Back to West Coast Trail


Two years ago this May, my brother and I were rescued by CFB Comox and night-vision goggles off Canada’s West Coast Trail. We are going back to finish the trek this May, and I wonder what it has in store for us.

This trail is arduous.  When we planned our trip two years ago, we decided to start at the south end and complete the most difficult terrain early in the trip, when we were physically and mentally confident. We did well, and the injury occurred on simple terrain when we were overtired and overtaxed that day. There are lots of things we can see now that we could have done differently, but they weren’t clear then. There was no way of knowing what some of the options were THEN. Accidents happen, as they say.

So this time, our goal is not to revisit the terrain we have already covered, but to see the terrain that we missed when we were hoisted up in the helicopter. We will start at the north end, in Bamfield, and make our way to that magic site. I imagine we will take a moment to see if the only two items we lost – a sandal and a water bottle – are in the brush and turn around to retrace our 2013 steps.

We will walk off the trail with a whole new adventure to talk about.




A warrior for healthy cities


Is everyone unhappy with how we organize our cities?  Citizens don’t like what city hall does.  Developers and builders don’t like what city hall does.  Civic advocacy groups don’t like what city hall does. I recently worked with a group of city employees who have been battered and bruised by colleagues in city hall, politicians, civil society, developers and builders, and citizens.  City hall isn’t happy either; every effort they make doesn’t seem to be right and they can’t see a way through to get it right.  They are miserable.  Everyone sounds miserable.

I am hungry for something other than fighting city hall.

I am hungry for civic practices that allow us to see what is working, so we can have more of what works.

I am hungry for civic practices that allow us to see what does not working and grapple with solutions in ways that leave everyone’s dignity in tact.

I am hungry for civil society that serves cities.

I am hungry for civic managers that serve cities.

I am hungry for civic builders and developers that serve cities

I am hungry for citizens that serve cities.

_____    _____

This is my quest: to see what it takes for a city to serve everyone and everything in and around cities well.

_____   _____

All aspects of a city need to be healthy for the city to be healthy.  We need to be healthy for our cities to be healthy.  If our cities don’t serve us well, it is up to us to make it better.  Each of us.  While some of us have more influence over others to make cities that work for us, no one has enough influence to make what they want happen.  Uncertainty is embedded in our cities.  How we react to the uncertainty is key; we can fight or we can choose to figure out how to figure it out.

The route we choose creates the conditions for more of what we put our attention: we can have more fighting, or we can figure it out.

City hall isn’t healthy when they constantly hear what’s wrong.  Developers and builders don’t build great cities when we don’t ask them to.  Civil society doesn’t succeed in keeping us honest to our ideals when we are not open to hearing them.  Citizens – at any scale – are not their best when defensively in trenches, sabotaging their best potential.

My fight is of a strange nature.  I do not ‘fight’ in a physical way, of course, but also not in mental or emotional ways.  I am a warrior of a different kind.

I create the conditions where the various perspectives of the city come out to play, integrating themselves, with give and take, for the purpose of creating a nourishing habitat for the beings that live in and around cities.  This will evoke a different sort of warrior in our cities: one who has the calm poise needed to welcome the feedback our world is giving us, who listens to it, who takes wise action.  Where cities become warriors for well-being themselves.




Itchy patterns


My whole being knows when something is wrong.  Sometimes I know exactly what it is, and other times I can’t quite put my finger on it.  I can be conscious or unconscious of what is bothering me.  And the more I get to know myself, I see that I have a choice to make about whether I notice if something is bothering me.

Our work for improvement, at the scale of self, city or planet, requires an awareness first of what bothers me/us.  We need to notice the itch before we’ll scratch it with the express purpose of thinking, making and doing new things.

Many posts ago I described the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan on Spiral Dynamics (here’s a link to my first post on their work, evolving value systems).  Here’s a simple pattern they offer about phases of change and how the itch feels (see pages 85-92 of their book).

Beck and Cowan highlight five phases of change, each easily recognizable moments in life.   At Alpha (top left of illustration), everything feels good and comfortable. At Beta, we begin to sense that something is wrong.  At Gamma, we know something is wrong and feel quite confused about what to do and could be very angry.  Through all the discomfort of Gamma, we can emerge at Delta with a new sense of direction and enthusiasm that can lead to New Alpha – a new sense of stability.

The amount of time we spend in each of these phases of change varies – a moment or decades.  As things change around us, we may remain at Alpha, not yet noticing the uneasiness of Beta.  If open to learning, when we find unsettling conditions at Beta and Gamma, we will find ways to understand the discomfort and know it precisely.  If really angry and confused, we could be at Gamma for a long time.  If not well equipped to see how to formulate plans and implement New Alpha, we could be at Delta for a great length of time, or even revert back to Gamma.

Here’s the clincher – if we welcome and seek deeper knowing, we invite uneasiness.  As we look for new ways to think, make and do things – the which is the source of the city impulse articulated in Chapter 1 – we aim to improve our lives, and by doing so we are creating new life conditions to which we will again have to adapt. Time, immediately or longer term, will reveal new uneasiness with those life conditions for nothing is as simple as making everyone happy all the time forever.

This means that as we work to organize ourselves, in cities or anywhere, we must develop practices to recognize when we are feeling uneasy at Beta and practices to figure out what is making us uneasy.  We need to develop practices that will help us through Gamma.  We must develop practices that allow the Delta prototypes to thrive on their way to New Alpha.  Behind the scenes here, there are a series of other questions around the practices that we each need, individually, for self.  And how we practice as groups, communities, neighbourhoods, organizations, cities and for the human species.

We are on a learning journey together as we think, make and do new things to improve our quality of life.

I will explore practices that support our learning journey specifically in Part 3 of Nest City.  My next post will connect our learning journey with Chapter 1 – The City Impulse.

_____ _____ _____

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.


Improvement means scratching the itch


Last week, I attended the Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Institute of Planners conference in Banff.  As I was there, I was noticing that I was very uneasy, itchy.  While there, I posted a blog about scratching the itch, recognizing that 800 of us were there to collectively scratch an itch – to find and implement better ways of organizing ourselves and our cities to work better.

This is a universal itch for humanity, to make our world a better place, at any scale.  I observed at choice last week about what to do with the itch.  Sometimes it is best to ignore the itch and let it go away.  Other times, the best thing to do is scratch,  inviting the discomfort that comes with learning something new.

At the conference, I chose not to itch.  Today I do.

For the last 15 years I have had great difficulty giving my full attention to speakers at conferences.  I am often, but now always, physically unable to sit and listen to any length of time.  The reason for this is becoming more clear to me.

Over time, I have begun to choose very carefully where I spend my time.  At conferences, I choose to go to sessions that call me.  I take time to generate the issues that I was tackling with at work.  It may have looked to others like I was not paying attention, but I was exploring what was working for me, and not, allowing the words of presenters to pop in and out of my head.  It is a wonderful opportunity to generate a plethora of ideas and ways to improve my work.  It was time well spent.

As I became older and started to meet more people, the conference also became an opportunity to connect with people.  My itch this week was how little opportunity there was to connect with each other.  A professional conference is a room full of professionals engaged in parallel play.  Each of us is taking in what we find of value for our personal, individual work.  We are a collective because we do the same work.  We do not have the power of a collective that engages in deepening our work together, learning how to create the social habitats our cities need to reach their full potential.

Planners work out of a passion for our cities.  As our last speaker went overtime, allowing no questions from the audience, I was acutely frustrated.  And many of the audience rose to their feet in ovation.  We celebrated a one-way transaction.  No interaction.  No feedback.  In fact, we celebrated this one-way information delivery.

This stopped me in my tracks.

I see the value in the presenter’s message.  I see it was appreciated, for it articulates our shared understanding of city life, and a shared intention to improve city life.  And I see that the presentation also, in its delivery, was anti-itch cream.  It maintained the status quo of our shared frustration, slowly-paced change.  We didn’t scratch.

The maintenance of the status quo takes place because there was no opportunity for the interaction of our minds, hearts and souls as we work to similar purpose – the well-being of our cities.  We are able to hide in ourselves because in traditional conference settings there is no, or minimal, opportunity for:

  1. the audience to ask questions and help the presenter share insight relevant to their work
  2. the audience and presenter to hear what resonated with the audience
  3. the audience and presenter to hear what the audience struggled to understand
  4. the collective to make collective meaning
  5. the collective to discern, together a collective course of action

Just as our cities need quality feedback, so too does any group of people wishing to take conscious action together.  Conscious action does not come from hiding.  In fact, as I moderated a session on public engagement strategies, I noticed a further challenge: while together, we do not practice our practice.  We spoke about engaging the public in new ways.  And we did not engage the audience in new ways.  So the audience did not experience something new.  They only heard about it.

And here I am writing about it, telling you about what I see, but not giving you the experience of what it could be.

There is value in simply receiving information, and sitting to get it.  The value of this diminishes, however, when we do not create opportunities to digest individually and collectively the information that comes our way.  I itch for balance.  To hear what others have to say, and to figure out what WE think it all means, and what WE and I ought to do about it.  What we need is no different than what our cities need.  There is a big gap between what we want to do and how we go about learning how to do it.  Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle hearing about it, we can’t learn to work with communities, stakeholders, citizens and cities hearing about it either.  We need to practice what it means to live, work and serve our cities.  We need to practice active citizenship, rather than excessive, passive downloads of information.

I love this irony: I figured out the language for this tension as I sat and listened to a plenary speaker at a 2008 planning conference.  My body snapped up straight as Bill Sanford said these words: ‘Akrasia – Greek for the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.’

Akrasia implies a gap, a space for improvement that compels us to work to make things better.  The conventional conference has its time and place to share information, but let’s not mistake it for the development of citizens, or professionals.  From time to time, it is the right thing to do, to receive information and hide ourselves.  I am wary of when it tucks us away from working for what we want.

What we need more of: stepping into the uncertainty and unease of living in community and dreaming together explicitly about what our cities are and can be for us, and what we need to be for them.



Cities are meant to feel uneasy


We don’t plan our cities, we organize them.  And we organize them at every scale (self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, nation, planet, universe).  This is how we do it: we figure out a destination, on our journey to get there we learn about how to get there, and where we actually end up emerges.  We don’t ever quite get ‘there’.  In this dynamic, it is more about moving in a direction, rather than getting somewhere where our work is ‘done’.

This relationship takes place in the context of our economic, social and physical (environmental) habitats.  It is driven by unknown possibility, and it looks like this:

Consider these two common definitions of ‘journey’:

  1. an occasion when you travel from one place to another, especially when there is a long distance between the places.  Synonyms: circuit, commute, crossing, excursion, expedition, exploration, peregrination, pilgrimage.  (MacMillan Dictionary Thesaurus)
  2. a process of changing and developing over a period of time.  Synonyms: transition, conversion, transformation, revision, change, adaptation, modification, flux. (MacMillan Dictionary Thesaurus)
‘Journey’ is both the act of travelling and an act of learning.  We sense where we are going (destination) even though we are unsure of exactly where we will end up (emergence).  We must necessarily embark on a journey to ‘get there’ that involves learning along the way.
When it comes to cities, ‘there’ is two things: cities that serve citizens well and citizens that serve cities well.  It is time for us to learn about being together in our cities in a way that serves ourselves well.  Our cities are made by us; they are not by anyone or anything else.  Cities are what we make of them.  Cities are what we make of us.
Here’s the deal.  Our cities are the engines of human innovation.  Cities are where we gather to spark each our own and others potential, generating deepened, ongoing innovation.  We are compelled, at an unprecedented rate, to gather in cities because we find work and opportunity to find what we each feel we have to offer the world.  (Yes, if you find your life is best suited to life outside of cities, your contributions are valuable.  What I say here is not at the exclusion of you, for the vast majority of folks outside of cities life in relationship with cities.)
We make cities and our cities make us in return, which means that the more explicit our relationship with cities is, the better our cities will be for us.  How we organize our cities is not up to city hall and planners.  It is up to the full range of perspectives in our cities.  We are entering a new era of planning our cities, where we organize ourselves in response to our changing life conditions.  ‘City planning’ is no longer a linear affair with a critical path laid out to a destination.  It is now about having a sense of where we are going, figuring out how to maintain that direction along the way (even course correction when warranted) and trusting that where we end up is where we ought to be.  Even if unimagined.
This means living with uncertainty.  As with any journey, there are aspects of our city journey that is uneasy.  This means finding ways to support self, others, and whole cities with uneasy journey we are on in our cities.  It seems that cities are the vehicle in which we are travelling on the human journey.  A planet powered by cities.
We must remember that what we power is determined by us.  It is time to build the nest we need.  It is time to live into an uneasy journey and use it to our full advantage.  It is time to exercise the power of we.


_____ _____ _____

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.



Two poems to sum up


The two poems below emerged as I participated in last week’s Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference held in Banff, Canada.


Perpetually unfinished cities

We do not take

this place for granted

as stewards

we threw away

our cities

we now reclaim

the future


changing climate

where more is better

spirally upward

to walkable urban neighbourhood

places making


perpetually unfinished

serially created

with no fixed destination

the city’s conduits

are webs of learning

recovering, adapting


Learning cities

learning cities

are naturally


connecting everything

we do


simultaneous success and failure

catalyzing complexity



My neighbourhood speaks to me


Earlier this week, in Writing from the red chair, I relayed how I have found a bench along Edmonton’s river valley on which to sit and write.  The view is fantastic:


As I sit here I can hear the city and nature as well.  In the bottom of the valley, slightly to the left, I can see the river flowing through the city.  I feel the air float by and I can hear bird’s wings as they fly overhead.

Yesterday was a wet day in contract to today’s sun, but the power of sitting here at the edge of the city right in the middle of the city is remarkable.  It is as though the city just wants to tell me all about itself.

When I first came upon this bench I stepped in front of it to enjoy the view and very briefly read the inscription placed on it.

When I finished doing some morning stretching exercised (ITP Kata) and a little meditation on the edge of the bench, I sat in it and talked to myself.  I sorted out that I needed to be able to write here, not just talk.  I resolved to get a notebook a I stood up and prepared to leave.  Then I realized that I had read the inscription on the bench incorrectly.

Here is what it says:

Art is the expression of man’s delight in God’s work.  

I thought it said:

Art is the expression of God’s delight in man’s work.  

The game my mind played with the words made this little message jump out at me.  I have been musing about how I create the conditions for my creative self to flow freely. It may or may not be ‘art’ per se, but that doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if I believe in God, a higher power, a Spirit, a Creator or the creative Essence of my Self.  These words are powerful.

Art is the expression of our delight in the world.

Art is the expression of our world’s delight in us.

The words are attributed to Bill Lumsden, 1928-1997.  I have neighbours with the surname Lumsden, and while I have no idea if they are related, I can’t imagine that they are not.  I felt as though my very neighbourhood was speaking to me, asking me to look at things and look again.  Take the meaning of something and see if there is even more meaning.

And take great delight in what I find.

And share what I find for your delight.



Props to the pork chop clan

For the last 8 summers, my brother and I, our spouses and our kids hike into the backcountry behind Mount Robson on the Berg Lake Trail.  We make a point of travelling as light as possible.  It is a 23 km hike one way, with an 800 metre elevation gain, travelling through 3 biogeoclimatic zones.  It is hard work.  (For anyone keen on satellite imagery of the terrain, here is a link to a google map of the trail.)


On one of our first voyages on this trail, we came across a family that hiked “old school”.  They had old packs with the frames on the outside.  They carried in a cast iron fry pan, potatoes, cans of mushroom soup and pork chops that were 2 inches thick.  We were in awe of the stupidity of carrying so much weight up that tough hill.  A fry pan?  Huge pork chops?  A can of mushroom soup?  Real potatoes?  It is a story that has been firmly entrenched in our family lore.  The pork chop clan’s packs weighed 80 pounds.  The heaviest pack in our family: 40 pounds.

At the start of the trail this year we spotted the pork chop patriarch.  Moving slow with a heavy pack, resting at the top of the first hill we confirmed it was him.  We were thrilled!  We have been revelling in our own glory for being such smart hikers, carrying as little as possible (while also eating very well, I must add).  We were chuffed to see him moving slow under all that weight he was still carrying…

Until we saw their food this year.

Chicken breasts with a fresh vegetable sauce on pasta.  The preparation involved three stir fry pans (they are cooking for 7 hungry adults.)  Steaks and 5 pounds of carrots and at least 2 pounds of onions.  Followed by two banana cream pies with whipped cream.

And they were staying two more nights to enjoy more delicious meals.

While we may choose to travel light, we have to notice that these crazy (in our minds) folks have it right.  They work hard and they eat hard.  They love being in the mountains and they are not afraid of hard work.  They enjoy their food and they clearly enjoy being with each other on their mountain adventure.  A family hike with family meals.

Like my family, they do this trip over and over.  The pork chop patriarch’s kids have travelled from the south of British Columbia and Saskatchewan to meet him here (he’s from northern British Columbia) and spend this time together.  When we met them before, his daughter’s fiance was with them and we imagined that this was some kind of test to see if the fellow would fit in.  This year, the daughter’s husband was with them, and a son’s ‘almost-fiance’.

The kids in our group come because their parents’ expect them to because they range from 9-14 years old.  We can only hope our kids continue to join in our family adventures over time.

My nephew summed it up this afternoon as we neared the end of today’s 21 km hike, tired and wet in the pouring rain.  We have been suffering for years of sour grapes.  Just like Aesop’s fox.  It is easy to despise what you cannot get.

It is easy to jeer and belittle what you don’t have the strength to work for.

As my husband put it, ‘Props to the pork chop clan’.


Illustration - Felix Lorioux


Props – slang for “compliments”, or “accolades”


Conscious capacity – a city intelligence

I began this series of posts on evolutionary intelligences with integral intelligence (part 1 and part 2).  In these two parts, four maps were shared that help us see our cities as wholes.  One of those maps was the integral map, shown like this (illustrated by Brandy Agerbeck):

This, and the next three posts, will each focus on one of these quadrants, as applied to the city.  Author Marilyn Hamilton calls this Integral City (her book, her website).  For our purposes, imagine the four quadrants like this:

Four of the evolutionary intelligences identified by Hamilton are from the vantage point of each of the four quadrants.  Today, we look at the upper left – inner intelligence.

As we explored emerging intelligence, I made the case that the city is alive.  Alive also means consciousness, a key aspect to Hamilton’s inner intelligence.  When exploring emerging intelligence, I also introduced the notion of the city as a whole system made up of smaller whole systems, such as individuals, families, neighbourhoods, organizations, etc.  Each of these whole systems are holons, each with a conscious intention.  From the vantage point on inner intelligence, Hamilton states that “individual citizen attention and citizen intention lie at the heart of the intelligent city and at the center of the city’s capacity to sustain itself [1].”

It is from our inner intelligence, that together, as a social holon, citizens of a city discern purpose.  Again, Hamilton: “For a city to function optimally, its citizens need to practise, manage and lead from a sense of purpose in their collective lives.  Such an awareness could coalesce the intention of all learning systems with the relevant application of resources in the city [2].”

As we choose to live collectively in the city, we do so with purpose – to create the conditions for us to thrive.  And the very purpose we see for our cities evolves along with us.  It emerges.  Remember the purposes of the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and how we conceive the purpose for the city is in relation to our life conditions.  We evolve and what we need from our cities also evolves.

City Purposes

What we need form our cities comes from the inner intelligence of our individual intentions.  In the holon of the city, this is the intelligence of collective citizenship.   This collective sense of purpose of the city is actually a big mess.  “A citizen in any given city will hold a spectrum of values to which she pays attention and for which she will form intentions and purposes [3].”  Compound this with all the citizens of a city and the values and intentions and purposes end up being potentially quite diffused.  Yet, as Hamilton points out, when enough people share their dreams the cities vision, or mission, or purpose can emerge.  It emerges from the inner intelligence of citizenship.

Our inner intelligence is growing.  Our conscious capacity is growing. As we grow and evolve with our cities we learn new capacities at every turn.  We are learning to grow our capacities to be conscious of our habitat and respond appropriately.  Our inner intelligence is growing so we can be the citizens our cities need.  

My next post will explore outer intelligence, the upper right quadrant, and our capacity to ’embody right action.’


____ ____ ____

If you are interested in learning more about evolutionary intelligences relating to cities, you need to know about the Integral City eLaboratory – Co-Creating the Future of the Human Hive

______ ______ _____


[1] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 102

[2] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 105

[3] Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City, p. 111

Integral intelligence for the city – part 1

Integral intelligence is about charting patterns.  Since I began blogging Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities on May 1, 2012 (click here for the first blog), I have used three of the four integral maps introduced by Marilyn Hamilton in her body of work called Integral City (here are links to her book and website).

The four integral maps to look at cities in a whole, integrated fashion are:

  1. The nested holarchy of city systems
  2. Spiral Dynamics – the complex adaptive structures of city change
  3. The integral map
  4. The scalar, fractal relationship of micro, meso, macro human systems
In this post, I will outline the first two maps. The next two will be outlined in my next post on Monday.

1.  Nested Hierarchy of City Systems

Figure A – Nested Holarchy of City Systems

I first introduced the nested holarchy of city systems when describing the role of work and our work life as the evolutionary spark that began our migration across the planet, then into cities, and the subsequent growth of our cities.  We are driven to do more than merely survive, so we constantly find ways to think, make and do new things.  The result is that we change our habitat along the way – we create settlements and cities (and many other things that physically change our habitat).  More importantly, our work, at every scale in the city, creates the conditions for even more ways of thinking, making and doing new things: innovation.  Our cities are engines of innovation, which means that  the development of cities is a survival skill.

For Hamilton, to look at a city as whole we must contemplate the city as a human system, which is comprised of a nest of systems, each of which are themselves whole.  Each of which has its own level of complexity that includes the preceding “smaller” systems.

The value of this map is that at minimum, it reminds us to thing of city life at more than one scale.  It also reminds us that to work at any scale, we must also work with the systems that make up that system.  If working at the neighbourhood scale (5), then we must also work at the individual, family/clan, group, organizational scales as well.

Hamilton has made a recent blog post on this if you are interested.  Other Nest City posts that include this map are: Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitatWork at scale to serve the city, and The city as a nest.

2.  Spiral Dynamics – integral

Figure B – Spiral Purposes of Cities

The Nest City blog next introduced Spiral Dynamics as a means to map the evolution of the purpose of cities.  A series of posts (Is an unplanned city part 1part 2part 3 and part 4) tell the story of St. John’s, Newfoundland and reveal how as the levels of complexity change (as the scales of system in the nested holarchy of city systems get larger), we adapt to provide structures that support new levels of complexity.  As the  purpose of a human settlement evolves, we shift and adjust our values and priorities to organize ourselves in response to changing conditions.  These posts are a window into how the Spiral shows up in the city.

Three additional posts outline how the Spiral works: A primer on the emerging spiral7 principles frame the emerging spiral, and Conditions for evolutionary expansion.

The value of this map is not just in the map itself.  The places on the map tell us about the values of that spot, and the things that motivate people and systems from that spot.  This understanding has huge implications for designing and communication with city systems.

The additional value of this frame is the understanding  that movement up or down the spiral is always in response to life conditions – our habitat.  This is so critical for cities – for our cities are our habitat, made by us.

Both of these maps are intensely connected to our drive to thrive in cities.  The nested holarchy reminds us that cities are a systems made of systems and part of larger, expanding systems.  Moreover, as we build our cities we are creating the conditions for our own movement up the Spiral.  We are creating the conditions for our own evolution.  

The next post will address the two remaining maps of integral intelligence: the integral map, and scalar, fractal relationships.