social habitats struggle when our physical city habitat is dispersed (longer commute times; less trust among people in mono functional, car-dependant neighbourhoods than in walkable neighbourhoods with diverse house in, shops and places to work). How we design – to be in close proximity to each other – matters. The cities we design design our lives. We can choose to build places that make us feel good.
The professionals who design our cities are only part of the picture. Citizens also play a role, as do the business community and our community organizations. It’s not just city hall. At the end of the day, the habits of professionals are as we expect them to be because their job is to serve the public interest.
Everyone, everywhere can actively work to build the city to save the world. It means we have to recognize that we are hardwired to be dissatisfied make bad decisions all the time. And happiness moves – so every time we reach what would make us happy, it moves on and we are dissatisfied. It’s a journey that requires us at every turn to be present to the changes demanded of us. This never ending journey is the force that allows us to improve our cities – and save the world.
People want to be close to each other and apart at the same time: the proximity/retreat conundrum. The design of cities needs to embrace this challenge. We can effectively retrofit our cities by weaving nature into the city at every scale and designing for conviviality.
A city is not happy when the only way to move around is by car. Happy mobility is in multiple modes. A happy city allows for choices in how we move around, gives us destinations in reach, and provides connections.
Happiness in the city is about fairness, which means designing cities that accommodate everyone’s experience of the city. But what if the city is not broken, but right on schedule? What if we are where we should be – compelled to improve…
Multiple modes of transportation, rather than a focus primarily on the car, allows us to tap into the abundance of everything, everywhere. The interconnections everywhere in city life are our resilience strategy. Montgomery inspires a new story of the city that gives us much more than we expect.
Change the code, change the city, in two ways. First, if we change the rules that guide the physical developmen of the city, we will change the physical shape of the city. Further, this requires thinking of the city, and our role in it, differently.
Citizens can change the city by thinking about it differently. You don’t have to be an engineer or a city planner to get a better city for yourself. Rethink how you think of it, your relationship with others, and your relationship with the city itself. And when you do, the rest of the city will recalibrate itself. Change up the dance moves, and the others will have to too.
You are a city maker.
And as you explore what you can do to make your city better, as you find your way in the city, you are letting your city find you, and grow you.
Here’s the great irony of the American (and Canadian) city as Montgomery sees it:
… a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities. Municipal governments, often with the counsel and assistance of land developers, lay down community plans complete with restrictive zoning long before residents arrive on the scene. Residents have no say about what their streets and parks and gathering places will look like. And once they move in, it is illegal for them to tinker with the shape of the public places they share, or, … to use their homes for anything beyond the dictates of strict zoning bylaws (p. 306).
The challenge is not that municipal governments and land developers need to be fought, but that the voices of citizens and civil society are weak and need to be strengthened. We have been building cities, without making cities that serve us well. (Montgomery’s premise is that cities are a happiness project, and that cities design our lives .)
Looking at the city as a whole system, there are four distinct voices and roles in city making (see my last post on Happy City, change the code, change the city): citizens are the voice of the city spirit, embodying the city’s values; civic managers are civic expertise, looking after our public institutions, serving as the city brain; civil society is the cultural voice of the city, the city’s heart; and the civic builders and developers invest in and build the infrastructure of the city. Civic managers (city hall) and civic builders and developers build the city, giving it intelligence and physical form. Citizens and civil society add the psychological and cultural aspects of the city. Montgomery articulates an imbalance in today’s city, where we put emphasis on the building, without consciously considering what we are making.
How we make our cities is evolving. They start with people building their own shelter, organizing paths, then roads and more formal buildings and transportation systems, along with water and wastewater systems etc. (Check out Is the unplanned city unplanned?) Cities are changing all the time to respond to the needs of its people, in their context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive. As this evolution takes place, our work evolves too. It gets more and more specialized. Just as we don’t do our own dentistry anymore, most of us don’t build our own homes, streets, cities, and sewer lines. But that does not mean we are not interested in them, and how they serve us. That is Montgomery’s point. They are not serving us well. He is calling for a recalibration of these four voices in the city.
The value of Montgomery’s work is that it helps citizens – and civic managers, civic builders and developers and civil society – see what we are building and consider how we could be building cities that serve citizens better. Stories of how citizens step up into work that improves the built form of cities are useful and inspirational: intersection interventions, city repair. Citizens can dive in.
Citizens need to dive in. Citizens need to think about – and choose – the city that will best serve them. And they need to change how they think.
We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim great power (p. 295).
Montgomery names concrete ways in which we can think differently about city life, and there is great power in each of these:
Think engagement and curiosity, rather than retreat. Today’s city is a design problem (in the realm of civici managers and builders) but also a psychological, cultural problem (citizens and civil society): “we have translated the uncertainty of city life into retreat instead of curiosity and engagement (p. 316).”
Think trust and cooperation. There are parts of ourselves that are more inclined toward curiosity, trust, and cooperation, and these qualities of behaviour make us feel good. We are equally hardwired for dissatisfaction and status anxiety, as we we are for trust and cooperation.
Think relationships. Between people, but also between the village and its villagers. Does the city welcome cooperators and walkers?
Think of your place in the city. Confront your relationship with the city. Can you change your place in the city? Are your habits making you unhappy? Do you need to revisit what the good life looks like? Do you live where you can leave your car at home?
Stand up with imagination. There is a struggle underway as citizens (and even some civic managers and civic builders) grapple with policies and practices that create unhappy cities. And there are lots of creative ways to create the changes we want. You can stand up in full-blown political ways, or simply changing your place in the city.
How we think about our cities, particularly when we align our minds and hearts with our action, is a political act.
This is the truth that shines over the journey toward the happy city. We do not need to wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build it by living it (p. 321).
The four voices in the city are looking out for different things, so they don’t see eye to eye. But the tension in the city is not about ranking the perspective of one over the others, but rather figuring out the role of each in each challenge we face. It is a dance of voices and values; Montgomery invites citizens to change up the dance moves.
Rules do what we ask them to do. What do the rules that shape your city do? In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery argues that the physical pattern of the cities we build makes us unhappy. He proposes we change the pattern, change the code, and by doing so we will change the city and improve our lives.
We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim immense power.I have learned this from people who have stopped waiting for mayors or planners or engineers to remake their streets and neighbourhoods. Some… just want to build a community that makes more sense for them than the one that planners handed them. Some are driven by a wish to reclaim an almost intangible sense of belonging. Others want a safer spaces for their kids. Some are trying to save the planet. Some want more freedom to live and move as they please. They rarely use the language of neuroscience or behavioral economics or even architecture, but they are proving that the happy city revolution can start right at the front door, and that every one of us has the power to alter our city. Some of them find that in changing their cities, they also change themselves. (p. 295-6).
We make our cities. We also have the ability to re-make them.
These four voices have different roles to play in our cities, enabling us to access the full intelligence of the city as we re-make it:
The voices of citizens express the center 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.
The voices of city 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.
The voices of 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.
The voices of city developers are traditionally the people who ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’. These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.
The city is a dance of voices and values. It is also where we integrate voices and values, to sort out our relationships with each other and our city habitat. At the heart of this are citizens working to improve our economic, social and physical city habitats. Montgomery is one of these citizens, and tells the story of other citizens’s work.
Our city managers put in place rules to guide the physical development of our cities. In the Western world, they do so with our blessing, through elections and public engagement. Montgomery asks if our rules and codes align with our preferences:
If so many people want to live in or near walkable urban spaces, why have so few been built in the last few decades? Why can’t any town just retrofit its troubles away?One reason stems from contradictions within our own preferences. Although it is true that most of us say we would prefer a walkable community over one that forces us to drive long distances, more of us also want to live in a detached home with plenty of privacy and space. In other words, we would like to have our cake and eat it too, the ideal world being one in which we reap the benefits of other people choosing to live in apartments and town houses nearby, but not close enough to disturb our sleep (p. 278).
Montgomery has noticed that the things that make suburbs more walkable, slower, safer, healthier and more welcoming are often forbidden by zoning codes and road standards. There are strict controls on what happens on each lot of land: “Everything has its place – far from everything else (p. 279).” We create the rules that create what we have; “change the code and you change the city (p. 282).” Further, code “is to the city what an operating system is to a computer. It is invisible, but it is in charge. So the battle for American cities has moved from architectural drafting tables to the dense, arcane pages of zoning codebooks. The winners will determine the shape of cities and the fate of suburbia (p. 283).”
Here’s the thrust of Montogmery’s case: our current set of rules (zoning bylaws or codes) separate and segregate the various activities in a city, which causes dispersal. An example alternative is form-based code, “a set of rules that prescribes the shape of spaces that building without necessarily dictating what can happen there. Most form-based codes specifically do away with the strict segregation of uses that characterized twentieth-century zoning plans, so that work, play, domesticity, and commerce could begin to intermingle again (p. 283).”
A change in code from segregation to integration will change the form of the city, and our relationship with it.
There’s another pattern change needed, in how we look at the city. It starts with a distinction between the ‘City’ and the ‘city‘. The ‘City’ is the local government entity that plays the role of civic manager. The ‘city’ is the economic, social and physical habitat we create. This distinction is important; while the City puts in place the rules, all voices are looking for rules that will serve the city, not the City. This is work for all voices to do. For Montgomery, a town or a neighbourhood or a city is “not just a picture, and not just an idea, but a system for living [you] can shape together (p. 294).”
So the task now is to retrofit the city. “This is the lesson for all retrofits: the system is ultimately more important than the package it comes in, and the greatest hurdle for sprawl repair may be challenging the way each of us views the city (p. 291).” And we will view it from our different perspectives (voices) and our values. We organize ourselves – and our cities – according to our values. (For more on this, read Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 4).
Montgomery’s call is to get involved. Change the code, change the city. Change how you relate to the city, and you change the city, regardless of what role you play – as citizen, city manager, civil society or civic developer.
Sometimes the forces that shape our cities can seem overwhelming. It is easy to feel small in the face of monumental power of the real estate industry, the tyranny of zoning codes, the inertia of bureaucracies, and the sheer durability of things that have already been built. It is tempting to believe that the job of fixing cities is the untouchable terrain of distant authorities whom the state has deemed responsible. It is a terrible mistake to give in to this temptation (p. 295).
Re-making the city is up to all of us. Change to code of how we build it, and also change the code of how we think of it.
In a recent Facebook exchange, a rural friend noted that an article I shared referred only to city government. Why couldn’t the emerging principles for an innovative city apply also to rural areas too? She reminded me that I work with two distinct meanings for the word “city”. Here’s how I use them.
The “City”, with a capital ‘C’, is the municipal corporation. It is our city government that fulfils the role of civic governance, looking after the things we collectively have an interest in, such as the city’s physical infrastructure, social and cultural programs, and support for economic development. The City, as we know it, collects resources (taxes) from property owners and provides us services in return. This role of civic manager is different from three other roles in the city: the citizens, the business community and community society. (For more on these four roles, visit my post on Marilyn Hamilton’s four integral city voices).
The “City” is the upper right quadrant, with a focus on the needs of the “city”, with a small ‘c’, which is the whole thing, the economic, social and physical habitat we make for ourselves. Here’s a metaphor I use to make the distinction: the City is the brain, the city is the body. They are not the same thing.
Here’s another distinction. While the City is defined by a boundary, its jurisdiction, the city has no such boundary. Yes, we can discern the difference between urban areas and rural areas, but it isn’t about what is or is not the other. They come together; they are intertwined, inextricably in relationship. The city does not exist without the rural, and the rural does not (mostly) exist without the city. The energy the city needs comes mostly from rural areas (food, fuel, for example), and rural residents are in constant relationship with cities. The exchanges are numerous: economic, technological, educational, cultural and health. There are very few people who have no connection to a city.
Cities are the result of human effort, not simply urban human effort. Cities belong to all of us. Those who live in them and those who do not.
So back to my friend’s Facebook query. The article was by Sacromento Mayor Kevin Johnson, naming three emerging roles for City government: open source leadership, City government as the ultimate service provider, and to be the hubs of innovation for the ‘Next’ economy. For Mayor Johnson, cities 3.0 are driving the revitalization of the nation. There is, however, no reason why any level or size of local government could benefit from his insight. His message is for small cities and large cities. Small municipal governments or large municipal governments. For all the parts of a city and its region, for no city stands alone.
Mayor Johnson’s real message though, is for Cities to rethink how they engage with the other three voices of the city. There’s no need to wait for other orders of government to get involved. Just get things going on the ground.
And guess what – that’s where you are.
My invitation to you, whether you live in the city or a rural area:
Notice the interconnections, everywhere, between the city and its region. Where do you fit into this web?
Notice the boundaries between the City/rural relationship. Where are the boundaries helpful, not helpful, to the city and its region as a whole?
“We can live well and save the world at the very same time.” These are the words Charles Montgomery uses to conclude the 11th chapter of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, where he argues that everything is interconnected in cities. He names the challenge of our times: by designing for people, rather than cars, we are not giving up the scarce commodity of freedom, but rather gaining an abundance of what we need on many fronts.
Montgomery inspires a new story of city life that gives us much more than we expect. When we design cities for multiple modes, which means accommodating many ways of travel for many kinds of people at many stages of life, we get the benefits of interconnectedness. Here’s how interconnectedness shows up for Montgomery:
Designs that make walking and cycling safer also reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Turning an expressway, like the Pompidou in in Paris, into a beach for a day addresses both climate and liveability issues
Everything is connected to everything else:
The ways we move, the things we buy, the pleasures we take, the trash we produce, the carbon we blow into the atmosphere, and the economy itself are intertwined and interdependent. If you follow these threads far enough, they lead to a point of intersection where the projects of urban prosperity, sustainability, and happiness really do converge – not in a single object or building, but in the complex weave of energy, mobility, economics, and geometric systems that define city life (p. 252).
The thrust of his work is that the car looks like freedom – and for many people it was and is. But on a grander scale it is not. As mentioned in happy mobility, one third of North America’s population does not have access to a car. Much of the city is designed to only work for the car. Moreover, the current pattern of city building – dispersed and in service to the car – is a ponzi scheme – for public finances, for public health, and pollution (p. 260-261). A new mode of city building takes into account the interconnections everywhere. Some of Montogomery’s examples:
Mixing housing and jobs and places to shop allows carbon and lifestyle goals to merge (p. 267)
Change the city’s relationship with energy and distance – shorter drives mean less fuel consumption. The money spent stays in the local economy (p. 266)
Building more connected, complex places means getting more tax jobs and tax revenue from land. A six-storey mixed use building is much healthier than a large-box development (p. 265)
Montgomery is calling for basic thoughtfulness about how we design our cities. He is also calling for a change in perspective that shifts us from scarcity, to abundance. It’s not about limiting use of the car, rendering it a scarce mode of transportation, but about adding modes of transportation. An abundance of ways to move, generating more freedom than the car could every provide. And generating an abundance of benefits as well – economic, social and environmental.
Designing and building happy cities does not mean that we have to do without – it means that we have to do better. The “better” is in how we embrace the complexity of living closer to each other:
We have only begun to understand the potential of … overlapping systems, but we do know that when regular people and city builders alike embrace complexity and the inherent connectedness of city life, when we move a little closer, we begin to free ourselves from the enslaving hunger for scarce energy (p. 270).
The challenge is to figure out how to live closer together, allowing connections. We can choose to put our energy into not having enough roads, not enough time, not enough stuff. Or we can make better use of the city we have, from a stance of abundance, and embrace the overlaps, move a little closer.
City life offers an abundance of interconnections, everywhere. This is our resilience strategy.
The happy city plan is an energy plan. It is a climate plan. It is a belt-tightening plan for cash-strapped cities. It is also an economic plan, a jobs plan, and a corrective for weak systems. It is a plan for resilience (p. 253).
… just about every measure I’ve connected to happy urbanism also influences a city’s environmental footprint and, just as urgent, its economic and fiscal health. If we understand and act upon this connectedness, we just may steer hundreds of cities off the course of crisis (p. 258).
We can live well and save the world at the same time.