An entrepreneurial city hall

I can’t wait to see the GO Centre this Saturday, Edmonton’s latest recreation facility.  It sounds remarkable – three huge gymnasiums that can be 12 full size basketball courts or 25 volleyball courts.  And a gym for the gymnasts.  It is both a facility for the U of A teams and a community centre. And unlike most recreational capital projects in cities, it came in on budget.  And the price tag was only $38 million.

The funds for the GO Centre are from federal, provincial and city governments. $4 million in private donations were also made by individuals, businesses and community partners.[1] The donations are not what are unique about this project – it is the entrepreneurial spirit within Edmonton that is worth noticing.  One of the two usual suspects –  the City of Edmonton or the University of Alberta – could have built the facility with $4 million dollars in sponsorship.  But what happened here reveals so much more of Edmonton’s creative entrepreneurial spirit.

The sports of volleyball, gymnastics and basketball came together as an unusual partnership: the Edmonton Grads Club, Ortona Gymnastics Club, Edmonton Volleyball Centre Society and the University of Alberta.  As a partnership, they declare that the GO Centre project “harnesses the talents and energy of all partners to address critical issues and to create a prime venue for growth and expansion of recreation and sports opportunities for all people in the Region.”[2] They organize

d themselves to meet the needs of their organizations, their sport communities, the University community and the wider community.

What I appreciate about this project is that the handful of Edmontonians needed to get the project underway stepped up to do it, and chose to look after their own organizations needs, but also that of the larger community[3].  Federal, provincial and city government supported their work.  The GO Centre builds on the City’s Recreation Master Plan and delivers on a trend toward multi-purpose facilities with versatile and flexible spaces.  They take it a step forward and build a facility for sports that are underrepresented.  They are thinking beyond traditional boundaries of partnership: the U of A is served, the community is served, the Edmonton Capital Region is served.

In all of this, I find myself curious about the role of City Hall in this entrepreneurial spirit.  At a minimum , the City is responsible for the basic infrastructure on which we build our city.  The roads to get places, the pipes to move water and wastewater, the waste we generate.  On this we build our city – and our recreation facilities.  In addition, the City brings rules and regulations for what we build and where, and ensure that the minimum standards for construction meet safety and construction standards through the permitting and building inspection processes.  The City provides emergency support in policing and fire protection.  All of this, in the strictest sense, is a service not performed by others in community.  For the provision of these services, the word ‘entrepreneurship’ in City Hall is not about competition, but finding the balance between creativity and efficiency in the delivery of these services.  Outside these service areas, however, entrepreneurship takes on a different meaning.

Case in point – recreation facilities.  The City builds and operates recreational facilities, but unlike the service areas noted above, other players also provide facilities and programs.  The city is a player among many.  That immediately conjures a picture of these players in competition with each other.  But the GO Centre illustrates that that is not what is happening.  Entrepreneurship in this case is big scale collaboration to work in new ways to build what really needs to be built.  Multi-sport facilities already exist for hockey, swimming, indoor soccer (Tri-Leisure Centre, Millenium Place, Terwilligar).  The GO Centre meets a whole new need and compliments the facilities that are already in place.

City Hall could have fought this, with hurt feelings that others are stepping on its feet as a recreation service provider.  The City could have insisted that its role is to build such facilities and missed the opportunity for the community to meet its own needs.

In the end, entrepreneurship at City Hall doesn’t quite mean that it gets more business like.  It means that it recalibrates its authority to make more room for partnerships.  An entrepreneurial City Hall will:

  1. Acknowledge that it is not all things to all people
  2. Recognize that the city knows what it needs
  3. Support partnerships that enable the needs of the community to be met
  4. Provide infrastructure to support the initiatives
  5. Establish (and enforcing) the rules that ensure what we build meets our collective standards.

An entrepreneurial city hall is one that makes room for the city’s creativity – the ultimate entrepreneurship.



For readers interested in Spiral Dynamics integral: The GO Centre partnership is an ORANGE initiative.  To do more of this kind of work, City Hall will have to recalibrate its BLUEness.  It doesn’t lose its BLUEness, but adjusts its focus to provide the structure needed for the city’s entrepreneurial ORANGE spirit to emerge more fully.  What would BLUE in service to ORANGE really look like?
The GO Centre’s ORANGE flavor is also interesting because it fully intends to deliver on PURPLE and RED threads by building community and providing a healthy place for competition and sport.

[1] Scott Hennig, “Partnership, not taxes, the way to GO,” Edmonton Journal, p, A21, September 29, 2011.


[3] Current board members:

Massive gathering

People are compelled to gather.  We are compelled to have time alone and in small groups, and we are also compelled to gather in large and huge groups.  And we build spaces and places in our cities to do so.  This is a characteristic of how we live as a species.

Last night I was struck by how we gather to listen to live music in the thousands despite our easy access to the music.  Recently the only way to hear and enjoy others’ music was live, with the musician right in front of you. Radio, television, records, tapes, CDs and itunes have not dampened our interest in gathering to hear music live.  And the spaces we have created for this very activity still serve this impulse.  They are critical to our very being.

Having places to gather en mass are a feature in every community/town/city I have experienced.  Not necessarily for everyone to gather – those who are attracted to the invitation to gather show up.  And we build bigger and bigger spaces for gathering as we need to, be it hockey arenas, concert halls, open spaces in front of city hall and the provincial legisture, and expansive open green spaces.  We use the spaces to gather to protest, enjoy culture, have a celebration, watch sports, raise money, hang out with families and friends, and just be with other people.

Ultimately these massive places are a place where we look after each other, whether the community hall in a rural town or the convention centre in a city.  At a concert we are feeding our cultural identity and sorting out how we make our way through the world as individuals and as a collective.  The same is happening when we gather to protest the decisions of our elected officials.  In times of crisis we gather to hold one another, to hear news of what is happening or what to do next.  We create places for the commons to nourish our souls.  They help us thrive as a people.

From last night’s mass gathering to hear Death Cab for Cutie at Edmonton’s Shaw Convention Centre (from ‘The Sound of Settling’:

If you’ve got an impulse let it out

A city’s impulse?  To gather its people and host them well.

I dream of a city…

A poem from the WE space at the United Way’s gathering with John Ott yesterday:
I dream of a city
truly great
for everyone
and I wonder where
we will put the line
between possible and
or will there be no line
and just an invitation to
my story led me
with allies
supporting aspirations
to evoke new stories
collective knowing and
no formula
will suspend certainty
or see the whole
no checklist
will seek diverse perspectives
or welcome all that arises
for formulas and checklists do not trust
the transcendent story
larger than me
the transcendent story
serving me
serving us
aligning with what is
a lifelong commitment
to what we long for

13 ways to THRIVE in community

Our attention creates our reality.  The more I complain, the more I swirl around in a trap of negativity.  The more I appreciate what I have, the more I swirl in wonderful places, with wonderful people, doing wonderful things.  I get more of what I put my attention to.

This notion came front and center at the Community Planning Association of Alberta Conference this week as I listened to Alberta MLA (and Conservative Party leadership candidate) Doug Griffiths speak about thirteen ways to kill a community.  I was struck by his list of things that cause harm, his list of what NOT to do.

Griffiths’ 13 ways to kill a community:

  1. Don’t have good quality and quantity of water
  2. Don’t attract business that competes with yours
  3. Don’t involve young people
  4. Don’t assess community needs
  5. Don’t shop elsewhere
  6. Don’t paint
  7. Don’t cooperate
  8. Live in the past
  9. Ignore your seniors
  10. Do nothing new
  11. Ignore immigrants and newcomers
  12. Don’t become complacent
  13. Don’t take ownership

Knowing what not to do can be useful.  It is nice and clear and allows me the opportunity to easily notice if my actions (or inactions as the case may be) are harmful.  Yet hearing what I shouldn’t do does not provide clear guidance about what to do instead. I still need to know what to do, so being explicit about what to do is critical.  It isn’t good enough to know what doesn’t work.  I have re-framed his speech.  Drawing from his work, here’s my take on thirteen ways to thrive in community:

  1. Provide good quality and quantity of water
  2. Welcome competing business
  3. Create ways for young people own problems, solutions and action
  4. Notice good things everywhere
  5. Choose local businesses first (and be a business that people want to choose first)
  6. Be proud of where you live and look after your place. (Keep things clean and tidy.)
  7. Support what others are doing and work together
  8. Live in today for the future
  9. Engage seniors everywhere
  10. Try new things (and welcome risk)
  11. Welcome and cultivate the “anything and everything is possible” spirit of newcomers
  12. Be active and vibrant
  13. Assume personal responsibility and ownership of your place

I just heard the banquet supervisor with his staff as they are cleaning and setting up the tables for the next meal.  He’s nice and clear on what to do.  He’s setting his community up for success: “Work on one table at a time, rather than spreading out.”

The purpose of the city: create conditions for conflict

This thought just struck me – what if the purpose of the cities/towns/villages is to bring people closer together?  And the closer we get to each other, the more conflict there is.  Is the purpose of the city then to generate conflict?  What is the purpose of generating conflict?

Conflict generates dissonance, a distinct or subtle sense that things are not right.  A city, just like a person, can sit quite a while with the feeling that things are not quite right before we decide to take action.  Smoking in restaurants, idle-free parking, deciding to support active transportation are all collective decisions that have come about as a result of conflict in a community.

There is a pull in us to be closer together, but we also push each other away, to not live too close to each other.  We resist being close, because we resist being in conflict.  As a city planner and community volunteer I regularly hear people – on the public record and off – say they do not want people close to them, especially more people close to them.  I wonder if we resist the pull to be closer to people because it brings conflict with it, and we tend to either avoid conflict wherever possible, or even stir it up, neither of which takes acknowledges of the wisdom within conflict.  What are we missing as a result?

I am left with a series of questions:

  1. What if I/we let conflict teach me/us?
  2. What would happen to cities if I/we welcomed and invited conflict for the purposes of generating new understanding?
  3. What if I/we viewed conflicts as opportunities?
  4. What if I/we found ways to work through and beyond conflicts?

In the end, I notice that when I work through conflict, I arrive a new understanding.  I change.  Is that what I/we am/are afraid of when avoiding conflict?

Circle Tale – Habitat for Humanity in St. Albert

Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea,wonderful leading spirits in Circle work, asked my mom, Margaret Sanders, to share our story of our work with the City of St. Albert.  A wonderful tale of how Circle can bring community together around much more than what the conflict is about.  As I think about it, it was a wonderful experience that deepened a design charrette experience for participants.

Here it is:  PeerSpirit Circle Tale

The treadmill gets a bum rap

I surprised myself the other day while running on a treadmill.  I have always thought of the treadmill as a metaphor for people who are stuck in the rut of working too hard and they can’t stop.  It finally dawned on me: I can get on or off a treadmill any time AND I can choose how hard I work.

The treadmill is a wonderful metaphor for choice in our world.  Whether thinking of the treadmill in the gym for humans, or the treadmill in the hampster cage, the same principles apply for physical fitness or my work/life fitness.  They also apply to a community’s fitness:

  1. I choose how fast, slow or steep I go. If the going is too slow or too fast, I can adjust. I can slow to a walking pace to relax, or I can bump up the pace to meet the needs of the moment.  I am not required go full tilt all the time.  I am also not required to slack.  The choice is mine.
  2. I choose how hard to work. I make decisions about how fast or how steep the work is, in alignment with my fitness goals.  I recognize that if I work hard and fast all the time, I will not last as long as if I work hard and fast with breaks to slow down.
  3. I choose when to get on or off the treadmill. When I want a good workout, or even a steady pace, I get on the treadmill.  When I have had enough, I choose to get off and go for a snack.
  4. I choose to seek feedback about myself. As I work, I can seek feedback about the toll the work is taking on me.  I can take my pulse, or use the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill, to see if my work is too hard or too easy for my fitness goals.  By welcoming feedback – especially from my own body – I will make better choices for me.  If I don’t seek feedback, the treadmill may just throw me off.
  5. To make the right choices for me, I need to have goals in mind. How fast, how hard, how steep, and when to get on/off are all connected to my fitness goals.  Is there a big event I am ramping up for that requires harder work for a length of time?  Will I need to allow myself a break after that?  Are there other things happening in life that mean I should slow down?  My choices and feedback are intertwined – my goals will determine the feedback I will seek, and the feedback may alter my goals in turn.
  6. I choose the role a treadmill will play in my life. What are my fitness goals for my work life?  What sort of workout do I need at this moment?  How does this workout relate to by bigger goals further off in the distance – will it help me get there, or just tire me out?
  7. (Note: running faster on the treadmill will not get me off the treadmill.)

The bottom line is this – while on a treadmill, I have a choice about how hard and how long I work.  I can also make choices aligned with my goals and intentions.  These principles apply to anyone, any organization or community: intention around pace, intensity, feedback, goals.

It’s up to me to do what I need to do to suit myself.

It’s up to us to do what we need to do to suit ourselves.

Pondering the purpose of a city/town

How we create our cities and towns has an impact on the quality – and longevity – of our existence.  While this may feel far off, irrelevant and easy to dismiss, there is a simple and familiar metaphor that highlights our individual and collective situation: it’s our bed, we have to lay in it.

Two examples from headlines one October day in 2009 in the Edmonton Journal:

  1. Cities tapping out our rivers, report warns: tampering with flow regimes has put ecosystems at risk; and
  2. Proximity to quality transit, parks may cut diabetes risk: healthy neighbourhoods are 38% less likely to develop disease.

People need to water to survive, let alone be healthy and thrive.  Further, “people who live in neighbourhoods with safe sidewalks, ample parks, good public transportation and ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables are 38 per cent less likely to develop diabetes.”   The point: as we create our cities and towns, we make decisions everywhere, big and small, that have an impact on our well-being.  We decide whether we wish to have a habitat that supports our well-being.  We decide whether or not we wish to make it easy or hard for people to exercise and eat right.  We decide whether we care or not if collectively we look after the places and people we live in and with, and rely upon.

I am not in support of or in opposition to the arguments in these pieces of journalism.  Rather, my intention is to highlight the often unconsidered consequences of our choices as we create and recreate our cities, towns and communities.  In choosing to leave with each other we have made implicit commitments to each other.  In choosing to create and live in larger and larger settlements (and even the small ones), we specialize what we do for each other and we advance what we are capable of.  We are growing and evolving as a species.  Because of this specialization, we have made great advancements in health care, in communication technologies.  None of this would have happened without the creation of cities.  We live together so we can grow and evolve as individuals and together.

Yet these articles point to a bit of a conundrum: what if the choices we are making in how we create our cities is undermining our very evolution?  What if we harm our ecosystem to a degree where our existence is threatened?  What if we design our cities to ensure people are nowhere near as healthy as they could be?  Is the purpose of a city to harm humans or to support humans’ growth and evolution?  Which purpose do the choices we make as citizens, community organizations, NGOs, businesses, developers and builders,  and public institutions serve?


Stirring Titles

I am cleaning my office and noticing the magazines sitting here before I put them away.  The titles, from Plan Canada and AACIP Planning Journals in the last several months, cause a stir in me…

  • Planners’ perspectives on art and culture
  • Rethinking infrastructure: going green
  • Planning for the homeless
  • Aging in place
  • Planning for changing demographics
  • Okotoks: staying within its limits
  • Welcoming communities: planning for diverse populations
  • Making it work: making it last; making it home
  • Food security: a growing concern
  • Planning without a net: the international experience
  • Looking to our past to plan our future

The stir?

Planners’ work covers a range of questions and matters that are deliberated widely in our communities – art, infrastructure, homeless, aging, sustainability, cultural diversity, food – and all of this on the home and international fronts.  And then there is the conversation about how to accomplish what we are aiming for.

But who is the “we”?  The perspectives offered are about how planners contribute to these questions, and these perspectives are offered to planners.  It is tempting to drift toward an assumption that it is the planners who are going to make the difference and that others get in the way.  What, however, if the “we” is planners along with the various stakeholders in our communities.  What if our technical expertise is not where our power of influence lies?

This spring I had an opportunity to run APPI’s Professional Practitioners Course with Gary Buchanan, an alternative written examination format for prospective professional planners where candidates demonstrate their mastery through conversation and writing.  The surprise at this particular gathering was the responses of planners in response to a question about the scope of planning today.  The candidates did not reveal technical aspects, but rather interpersonal.  To be able to do our jobs well these days, we need to be good communicators, negotiators, conflict resolvers, facilitators, coaches, and synthesizers.  All this with a bold courage to take leadership roles in unconventional ways.

Reflecting then on the titles above, I recognize the value of planners.  We offer technical skills to make contributions to our communities’ dreams.  Our value is no longer just  conventional technical skills.  Our value is in cultivating the conditions for all the players and stakeholders involved in these complex issues to clearly articulate where they are going, why and how they will get there.

From time to time we’ll employ our technical know-how, but these are not front-seat skills by default any longer.  Not if we want to make a difference.

City By Design

Edmonton's children: Where they live, where they learn (Share Edmonton)The Edmonton Journal’s Sarah O’Donnell and Edmonton programmer Mack Male, have painted a picture for Edmonton residents and decision makers about how our city is growing, especially in light of recent Edmonton Public Schools decisions to close inner city schools.

The article and mapping show us where young families are living, and by implication where schools are needed based on the numbers of children nearby. Using this logic, it makes perfect sense to close schools where there are fewer children.  Need is based on numbers of children, no more no less.  Families move to the suburbs and school trustees follow the families. It’s that simple.

Or is it?  This conversation seems to make several assumptions.  I offer several below to test if they are the assumptions we are using, and /or if we wish to consciously create a new set of assumptions.  They drive how we build and adjust the city we live in, the city we are designing while living in it.

Assumption 1:  Growth just happens. Growth happens where we choose to make it happen.  Cities choose where growth will happen and has a legislative framework to guide growth.  Ultimately, the decision makers are City Council.  There are, however, many other decision makers that influence how and where we build: home buyers, developers and builders, school boards, health providers, realtors, etc.  We spend a lot of time and energy designing and building infrastructure to accommodate us living in this place together, and it is not haphazard. It takes years (and decades) to plan for Anthony Henday, LRT routes, water and wastewater systems, electricity, gas and our extensive roadway system.  We build all of this in the public eye.  None of it “just happens.”

Assumption 2:  We have unlimited funds for infrastructure now and in the future. We expand our city without contemplating the full costs of doing so.  We let school buildings close.  We let vacant land remain vacant when servicing infrastructure is near by.  We let land, and all the utilities serving that land, remain underutilized.  If we are not able to maintain our current infrastructure well now, how do we expect to do so in the future?  City Hall, for example, faces huge capital and operating budget challenges, yet we continue to spread ourselves thin.  We behave as if we have unlimited revenue now and in the future.  Are our pockets (as taxpayers) that full?

Assumption 3:  We need a lot of space from our neighbours. It seems that having oodles of space – in our yards and homes – drives Edmonton’s design.  Why are we afraid of being close to other people?  Or sharing park space instead of large private yards?  What is behind this?  What makes neighbours bad, especially if there are a lot of them?  Perhaps the devil is not in the density, but in the design of how we build the buildings and the space around them.  What if we built exciting spaces and ensured the services were on hand – like schools, LRT – to create viable neighbourhoods.  Viable from a social, environmental and fiscal perspective.  We have yet to really pay for all this space we are enjoying.

Assumption 4:  School boards don’t build cities – City Hall does. Schools have an absolutely critical role to play in physically building cities – look at the schools and green spaces everywhere.  They also play a key role in supporting the well-being of neighbourhoods. Schools are critical formal and informal gathering places that help make a neighbourhood healthy.  A school board’s decisions are critical.  They are not isolated from everyone else’s actions.  Our city builders include school systems (secondary and postsecondary), health systems, energy and water systems, city hall, and our builders and developers.  No one entity or initiative works completely in isolation – they all have a piece of the neighbourhood puzzle.

What if we switched those assumptions for the following principles in decision making at many scales (from citizen up to a large city network of organizations):

  1. Use current infrastructure before building new
  2. Create and design for exciting spaces where people want to spend time
  3. Bring nature to the people and people to nature
  4. Create and support a transportation system that moves people and goods efficiently (rather than the most cars/trucks efficiently)
  5. Integrate the interests and dreams of citizens, community organizations, our city institutions and our city builders
  6. Consider the cumulative costs of our city design choices – actively seek feedback on our choices

I suspect that these principles seem innocuous, but they are not when we  have the feedback systems in place to truly understand if our actions are in line with our goals.  The City of Edmonton, in creating and providing open source data, is providing a critical feedback loop for Edmontonians to understand how the city we are creating works.  There are exciting conversations ahead in Edmonton’s future.

Our collective actions -as  citizens, community organizations, school systems, business owners, city government, health providers, developers, builders, realtors, home buyers, etc.  – create our city.   Is it the one we want?

I wonder if the evidence shows that we are getting what we want, or if we are getting what “just happens.” ttp://