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


Survival systems

This is the headline that wrapped up my hiking trip on the West Coast Trail a week ago today:  Rescuers from Comox had to Overcome Bad Weather.

Shifting to survival senses

With four fabulous days of hiking and hard work behind us, and only two days ahead of us, my brother broke his ankle.  In a moment our journey shifted from exploring a beautiful land and shore to a journey of a different sort: ensuring his well-being and survival.

I blew SOS on my whistle.  No answer.  We were alone.  I pulled out my cell phone to call the emergency phone number given to us at the trailhead but calls could not leave my phone.  The instructions said not to call 911, but I tried anyway.  It went through.  I introduced myself and the situation and requested evacuation off the West Coast Trail.  The response: “Is that in the United States?”

I was patched through five places before I found Purnell and Shannon, the West Coast Trail search and rescue personnel.  At last, someone knew where we were and that we needed help.  We were to sit tight until they determined what action to take and called us back.

But they couldn’t call back.

My phone could not make or receive calls.

This might look like it is the beginning of a bad story, but it isn’t.  I made contact with a sliver of the emergency response system on Canada’s west coast.  I am just now grasping the sheer size and significance of the organizations and institutions that got my brother to safety and set him up well and quickly to begin his healing journey.

19 Wing Badge

In the big picture, several institutions were in service.  All the operators who helped me get through to Purnell and Shannon.  They ascertained that it was not possible for my brother to get off the trail on his own or carried down by stretcher, night was falling and the weather deteriorating, they called the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.  This engaged 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron and 19 Wing, Canada’s only air force base in British Columbia, out of Comox.

The face of all the help behind the scenes began with Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs) Chris and Marc (with a ‘c’).  Since there was not enough fuel to get my brother straight to the hospital in Victoria, the airport got involved, as well as Tracy and her partner with BC Ambulance.  Then all the emergency room staff, who were waiting and fabulous.  And the x-ray gal.  And the orthopedic floor staff, the surgery staff and a physiotherapist.  And all of the systems behind the scenes that enable these people to do their work: the mechanics, accountants, managers, support staff, building maintenance personnel, lab technicians, including the providers of fuel and energy for all of this to work.  Everything just got looked after once I told the system help was needed from a tiny phone on kilometre 33 of the West Coast Trail.

The whole system did this in 24 hours: search, rescue, deliver, diagnose, operate and discharge.  Within 24 hours of his fall, even surgery was behind him.

This is remarkable.  This huge system of systems worked as I could only dream.

The whole system is wanting to help

A helpful institution is not an oxymoron.  This experience has revealed that what feels like a big maze of horrible bureaucracy is actually a huge system of systems wanting to help.  That is its purpose.  And it can do wonderful, helpful things for people. As I reflect on my brother’s experience, I notice that:

  1. The system helps me when I know what I want from it. With each call into 911, my message to the operators got more and more specific.  Eventually, I learned to say to the US operator, “Please put me through to British Columbia RCMP.”  Then to the RCMP operator:  “I am on the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island awaiting evacuation.  This is the only way I can get in touch with the people helping us, please put me through to this phone number.”  They did it.  And eventually, they knew my calls were coming and helped even quicker.
  2. I need to learn about the system to help the system help me. I had to craft my message to be responsive to the kind of help that operator offered. I had to learn their language.  Mentioning the West Coast Trail to the US operator was meaningless. The path through the maze was much smoother when I had the right language for the right people.
  3. I need to learn and adapt with the system to help the system help me. I became a part of the system when I made the first call to 911, which required me to learn and adapt with it as we adjusted to the unusual situation where  my phone could not make or receive calls.
  4. The system helps me even when I don’t know what I want from it. In the end, the system just delivered what was needed.  It has expertise that I do not have and it was delivered via phone, on the trail, in the air and through to the hospital.    
  5. To receive help, I have to be willing to let the system help me. I remember a couple of times feeling mad and frustrated, but I know that if I got mad, the system would just have a harder time helping.
  6. There is a big system invisible to me that is there to serve the public. It might not always work this well, but the point is that it did.  Various parts of it slip into play when needed, and slip away when not needed.  This big system works.  It can do what we ask of it.
  7. My fellow citizens and I have created this system and its service. As a taxpayer I pay for it.  I am glad I do. 

Thank you to Shannon, Purnell, Chris, Marc with a ‘C’, and the folks on Nitinat Lake

I find that I am all caught up in the pride I feel in Canada’s search and rescue and health personnel – and in particular the people that came to get us.

Two people we didn’t meet, Purnell and Shannon, were on their way by zodiac to spend the night with us if the conditions made it impossible for the airlift to take place. They also coordinated getting all our gear that we had to abandon on the trail, back out to us in Victoria.  Thanks to the folks that live on Nitinat Lake for the transfer.  All that is missing is a sandal and a water bottle.  We didn’t expect this.  Thanks.

FC2009-001 11 January 2009 Mount-Washington, British-Colombia A CH-149 Cormorant helicopter flies over Mount-Washington in preparation to land. CF Photo by Sergeant Eileen Redding

I am quite moved by the experience of being rescued.  My whole body vibrates when I recall hearing the helicopter, but not seeing her for a long time as I waved flashlights into the sky as she hid behind the low cloud cover in the rainy, dark night.  At last, we could see the bright lights of our new friend the CH-149 Cormorant, and when we saw the first SAR Tech lowered from the helicopter, we knew help arrived.  We saw a second SAR Tech lowered to the ground, and a Stokes litter (rescue basket/stretcher), then the helicopter flew off.  We waited and waited, but no one came up the path.  We thought we must have been dreaming.  After a few hollers back and forth in the quiet, I learned they were in the bush – I had to head down the path to help them find their way to my brother.

GD2008-0454-12 30 May 08 Sydney, Nova Scotia Search and Rescue Technicians from 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron, participate in an exercise with a vessel from the Coast Guard College. CF Photo by Private Melissa Spence

And so we met Chris and Marc and they settled in to do their work and prepare my brother for transport up to the helicopter.  And their immediate confirmation that there was no other way for a guy with his foot pointing in the wrong direction to get off the trail.

My whole body vibrates again as I recall the SAR Tech preparing me for my trip through the air up to the helicopter, his help to stand in her downdraft that was snapping trees, and the wind-whipping trip itself.  I was a shock to be physically touching help (him) and feeling help (him) and being held by help (him).  Then trusting that below me my brother was also coming up safely, but alone, in the Stokes litter.  And then help, in the shape of this big bird, whisked us away to Victoria and the next phases of help.  The 19 Wing badge (shown above)  is most appropriate.

cx2003-0152-20c CFB Comox, BC 24 April 2003 Sergeant Mike Falardeau, a Flight Engineer at 442 Squadron Comox, prepares to lower the stokes litter to the deck of the HMCS Brandon during a hoist exercise outside the Esquimalt harbour in Victoria, British Columbia. Photo by corporal Miranda Langguth, 19 Wing Imaging.

Thank you Squadron 442 .  HAIETLIK, the Lightening Snake of Nootka Indian Legend in the center of your badge resonates with the history of the land you plucked us from.  And your motto, UN DIEU, UNE REINE, UN COEUR,  resonates with your purpose – that others may live.

Thank you to the land of the Nootka.  Thank you for the experience of enjoying your land and shore.  Thank you for the safe departure.  Thank you for returning our gear.  The whole experience is a gift.

We will be back to pick up where we left off.  For those that know the trail, we were traveling from south to north.  The hard part is behind us.

Post script

Here is what the first sounds of rescue sound like (the CH-149 Cormorant).


The Pulse of Kingdom

The pulse of our kingdom is strong today as we cast our ballots to choose our federal government in the wake of the Royal wedding.

While the Monarchy that is such a huge part of Canadian history seems to have such a small role in our day to day lives, our attention to the marriage of William and Kate has connects us deeply to not simply the Monarchy, but to each other.  It was an event that expands our identity and belonging to the world.  We were invited to participate and we did –1.4-2 billion of us.  The world was watching, not just British subjects.

What strikes me as significant is that the power of the Monarchy lies not in governing its people, but in just being a family that we gather around.  We pull together for the big party and the celebration.  We pull together to remember the good times and the bad.  We pull together the old threads of the story and tease out the new threads that will pull us into the future.  And with William and Kate, they do this the way no elected politician ever can.  Rarely do politicians have the hardship of publicly losing her/his Mother to the very life s/he is stepping into (and when they do, we refer to them as royaly – the Ghandi family in India).  Our Monarchy pulls us together as a nation, as a commonwealth, and in this case even humanity, the way no politician can.

The role of this Monarchy in our day to day lives has evolved into one as a figurehead rather than ruler, but a figurehead that plays a critical role to our sense of identity.  For we are our own rulers and we choose our governments.

And today we exercise our fantastic power to choose who makes the decisions in our great land of Canada.

It is our opportunity to put our collective dream into action.

Please vote.

Soccer isn’t really about soccer (the yellow card story)

I received my first yellow card this summer.  For some, that means I broke a rule, for others it means that I was playing the game as it ought to be played.  I am noticing that sometimes (but not always) I struggle with with breaking the rules – or even testing the rules.

The conundrum: I love rules and rules infuriate me.  In much of my world, I appreciate rules and the structure they offer. Ill-applied rules, or rules that have lost their sense of purpose, frustrate me.  In a soccer game, they provide the necessary level playing field for healthy and fair competition.  Since I appreciate healthy and fair competition, I appreciate the rules that are in place to ensure the game is fair competition.  We have an impartial official to do this for us, on the reasonable assumption that we are not equipped to do this ourselves in the heat of a game.

As I learn more about playing soccer, I notice that I am choosing more consciously when and where to be aggressive and when and where to let things happen. Whether playing a strong or a weak team, if we just let things happen, we will not hold our own.  Each of us needs a measure of urgency for the team to hold its own.  As is often the case with me, I go full tilt.  (Yellow cards do not come from letting things happen.)

Early in the yellow card game I collided with a player from the opposing team.  The official took me aside with a warning to take it easy.  Later in the game, as one of their stronger players (I will call her Number 5) had a breakaway toward our net.  I caught up with her, got a smidge ahead and kicked the ball out of play.  In the process, Number 5 fell.

It was fair play: I had a chance to kick the ball out of play and I took it.  The official confirmed this with me right away.  Number 5, however, was on the ground and sobbing.  She had hit her head on the ground. Her coach bellowed at the official, who, in return, gave me a yellow card for unnecessary rough play.  Even after he declared it to be fair play.

Since I didn’t get a yellow card right away, I was a bit surprised.  The official and I had a quick congenial chat about his call and we played on.  But I wasn’t feeling that good about hurting someone.  Then I noticed Number 5’s dramatic behaviour.  After her “concussion” she was pretty much immediately back on the field.  She slide-tackled one of my team mates and barks at the official, “Did you see that?  She just took me out!”  When the official calls her for being offside, she vehemently protests.  At every turn she quips about her concussion, yet she plays hard and well – even with her head.

Technically, Number 5 is a skilled player.  But instead of relying solely on her technical skill, she challenged us by challenging the rules – and the keeper of the rules – to see if she could gain advantage.  This is a whole different game with a different set of skills to play with and around the rules to find advantage.  With Number 5, it showed up in the sobbing and theatrics when she was knocked down (a common occurrence) or defeated.  Or even when she made a mistake herself.  By doing so, she may well get a call from the official that works in her favour – whether legitimate or not.

And here is where I struggle.  There are competing value systems at play here.  (In parentheses, I will refer to the Spiral Dynamics integral levels of consciousness.  The colours.  Please refer to this article for a primer, or just read along.)

The game is a competitive experience (RED).  To be healthy and fair, there are rules to provide some boundaries to the competition (BLUE).  My opponent choose to play the game in two ways – first technically within the rules, and second by playing with the rules.

My deliberation is whether or not the ‘playing’ with the rules is fair or not.  Fair is noticing how the rules are being called and playing accordingly (providing no harm is done to another).  If the official never notices when plays are offside, we notice this and play within the rules evident on the field in that situation. Usually, it works out evenly for both teams and there is no advantage.  (If the official favours a team, that is another discussion).

Manipulating the circumstances to alter how the official makes a call is another scenario.  This is a competitive drive to play a political power game (RED) outside of the rules.  It changes how the rules are seen by players and officials.  With weak officials, the ‘game’ becomes the game.  Brave (RED) officials use their authority (BLUE) to make the needed calls.  Players need to be mindful of which game is underway.  Everyone has choice in this.

In the end, the drama is a distraction from the real game at hand – on and off the field.  It may be appropriate at times, but it mostly keeps us from what we really wish to be doing.  That said, the drama is not something I can avoid.

I wonder if I need to let myself get super competitive (RED) to battle in the manipulative realm.  I am quite competitive, but from a place to improve my performance relative to me, not to others.  I do not need to win.  I need to do well.  My measuring stick is internal; I do not need to win over someone.  My purpose (BLUE) in this situation is to learn more and more about the game of soccer and how to play it. In my life and work, I aim to learn more and more about life and communities and how we work.  This purpose (BLUE) tempers quite dramatically my competitive spirit (RED).

At the end of the day, I seek to understand. I need not react. I stand my ground.  I am honest.  I will not fake a fall.  I will make the ‘game’ explicit when it needs to be.  Number 5 was looking for ways to use the rules to her favour – a win at all costs.  I don’t play from this mindset, on or off the field.  I’ll pour my energy into intention – with an organization, a community, or a couple of teams learning and developing and practicing their soccer skills.

From time to time I deliberate about whether I should make a scene when I fall on the field.  Whether fouled or not, I could choose to stay down on the ground (and maybe sob).  I could exaggerate a shove or fall.  Maybe get a free kick or penalty shot.  It’s just not in me to do that.  I am too transparent.  But I recognize that I need not  ignore the ‘game’.  On and off the field there is more than one game in play and I need to recognize which one is underway.  In the end it isn’t about whether I am breaking the rules – it is about which set of rules is being broken.

They can keep charging. I’ll stand my ground.

Elect a President

There is an election for my professional association, the Alberta Association of the Canadian Institute of Planners.  I have put my name forward as candidate for the position of president-elect. The successful candidate will serve one year as president elect, 2 years as president, and 2 years as past president serving as AACIP’s representative to the Canadian Institute of Planners.  This is a significant commitment to the profession, one that asks me to consider completely why I would wish to take this role on for the profession.

As I look back at what really interests me about the planning profession, it is about how we as a collective are in a position to support our communities as they strive to thrive.  We are in service to something far larger than our individual jobs, or even the planning profession.  Collectively, we work in service to the fullness of community.  To best do that, we need to continue the evolution of our professional association while holding two distinct priorities: the development of our profession as technicians and effective practitioners, and the development of the health of our communities.  This involves a new era of professional practice where we acknowledge that we offer so much more than technical services to communities, or technical learning opportunities for ourselves.

The October 2010 AACIP conference is focusing on 2 questions:  What if we are not planning to survive? And who is planning our future anyway?  These questions can relate to both our professional membership, as well as our communities.  As a profession, we need to explore these questions – among ourselves and with our communities – in order to fully respond to what we are called to do.  It is time for us to notice what we, ourselves, are planning for and what we need to do to get there.

As I reflect about why I put myself forward in this way, the answer I keep coming back to is about my passion for the development of our professional practice that is in tune with what our communities need from us.  I see I have a role to play in this.  So, for your consideration:

The skills I offer for my colleagues’ consideration:

  • Executive leadership – senior leader in municipal/regional government, University Board of Governors, numerous community boards
  • Effective resource management – $17 M operating and $250M capital budgets
  • Strategic leadership focus amidst competing demands
  • Strategic alliances and relationships with government, stakeholders, and other professions
  • Appropriate balance between confrontation, cooperation, and collaboration
  • Meaningful processes for conversation – between ourselves, our professional colleagues and our communities

The platform I offer for my colleagues’ consideration:

A leader these days needs to be a host – one who convenes diversity; who convenes all viewpoints in creative processes where our mutual intelligence can come forth. ~ Margaret Wheatley

Without collective intelligence and wise, effective action, the future of our organizations, our communities, and our planet remain imperiled. ~ Thomas J. Hurley and Juanita Brown

After 50 years, AACIP is transitioning into something new: the Alberta Professional Planners Institute (APPI). Along with the name, the planning landscape has changed as well: now over 800 members, a diverse collective practice, and communities facing complex economic, social, ecological and governance challenges. Under the legislation creating APPI, the profession now has an explicit relationship with the public interest.

For the next 50 years, the world will continue to change.  To be effectively in service to our communities, it is time to engage with each other and the larger community to ponder the following questions:

  1. What is the public interest?  What is APPI’s relationship with the public?  What could it be?
  2. How can the collective voice of APPI serve the public interest?
  3. What skills do APPI members need to support the communities we serve?
  4. How can APPI collaborate with other organizations to serve both its members and the public?
  5. What values are at the core of our work?
  6. What is our unique service to the public?
  7. What are the emerging qualities of a new standard of professional practice?

Please cast your ballot.

Visual Explorer

Feb 12, 2010 – Hosting and Harvesting Alberta’s Ingenuity

Discovering understanding

I spotted it from afar

but I didn’t know what was around the bend.

I like balance

in a bigger world

harvesting value

I’m solid

but the balance could crash

as I spin

seeking everything around

in wonder of children

to a new expansive, steady


Over the edge of the cliff

I see a wondrous valley

depending on how I look

at Jesus in the cheese shop

where the provolone, the camembert

is not strong or stinky

Conversation basics

are closest to me

learning with people

speak and ask

energetic meshes for life

self organizing

The masks are off in a pile at the door

my feet are on the ground

I pick what works

to balance

with strength and support

with others

with humility

in the eye of the storm

prepared together

moving forward

deeply, then deeper


I finally get the future


trading and gathering tomatoes, potatoes and onions

in wonder of what’s



seeking synchronicity

but it’s foggy

and I keep walking

with support in the background

in a hectic world

where time is friend or foe

reflecting on celebration

there’s a day ahead.

The Headlines

Feb 10, 2010 – Hosting and Harvesting Alberta’s Ingenuity

Juggling is serious farming

rebuilding broken bridges

family relationships

in purposeful life

with mystery, tension

finding what’s most


Comfort and tension together learn

disappointment bringing beauty

knowing the faces in my work:

bruises and support

Guides to prosper

tea and conversation

fancy and messy travels

new places, new conversations

simple (and sample) in the complex

family and friends







Agricultural spirituality

building community

near and far

mom and dog

be the change

just be

and make it mean what I want it to be:

possibility networks

children anchor  stories

bees and the human hive

all kids are life

and I’m scared to count the donkeys

Restorative Gene-O

Things happen for a reason

restoring justice

for generations

keeping the waters clean

I make my own way

broadening horizons

with a hotel room for 2 nights

but I don’t need a razor blade

just a sponge

with unexpected elders


eat what you kill

kill what you eat

vested indiginizationn

you know what you know

they know what they know

what will we leave behind


New kids on the block

with opportunity

through relationships

listening to every single word


going the extra distance


who we are

with everything we have to offer

however long its going to take

in conversation