Our Nordic modes of transportation


Our modes of transportation.png.001
Caveat – we did not travel by bicycle due to a broken arm in the family.

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.

Copenhagen - multiple modes of transportation
Copenhagen, December 28, 2014

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.

Back in Edmonton
Traffic no longer moving on the Anthony Henday, Edmonton, January 7, 2015

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.

Nifty nordic neighbourhoods

In two weeks, my family and I are heading out on what we call Nordex, a wee expedition to explore – in winter – the capital cities of  Earth’s five Nordic Nations: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Source: www.chriskresser.com

The stage is set. Our journey starts with easy flights: Icelandair will take us to Reykjavik for a couple days, before taking us on to Oslo. From there we will take trains and and a boat to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, spending 4-5 days in each city.

The details are emerging. Our objective is to capture the experience of Nordic city life in winter. We don’t have a lot of time to spend in each place, so where we do spend our time matters. In choosing our accommodation, we are choosing our neighbourhoods carefully, to get a sense of the place and what life is like. This can not be done in hotels. Enter Airbnb.

Here’s how our trip is shaping up:

  • In Reykjavik, Siggi is hosting us in her downtown apartment, near the Hallgrimskirkja church. We are in walking distance of all we need, but will likely rent a car on day 2 to explore further afield.
  • We will spend the shortest day of the year in Oslo. Line is hosting us in her apartment located in an old factory building a 5 min walk from Grunerlokka, a former rundown industrial district, now a vibrant arty neighbourhood, according to The Guardian. We will have excellent public transport to Oslo (13 min to city centre).
  • On Christmas Eve, we will arrive in Copenhagen. Michael, Rikke and baby Vilfred welcome us to their apartment in Frederiksberg, before heading off for their family celebration. Frederiksberg is a municipality surrounded by the City of Copenhagen, one of many municipalities in Denmark’s Capital City Region. The physical layout of Frederiksberg is different than the rest of Copenhagen – more parks, larger villas and wider streets.
  • We will spend New Year’s in Stockholm, in Astrid’s apartment that overlooks the Sofia Church in the Sodermalm neighbourhood. We will be in “SoFo”, a neighbourhood full of eclectic shops, fashion and design stores, art galleries and good food.
  • For my birthday, we will be in the Kallio neighbourhood in Helsinki, an old labour district, where Ollie and Sarah are hosting us in their funky 1930’s apartment full of vintage Nordic design furniture. Helsinki’s traditional market square is across the street.

We’re set for an adventure, to explore the city from the inside out.




Citizens – change up the dance moves


At the end of Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, he argues that it is time for citizens to fight city hall. But the real fight in is in how we think about our cities and our relationships with each other and cities.

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:

  1. 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).”
  2. 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.
  3. Think relationships. Between people, but also between the village and its villagers. Does the city welcome cooperators and walkers?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.


Change the code, change the city


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.


To better dive into this challenge, remember the four voices of the city offered by Marilyn Hamilton:

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

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.

The proximity/retreat conundrum


The conundrum of the city is found in two words: proximity and retreat. For Charles Montgomery (Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design), we want to be close to each other and far apart at the same time:

We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need retreat. We benefit from the conveniences of proximity, but these conveniences can come with the price of overstimulation and crowding. We will not solve the conundrum of sustainable city living unless we understand these contradictory forces and resolve the tension between them (p. 106). 

Our current design to resolve this tension is in the dispersed city. We are in retreat from each other, and we demand and create expanses of space between us. At the same time, we recognize that the most exciting city places are alive with people and activity. Charles Montgomery (Happy City) notes that the very purpose of the city, before refrigeration and the internet, was to “come together every day to trade, to talk, to learn, and to socialize on the street.” We can now meet most of our needs without a physical space, so Montgomery asks,

Can we build – or rebuild – city spaces in ways that enable easy connections and more trust among both familiars and strangers? The answer is a resounding yes. The spaces we occupy can not only determine how we feel. They can change the way we regard other people and how we treat one another (p. 156).

The question under the question: can we design and build cities that improve our social habitat, and deepen our connections with the people we know and don’t know? Can we improve city life by city design?

Below, a few of Montgomery’s findings.

Crowding (proximity) is a design challenge.

The city that feels like a conundrum is not stepping in to the design challenge. Charles Montgomery:

… the detached house … is a blunt instrument: it is a powerful tool for retreating with your nuclear family and perhaps your direct neighbours, but a terrible base from with to nurture other intensities of relationships. Your social life must be scheduled and formal. Serendipity disappears in the time eaten up by the commute and in that space between car windshields and garage doors. On the other hand, life in places that feel to corded to control can leave us so overstimulated and exhausted that we retreat into solitude. Either way, we miss out of the wider range of relationships that can make life richer and easier (p. 128).

Happiness is in our hands. We need to live closer to each other to be happier, yet we have to design our cities so they work, or we will not be happier. Density, crowding, proximity, whatever you want to call it, is not something we have to tolerate. We simply have to design with clear objectives in mind.

Nature is needed at every scale. 

Designing for proximity means weaving nature into the urban fabric – at every scale. This is a prerequisite for architectural density. For Montgomery, here’s why:

  1. Nature brings out the good in us. People who live in areas with more parks are more helpful and trusting than people who don’t, regardless of their income or race (p. 111). 
  2. Biological complexity matters. The suburban savannah of grass and a few trees is not good for us. The more varieties of trees and birds and nature, the better it is for our brains.  (p. 111-115)
  3. Nature needs to be woven into the urban fabric. We need to be able to see it and touch it (p. 120). Proximity matters, so we need to do this at all scales. Small things count.

He reminds us that the challenge of living in dense environments is not simply aesthetic; it is also social. And nature can help us with that. Montgomery:

… we know nature in cities makes us happier and healthier. We know it makes us friendlier and kinder. We know it helps us build essential bonds with other people and the places in which we live (p. 123). 

Design for conviviality and control.

We can choose friendly – happy – design and have opportunities to retreat when needed. We are looking for a balance of conviviality and control – social spaces that are nourishing, allowing us to choose to be close to others, or be separate. Design matters.

Every plaza, park, or architectural facade sends messages about who we are and what the street is for (p. 160). 

Nature makes us more trusting and generous toward other people (p. 161), but nature isn’t the only design offering for our consideration as we recreate our cities. Sharp architectural angles light up the brain’s fear centres (p. 161). Blank walls are antisocial spaces. This is what Montgomery’s book is all about – creating cities for people.

Traffic design can be about liveability. We can choose to integrate social life with velocity. We can choose to allow neat things to happen. We can choose to make places. We can choose to design roads for happiness. Montgomery:

Cities that are serious about the happiness of their citizens have already begun to confront their relationship with velocity. they are making what once seemed to be radical decisions about what – and whom – streets are for (p. 173). 


Montgomery’s work provides a window into how we can design our habitats to better serve citizens. He reminds us that we design cities, and in turn cities design our lives. We make our cities, so the city is our happiness project. In the mix, the habits of city-building professionals shape our cities; yet these same professionals are charged with serving the public interest. As the public interest evolves, so too will the habits of professionals. Ultimately, it is our job as citizens to engage with our cities, and professionals, to build a city to save the world.

We are retrofitting our cities to serve ourselves.

Where do you see people retrofitting your city?



Hint – Edmonton’s Dustin Bajer is organizing the YEG River Valley Food Forest Planting event on July 19, 2014.



Cities design our lives

It is audacious to believe that the city might build happiness just by changing its shape. 
But it is foolish not to chase the thought, because around the world, and especially amid the sprawls capes of modern North America, the evidence shows that cities do indeed design our lives. 
Charles Montgomery (p. 43)

A simple syllogism for you: A. The design of our cities impacts our social networks. B. The quality of our social networks impacts the quality of our lives. C. Therefore, the design of our cities impacts the quality of our lives.  And since we design our cities, we are also designing the quality of our lives – our personal, individual lives and also the lives of others. The places we make shape us.

Charles Montgomery, in Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, writes,

A healthy social network looks like the root of a tree. From the most important relationships at the heart of the network, thinner roots stretch-out to contacts of different strength and intensity. Most people’s root networks are contracting, closing in on themselves, circling more and more tightly around spouses, partners, parents, and kids. These are our most important relationships, but every arborist knows that a tree with a small root-ball is more likely to fall over when the wind blows (p. 54).

People are increasingly solitary and we are at risk of falling – individually and collectively – when the wind blows. For Montgomery, this is because of our changing social habitat (marriages are not lasting as long; people work longer hours; people move more frequently) as well as our physical habitat (increased commute times; less trust found in monofunctional, car-dependant neighbourhoods than in walkable neighbourhoods with diverse housing, shops and places to work). The research is showing that social habitats struggle when our physical habitat in cities allows for dispersal (see Chapter 3 – The (Broken) Social Scene).  Our proximity to each other is important.

Here’s Montgomery’s take on how we got here:

  1. Put everything in its right place. Zoning, the rules that tell us what we can and can not do on our land that emerged first in the 1880s to ban laundries from a California city’s core, have “ensured that first-generation suburbs closer to downtowns do not grow more diverse and dense. They have pushed new development out to the ever-expanding urban fringe and beyond… And they have ensured that these new developments will, in turn, resist most efforts to change or adapt them over time (p. 69).”
  2. We lost the shared street. When cars first arrived on our streets, our streets were shared places for everyone: “The road was a market, a playground, a park, and yes, it was a thoroughfare… It was a chaotic environment littered with horse dung and fraught with speeding carriages, but a messy kind of freedom reigned (p. 69). As cars and trucks emerged in American cities in the 1920s, road culture was transformed: “more than two hundred thousand people were killed in motor accidents in the United States that decade. Most were killed in cities. Most of the dead were pedestrians. Half were children and youth (p. 70 [1]).” The subsequent design – and subsidized financing – of city streets put motorists first.
  3. Freedom for cars to move. Futurama, “a vast pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York… showed people the wondrous world they would inhabit in 1960 if cities embraced the Motordom vision (p. 73).” Futurama was characterized by speed, “sleek highways propelling citizens from orderly cities to pristine open spaces (p. 73).” 24 million people saw the exhibit and the high speed philosophy; the cultural shift toward the automobile lifestyle was cemented (p. 73).” The sponsor: Shell Oil.
  4. The momentum of autopoiesis. Cities are a system that, like many others, are prone to entrenchment, replication and expansion. “Once the system of dispersal was established in early suburbs, it began to repeat itself in plan after plan – not because it was the best response to any particular place, but because of the momentum of autopoieisis (p. 75).” It is easier to repeat work that has been done before – and it fuelled and age of unprecedented wealth.

But the choice is not between suburbs and downtown; “We must redesign both landscapes and the fabric that connects them in ways that answer the needs that led us to retreat in the first place (p. 77).” To do this, we must examine how our physical environment affects how we feel. To do this, we need to examine what influences our health and controls our behaviour. For Montgomery, we need to understand the psychology of the urban world and then make decisions about our place in the urban world.

We design our cities; cities design our lives.

We can choose to build places that make us feel good.

What are the qualities of urban places that make you feel good?



Note –

[1] Norton, Peter D., Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 21.


The city is a happiness project


 The city is ultimately a shared project, … a place where we can fashion a common good that we can simply not build alone.
Charles Montgomery (p. 41).


“The city has always been a happiness project,” are the words that form the title of the first chapter, and the premise of, Charles Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design. As a social project, the city gives us the challenges we need to thrive.

Drawing on Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia (contentment), and developmental physiologist Carol Ryff’s work, he found the following checklist for happiness, or what would best be referred to as the good life (p. 36):

  • Self acceptance, or how well you know and regard yourself
  • Environmental mastery – you ability to navigate and thrive in the world
  • Positive relations with others
  • Personal growth throughout life
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Feelings of autonomy and independence

In fact, Ryff’s research found that there is a “synergistic power of living a meaningful, challenging, and connected life … A bit of heroic struggle can be good for you (p. 37).” This idea state is what Ryff calls ‘challenged thriving’. [1] For Montgomery, this means that a good city is measured “not only by its distractions and amenities but also by how it affects this everyday drama of survival, work, and meaning (p. 37).” The tension in the city is necessary – for our growth and our happiness.

The tension in cities  moderates our relationships with other people. Embodied in every citizen is the tension between selfishness and altruism: “… each of us benefits when some of us subsume private goals for the sake of the community, and everyone benefits when everyone cooperates… At the same time, the drive by each of us to promote our own interests creates a dynamism and wealth that can overflow through the city (p. 40-41).”

Cities are a shared project that allows us to thrive together. The city challenges us to do more than simply live together. Montgomery points out that “we are hard-wired to trust one another, in spite of our natural wariness of strangers (p. 39).” This trust allows us to move past simply living together and improve.  The city challenges us to thrive together, and understand that our fate is a shared one (p. 42).

Montgomery also names potential accomplishments of the city, after it meets our basic needs of food, shelter and security (p. 43):

  • Maximize joy and minimize hardship
  • Lead us toward health, rather than sickness
  • Offer citizens real freedom to live, move and build our lives
  • Build resilience against economic and environmental shocks
  • Apportion – fairly – space, services, mobility, joys, hardships and costs
  • Enable us to build and strengthen bonds between friends, families and strangers (bonds that give life meaning and represent the city’s greatest achievement  and opportunity)
  • Acknowledge and celebrate our common fate, open doors to empathy and cooperation, to help us tackle great challenges

This list – his recipe – is an initial set of indicators for us to use as we ascertain if the cities we create are the cities we want.

How does your city fashion a common good?




[1]  Ryff, Carol D., and B. H. Singer, “Know Thyself and Become What You Are: A Eudaimonic Approach to Psychological Well-Being,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2006:13-29.



Go where the geese are going


Geese crossing


When you step out into traffic on a busy road in my neighbourhood with your hand up telling them to stop, you know you are making drivers mad – until they see why.  We are escorting a family of geese across the road.

I was folding laundry upstairs this morning when my 13 year old son called to me to come and see the ducks on the sidewalk, walking to school. I thought he meant the kids walking to the school across the street. He called again with more vigour. I couldn’t believe my eyes: two adults and five yellow goslings were making their way down the sidewalk, crossed the road, and started to head down another street.

Now this is usually the time when I head out for a walk to the ravine and the North Saskatchewan river that runs through my city, before I sit down to work. Today, I followed the geese – they seemed to know where they were going.

Their route was taking them directly through a construction area, where city contractors are fixing pipes, sidewalks and roads in our neighbourhood. They stopped between a couple of houses, perhaps because of the noise and bustle of the construction site and heavy machinery. I zipped ahead to tip off one of the workers and instantly, this young man wanted to know where they were, spotted them, then went to talk to his boss. Before I knew it, the contractors stopped their work.

The geese walked right through the construction area.

Geese in constrution area

Being geese, they don’t know that the road is closed, or that the next two roads they need to cross are each four lanes of busy traffic. The young construction worker, an older construction worker and I took it upon ourselves to stop the traffic, allowing a safe crossing.

We did not direct the geese; they knew where they were going. We just stepped out into traffic.

And the drivers of those cars loved it.


Nature is right smack in the middle of our city. And when we least expect it, even when it gets in the way of our schedules and slows us down, we love it.

Maybe in slowing us down, Nature is giving us an opportunity to notice what we love.

Nature is tapping us on the shoulder today, reminding us that we choose what to breathe live into – in others and ourselves.

Those geese knew where they were going. Do you?


And the older construction worker, say 50 years old, walked with them to the ravine to make sure they got there.  That was the right thing to do.







Citizen superpowers


… your mind is your best friend, but it is also your worst enemy. Positive Intelligence measures the relative strength of those two modes in your mind. High Positive Intelligence means your mind acts as your friend far more than as your enemy. Low Positive Intelligence is the reverse. 

These are the words of Shirzad Chamine, in his book Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours. This got me to thinking about how this relates to citizens and cities – how we choose to use our brains matters. We can choose to be happier citizens and have happier cities.


In each of us, according to Chamine, is a master saboteur of happiness – the Judge – and nine accomplices. Powered by the fight-or-flight parts of our brain (brain stem and limbic system), they aim for survival and power. They will do whatever it takes to convince you that your survival depends on them.  See if you recognize any of them (text below summarized from Chamine):

  1. The Judge compels you to constantly find faults with yourself, others, and your conditions and circumstances. It generates much of your anxiety, stress, anger, disappointment, shame and guilt. Its lie: without tough love, you or others would turn into lazy and unambitious being who would not achieve much.
  2. The Stickler takes perfection, order, and organization too far. It makes you and others around you anxious and uptight. It saps your own or others’ energy on extra measures of perfection that are not necessary. Its lie: perfectionism is always good and that you don’t pay a huge price for it.
  3. The Pleaser compels you to try to gain acceptance and affection by helping, pleasing, rescuing, or flattering others constantly. It causes you to lose sight of your own needs and become resentful of others. Its lie: you are pleasing others because it is a good thing to do, denying that you are really trying to win affection and acceptance indirectly.
  4. The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keep you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. Its lie: your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.
  5. The Victim wants you to feel emotional and temperamental as a way of gaining attention and affection. Its lie: assuming the victim or martyr persona is the best way to attract caring and attention to yourself.
  6. The Hyper-Rational involves an intense and exlcusive foxon on the rational processing of everything, including relationships. It causes you to be impatient with people’s emotions and regard emotions as unworthy of much time or consideration. Its lie: the rational mind is the most important and helpful form of intelligence that your possess.
  7. The Hyper-Vigilant makes you feel intense and continuous anxiety about all the dangers surrounding you and what could go wrong… It results in a great deal of ongoing stress that wears you and others down. Its lie: the dangers around you are bigger than they actually are and that nonstop vigilance is the best way to tackle them.
  8. The Restless is constantly in search of greater excitement in the next activity or through perpetual busyness. It doesn’t allow you to feel much peace or contentment with your current activity. It gives you a neverending stream of distractions that make you los your focus on the things and relationships that truly matter. Its lie: by being so busy you are living life fully, but it ignores the fact that in pursuit of a full life you miss out on your life as it is happening.
  9. The Controller runs on an anxiety-based need to take charge, control situations, and bend people’s actions to one’s own will. Its lie: you need the Controller to generate the best results from the people around you.
  10. The Avoider focuses on the prositive and the pleasuant in an extreme way. It avoids difficult and unpleasant tasks and conflicts. Its lie: you are being positive, not avoiding your problems.

Notice and identify these Saboteurs, for they keep you from reaching your fullest potential. They keep you – and your brain – focused on short-term threats to your short-term survival. Through you and each and every citizen, they keep our cities from serving citizens well.


In contrast to your Saboteurs, the Sage in you is a “deeper and wiser part of you. It is the part that can rise above the fray and resist getting carried away by the drama and tension of the moment or falling victim to the lies of the saboteurs.” The Sage in you uses whole other areas of your brain for an entirely different purpose. Use of the middle prefrontal cortex, what Chabine calls the Empathic Circuitry (mirror neuron system, the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex), and the right brain gives you the ability to see bigger pictures, empathize, and detect invisible things, such as energy and mood.

You and your brain choose how you are going to show up – in defensive survival mode, or as the Sage.

The Sage in you has five powers, enabling you to move “one positive step at a time, regardless of what life throws at you.” I call these your Citizen Superpowers:

  1. Explore with great curiosity and an open mind
  2. Empathize with yourself and others with compassion and understanding to any situation
  3. Innovate and create new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions
  4. Navigate and choose a path that best aligns with your deeper underlying values and mission
  5. Activate and take decisive action without the distress, interference, or distractions of the Saboteurs

These Citizen Superpowers allow you to accept “what is, rather than denying, rejecting or resenting what is. The Sage perspective accepts every outcome and circumstance as a gift and opportunity.” These Citizen Superpowers also allow you to make your cities better all the time.

The Sage moves you into action not out of feeling bad, but out of empathy, inspiration, the joy of exploration, a longing to create, a desire to contribute, and an urge to find meaning in the midst of even the greatest crises… there is no such thing as a bad circumstance or outcome…

Strengthen the Sage in you and you grow your positive intelligence – and your Citizen Superpowers. You strengthen your city.

How are you growing your Citizen Superpowers?


Your role in citizen engagement


In last week’s edition of Nest City News, I made a provocative statement – citizens choose to engage.

Here’s the rub – they do choose, but how do our decisions as community leaders encourage or discourage their choices to get involved in city decision-making? How can we, as leaders on city council, in city administration or in our community organizations and businesses create the conditions for citizens to choose to engage, and choose to engage well? As leaders, we need to look to ourselves, and what we believe, first.

Last week I shared 10 conditions that encourage citizens to involve themselves. Here’s a reframe of these for those of you in leadership roles. As a leader, you will best work with others when you:

  1. Bring your best self. Leave the negative at the door and appreciate all points of view, all sources of information. When you bring your best self, so will others. You set the stage.
  2. Create time and space for people to tell stories. Stories are ways for people to connect to what matters to them, and to each other, even when they have differences in opinion. This feels like it takes a lot of time, but its about moving slow to move wise and fast later. Stories allow us to see what is really going on.
  3. Trust that people want to contribute and take responsibility. This is a choice for you as a leader. If you believe that people have something to offer, you will see it. If you do not believe this, you will not see it. Be open to be surprised.
  4. Offer minimal structure. Too little structure means confusion. Too much structure stifles what people have to offer and closes off opportunities for communication and collaboration. Find the balance of just the right amount of structure for the processes you use to work with each other.
  5. Pursue unusual partnerships. Get together and bust the silos right from the start. To engage a wide variety of people, you don’t have to do it alone. Partner with unusual people and organizations to broaden your reach. Integrate points of view from the outset.
  6. Practice working with each other. It isn’t good enough to organize for a one-time relationship. Or even a series of meetings that will end at the end of a project. Build longer-term relationships and spend time talking about how you can work together, and under what conditions it works best.
  7. Take action. All the possibilities in front of us can paralyze us from taking action. The specifics of how to proceed can also paralyze. If the intention is to build relationships, we don’t worry about specifics because we are also agreeing to learn to work together. We do not need a specific plan about how to work together. We just need to get started.
  8. Pause to look at what’s really going on. Take time alone, and with the people you engage, to reflect on your relationship, what its for, what is working well and what needs to be improved. This allows you and your colleagues to bring your best selves.

City governments are making more efforts than ever to involve citizens in their decision-making, and it is not easy or clean-cut work. It is messy . The processes city governments use to make decisions are complicated and take years of experience to understand. Residents get frustrated. City governments get frustrated.

Many citizens engage themselves because of their interest to improve some aspect of city life. Others, get engaged when something is going wrong, there’s something they don’t like – NIMBY (not in my back yard). This needs to be said – there is nothing wrong with when a citizens chooses to engage. Everyone is busy making contributions to our city life and it is not reasonable to expect all people to be engaged in all things at all times.

Are we ready to involve citizens when they choose to engage?

In what ways do you go beyond the usual to engage citizens in your city work?