Civic practice for the city

Everything a city does – or does not do – is a result of our actions as citizens, community organizations, the business community and our public institutions. How each of us show up in the city affects how the city serves us, individually and collectively. (Remember the difference between the corporate ‘City’ government and the ‘city‘ habitat we build for ourselves.)

Back in September, in village in the city, I connected the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea on the purpose of a village to the purpose of the city. The result was another a twist on what a city does for its citizens (a reminder of city purposes).

To show up well, in any of the roles we play in the city, we need to be conscious of our civic practice. After our basic survival needs are met, we engage in story and this feeds everything in the city, at every scale. Imagine the village again, where we share stories to ensure our collective survival. Our stories are also full of passion and they feed pride and identity. We will even battle and fight when our stories are threatened. In a village, we are called to be clear about our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable to each other, to be fair and just. As a village develops, we are also compelled to take action on what needs to be done, and be creative and entrepreneurial, allowing our drive to thrive to fuel us.  Eventually, we are able to see and learn and benefit from everyone’s contributions and gifts. The village becomes a place where we learn to live with conflicting truths and uncertainties, allowing us to live the ‘village’ everywhere. It is a place where we can integrate feeling and knowing, and simply be in awe of how the world works.

The Spiral reveals that there are layers of civic practice:

  1. Once our survival needs are met, we …
  2. Connect with each other through our stories. We belong to each other.
  3. Allow our stories to fuel our passion, feed our identity and pride as individuals and as a group.
  4. Seek clarity in our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable, to be fair and just.
  5. Take action on what needs action, allowing our drive to be creative to serve us as opportunities arise.
  6. Look after each other, our diverse needs, and chase our diverse desires.
  7. Explore what’s necessary, natural and next, learning anywhere, everywhere with anyone.
  8. Integrate feeling and knowing, with radical optimism.

For the graphically inclined, here’s how they the layers of civic practice show up on the Spiral:

Civic practice spiral


How do you nurture your civic practice? How do you ensure you show up well for your city? 



Village in the city


The purpose of a village is also the purpose of a city. For Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, a village does many things at once: protects and looks after its inhabitants; feeds them and ensures the goods and services needed are on hand; supports the varied work of villagers so they can participate in community commerce; educates and initiates; governs with a social structure of shared mores; builds webs of identity and relationships; and grows the spirit of the place with traditions of meaning.

Baldwin, Linnea, what is a village and what does it do
Source – Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, What is a village and what does it do?

A village is doing many things at once, each of which connects to the story, the heart, of a place. The story is what connects and binds us to each other and is a foundation on which we build our cities.

In any human system, there is a progression of values, and our intelligence, that we experience that form our stories as individuals and any scale of collective (family, organization, village, city). I took at look at how these levels of values show up in the city. We begin with our full attention on our survival, and once that is looked after, our attention expands to focus on: collective survival; economic and military power; authority and moral codes; prosperity and entrepreneurship; diversity of knowledge; then systemic flow and global life force. (For more details on these levels of values, please explore my primer on Spiral Dynamics integral. For their application to the city, start with Is the unplanned city unplanned – part 4.)

As I look at Baldwin and Linnea’s model, I can see several layers of the Spiral. The village looks after the basic survival needs of villagers. It will step in and protect if need be. It has rules and protocols. It recognizes that it is a place where learning takes place. It recognizes that at the heart of the village is story, the glue that binds us. Here’s what happens if I look at the purpose of the city with “villageness” in mind:

What does a city do? 

  1. Meet basic needs of citizens
  2. Nurture shared sense of belonging, for collective survival 
  3. Cultivate pride and identity / protect city from danger
  4. Provide necessary structure to meet citizens’ needs (physical, economic, social)
  5. Create the conditions for property, development and growth
  6. Create the conditions for expanding knowledge, receiving and giving knowledge
  7. Learn to flex and flow with uncertainty and conflicting truths
  8. Serve as Gaia’s reflective organ

A city, just as a village, does many things at once. Not every citizen is doing each of these things all at the same time, but collectively, as our attention shifts to meet the demands of each moment, the city shifts too. The graphic at the top of this post is purposely purple, for the notion of village is firmly rooted in the early stages of human evolution, when we are grappling for collective survival, and where myths, mystery and story were our tools to understand the world.

Cultivating the village in the city is not about going back in time, but rather a way to cultivate a new story to tell ourselves about our cities and our roles in them as citizens. When we do, it will reshape all the layers we have created above the story.



purpose of village-city on spiral



Electoral energy

North Glenora Q3

I have been moderating a series of election forums across my city and I am in awe of the energy candidates for civic office put into their campaigns. Last night was the third evening I have spent with Ward 6 candidates, and they have come a long way since I first saw them in action a month ago.

In my last post, I asked:  In what ways are you an evolutionary agent for your city?

Running for office is one way to be an evolutionary agent for your city. Each candidate plays a critical role in how the city speaks for itself. As I reflect on last night’s forum, I recognize the candidates that are tired and just want the marathon to be over. There are others that clearly have more energy to spend. Some are less clear in what they have to say, while others have honed their pitch. For some, this has been a huge learning experience and you can see it on the stage in their newfound comfort speaking to a crowd.

More importantly, as the differences between the candidates become more distinct, the choices for the city become more distinct. Perhaps this is the real energy the city receives from election season. It fuels our sense of how we see ourselves because we have to make a choice.

And we need candidates with different points of view enable the choice. All candidates, all views, all perspectives, are part of our collective movement.

Elections fuel what we imagine our city needs to be to serve us well.

Electoral energy helps each of us – and our city – learn about who we want to be.

North Glenora Q2

North Glenora Q1


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This post concludes a series of posts on Chapter 9 – Be the Best Citizen You Can Be. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

Next up – Chapter 10 – The Emerging City

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Know structural purpose


In the May 15, 2013 edition of Nest City News, I wrote about knowing the purpose for the structures we create for ourselves. If for nothing other than the most practical of reasons, if we don’t know what a structure is for, it won’t do what we want it to.

We have a two-way relationship with the structures we create for ourselves. Just as we create them to serve us, they create us as well. Last month, when I went back to hike the West Coast Trail on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, I noticed key structures placed on the trail to assist our travel over difficult terrain. Ladders help hikers climb ascent and descend the valleys. Cable cars and bridges help hikers cross waterways. Boardwalks help hikers traverse boggy areas. Yet due to disrepair, the boardwalks have strayed from their original purpose:

Scott by deteriorating boardwalk

This boardwalk, put in place to aid travel, is now a hazard. It is slippery and uneven. It is ready to harm the traveller, but what can we do with structures like this?

I noticed five patterns in hikers’ behaviour on the trail:
  1. Walk on it. Not noticing the danger, we risk harm and carry on. This can be conscious and unconscious.
  2. Walk on it carefully, making careful choices about how to use the structure to our benefit while minimizing risk of injury.
  3. Walk beside it, making a new and safer path. Sometimes this means trudging through the mud and meeting the real obstacle face-to-face.
  4. Throw it aside, removing the danger for self and other. It’s pieces might also be useful serving other purposes.
  5. Walk on it to destroy it to a point where there is no structure left – and no hazard. Simply aid in its slow destruction. The risk is injury along the way.

All five patterns have a role to play in our relationships with the structures we live with every day. Each is appropriate in its own way, in its own context.

As I reflect on this specific trail, and our rescue off the trail two years ago after a boardwalk fall and broken leg, the first pattern was not our practice. And in the push to complete the hike we walked on boardwalks carefully and beside them – we did not throw any aside to make the path safer for others behind us. I have to admit we were caught in the momentum of the moment and our immediate task.
Everyday we are in relationship with structure. Structure can take the form of the protocols of family life, the policies in our workplaces, the design of our cities or the laws that govern our expectations of each other as we live increasingly together in cities.

In just the right balance, there is enough chaos to evoke collective wisdom, and enough order to discover wise action. Choosing the right kind – and amount – of structure is a BIG decision that has everything to do with knowing purpose.

Helpful questions to ask of any structure:

  1. What purpose needs to be served by the structure?
  2. What is the minimal structure needed to serve that purpose?

AND specific to any existing structure:

  1. What purpose needs to be served by the structure now?
  2. Does the structure, as it has changed over time, serve today’s purpose? (If no, go to the questions above.)


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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Destination both alive AND adrift


The last series of posts explored the role of destination as we organize ourselves – and our city habitat – for continuous improvement.  In Destination alive or adrift, I proposed to cover the role of ‘purpose’ in a city, what makes a city alive, how we can tell when we are adrift, and the connection between individual work and city purpose. All of this to reveal why our work matters.

Cities are alive with purpose. Higher order purposes give us something to latch onto, allowing us to focus, learn and choose. Higher order purposes are not precisely planned, but we do have an opportunity to shape them because the purpose of evolution is evolving. We are moved to improve our conditions and this takes place in a self-other dialectic; we pursue self-improvement and give to the wider community at the same time. This is the evolutionary influence at work. Evolution has a purpose that is co-created by the agency of humanity.

This evolutionary impulse is alive and adrift. It is very alive in each of us, and the collectives of which we are each part, yet since we don’t know the purpose of evolution, which is itself evolving, things are also adrift. As Steve McIntosh put it, evolution “cannot be discerned with finality because it is still in the process of being determined by the beings whose choices are required for its creation (p. 161).”  The highest order purpose, or destination, can not quite be defined because it is alive.

The city’s purpose, as it is for each of us, is survival and improvement. At every turn, we aim to survive and improve (see 100 urban trends), which adds up to our continuous attraction to move “toward more complex forms of social organization (McIntosh, p.  146).”  Our impulse to thrive in cities is alive and well, and the result is a nest of city purposes (Figures A and B), at every scale (from individual, to city/region, to planet):

Nest of city purposes - colours ascending order.002.002
Figure A: Next of purposes
Spiral of purposes - 8.005
Figure B: Spiral of purposes

Our short-term destinations and our bigger destinations are connected, with each of us, between each of us, and between each of us and the larger collective. There are scales of purpose in the purposes themselves and the scales of our social organization. The small is connected to the small – and the large.

As we discern that the city’s destination is our own evolving purposes, it necessitates looking at our role – and purpose – in the city. To use Steve McIntosh’s language, each citizen, as a whole evolutionary entity, has intrinsic value. Citizens have value both as a whole, and as a fundamental part of something larger. As a part, it is instrumental. Citizens are of instrumental value to the intrinsic value of the city created by us. Instrumental and intrinsic purposes are evident at scale. The intrinsic value of each citizen is instrumental to the city.

How we show up as citizens, showing up for our quest for survival and continuous improvement, for both self and others, is critical. If I don’t show up, then I affect my personal ability to survive and continuously improve as well as my city’s ability to do the same. Self and the city are only as good as we make them. Everything we do matters. Our cities are as good as we make them.

Destination is simultaneously alive and adrift. It is most alive when we work from our passion, our inner drive to improve. When we catch glimpses of bigger destinations, for both self and the city, our direction, through short-term destinations, is discerned for fleeting moments. Between these fleeting moments, we feel adrift, which is to feel alive.

What is your intrinsic value? 

How are you instrumental to your city?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

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Further reading…

McIntosh, Steve. Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins




Scales of purposes


The purposes I pursue are informed by what I value. The purposes we pursue are informed by what we value. Purpose and value drives both my decisions and those of the larger wholes of which I am a part.

I am a whole system myself, and I find myself within the larger whole of my family. My family is a system within the larger system of our neighbourhood. My neighbourhood is a system inside the larger system of the city of Edmonton and its region. Edmonton is a system within the larger system of Canada, and Canada a nation of the world. Each system is whole and is also a part of larger wholes. Each system has its respective purpose and set of values, which may be aligned or disparate, but they each are live with purpose.

Figure A: Hamilton’s nested city systems

Each scale will have a purpose that reflects its life conditions. (See Figure B to see the Spiral; here is a primer on Spiral Dynamics.) While I value prosperity and creative entrepreneurship today (with the time I have to write), I recognize that the school and police systems in Edmonton are operating out of authority and moral codes today because of two teens who threatened, online, to hurt many people. Their actions have been taken seriously and they have been charged. Organizations across Edmonton are diving in to make financial contributions to the Edmonton Food Bank to ensure families have enough food this Christmas. They are guided by moral codes to serve folks in survival mode.

And as we gather for upcoming winter festivities, whatever religion, we are engaging in long-held practices that bring communities together to bond for collective survival of culture. Others in my city are working on open data systems that help the city see itself, so we are able to explore more fully the diversity of knowledge at our disposal. Others yet see ways to make all of the above be healthy and vibrant, so we have a city that serves citizens well.

Figure B: Spiral of purposes

A variety of purposes are alive at every scale, from the individual to the city to the planet and the Universe. Each scale of individuals and collectives, are reaching, as interested and able, into expanded purposes.

What purposes are alive in you? In your city?

What purposes are you and your city expanding into?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

The Spiral is based on the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan: Spiral Dynamics.




City purpose – survival and improvement


In my last post, the purpose of evolution is evolving, I introduced the work of Steve McIntosh and his book, Evolution’s Purpose.  There is another layer of insight from McIntosh that frames the question of destination and whether we are alive or adrift: first- and second-order purpose.

McIntosh articulates the “evident purpose inherent in the urge to survive and reproduce shared by all forms of life (p. 13)” as a “first-order purpose” that is an instinctual or semi-automatic urge in most animal and plant behaviour. In contrast, “second-order purpose,” is possessed by humans. Here is McIntosh’s take on the nature of human, second-order purpose:

Humans not only have purposes, we have purposes for our purposes; we have relative freedom of choice regarding the urges or impetuses we want to act on and the appetites we want to resist. Moreover, humans can have purposes that require a lifetime of more to fulfil, we can have highly creative purposes, compassionate, loving purposes, and world-changing purposes that improve conditions for everyone (p. 13-14).

Humans experience two orders of purpose: immediate survival of self and the species, and a range of purposes that originate from our agency, that originate in response to our life conditions.

The latter of these two orders of purpose is “a self-reflective type of purpose that includes rational, moral and aesthetic aspirations (p. 88).”  These aspirations are improvements we seek in our life conditions.  Humanity’s creation of cities, if aligned with purpose at all, must have two purposes: survival and improvement.

Cities, as part of the human journey, have two destinations: survival and improvement.

Is your city organized to ensure survival and improvement?

Is your city alive or adrift?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

Conscious capacity – a city intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Purposes

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Recalibrating the purpose of planning

Figure 1 - Evolving City Purposes

The activity of planning cities is a kind of work that has emerged with cities.  It is a mode of organizing that began in Canada with land surveyors and engineers. The work of planners and planning in Canada is recent; Canada’s Commission of Conservation hired Britain’s Thomas Adams in 1914 as its Town Planning Advisor. His work supported the creation of town planning legislation across Canada, and a whole new area of work distinct from that of surveying and engineering.  For Adams, the additional focus of planning was to improve civic conditions[1].  This was the beginning of a structure (legislation) and a profession dedicated to contributing order to settlements across Canada, work that emerged with the fourth purpose of the city (Figure 1), and the fourth level of organizing (Figure 2).  (For more on the evolution of city purposes and modes of organizing, please see Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

Figure 2 - Evolving Modes of Organizing

The activity of planning our communities – even just thinking about planning – has played a critical role in the shape our communities today.  Gerald Hodge and David L. A. Gordon, authors of Canada’s primary text for students of planning Canadian communities, note:

…the regard for planning and making plans is strong.  Even in… contentious situations, the essential debate is not about the need for planning, but for better planning – not whether but how it should be done.”[2] 

Citizens, developers and builders, civil society and our various public institutions and politicians are always ready to tell planners about needed improvements. And they are right – there are many improvements to be made.  What we ought to be wary of is the assumption that it is up to planners to make the changes.

Today’s challenge – recalibrating the purpose of planning, plans and planners

This is the challenge that faces planners, citizens and decision-makers today: our communities function with an extended focus, broadened purpose and less concentrated decision-making processes. The formal act of ‘planning’ as we recognize it today, with zoning by-laws and area structure plans, is in response to life conditions of a certain time, geography, challenges, and social circumstances.  It is as set of activities that fits the era in which Thomas Adams worked. In today’s world the work of organizing a city belongs to many.  The planning profession is simply one of many kinds of work.  The work of organizing ourselves to thrive belongs to all of us.  In 1922, Thomas Adams stated: “Cities do not grow – all of them are planned.”[3]  It is as though we build them as we build a building, with a complete set of plans.  That just doesn’t happen with cities.  They do grow.

None of this means that plans and planning are not relevant.  Plans do have a purpose. Having a plan means that we know where we are going and what it will take to get there.  A plan documents our shared purpose, intention and intended actions to reach our goals.  In every aspect of life, this is a critical function.  Specific to city planning, Hodge and Gordon describe it this way: a plan is “for the purpose of achieving a goal desired by its citizens… community planning is about attaining a preferred future built and natural environment.”[4]  They cite two reasons why a community makes plans: to solve some problems associated with its development; and/or to achieve some preferred form of development.[5]  This is work that makes a meaningful contribution to cities.

In conventional planning circles, the professional planners are charged with this work.  Citizens, civil society, civic builders and developers along with politicians provide feedback to planners through formal public engagement activities.  Yet we are growing into an understanding that city hall is not the only player who organizes a city, but that there are many others involved.  Numerous organizations, activities and events shape the city without city hall’s direction.  Environmental groups have had an influence on our tolerance for weeds.  Arts foundations find the funds to build new museums and art galleries.  Business leaders join forces to advance technology research and innovation.  The university hospital chooses to emphasize health research and expands its facilities.  School boards decide to allow families to choose their schools.  Citizens choose where to live in relation to employment/schools/services.  All and each of these players shape our complex cities.

Citizens, civil society, civic builders and developers are increasingly demanding a role in the process of planning our communities.  Even departments inside city hall are hungry for ways to integrate their work with planners.  As a result, the role of the plan has evolved into something new.  City plans are no longer simply the blueprint early land surveyors and engineers prepared for orderly development.  A new kind of work is being called for that supports an expanded view of what it takes to make cities that are healthy habitats for citizens.

The value of plans is in their intention and common direction.  They are now more about shape and spirit, rather than control.  There are times when control is important, but the scope of planning is widening and more and more aspects of planning are about much more than control.  As an activity, planning has to hold a destination in mind, allow for learning and adjustment along the way, and recognize that we do not know exactly what we are going to end up with and we can’t control that.  Part Two and Part Three of this writing endeavour will flesh out how to organize ourselves with kind of understanding.  For the moment I offer this:

Figure 3 - City "Nestworking"

The next post will conclude Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse with a question: Is planning even the right word any more?   Chapter  3 – The Thriving Impulse, will be a theory side trip into what it means to thrive before thoroughly exploring the City Nestworking model above for the remainder of the book in Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence and Part 3 – Nest City.  

[2]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 3

[3]   As quoted by Hodge and Gordon

[4]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 5

[5]   Gerald Hodge and David L.A. Gordon, Planning Canadian Communities, p. 5


Other Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 4

What is the role of planning and planners if the overriding purpose of a city is to integrate the needs of its people, with its context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive?  Simply, ‘planning’ a city is an activity that supports our collective work to organize ourselves into, and in, cities with the objective of ensuring that our habitat serves us well.

Modes of organizing

Figure 1 - City Purpose Spiral

In Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 3 , I introduced a spiral of evolving city purposes (Figure 1).  With each level of purpose of the city, there is a corresponding mode of organizing.

500 years ago, when St. John’s harbor was settled (see Part 1 and Part 2), choices were made to ensure people’s individual survival and that of the settlement. They took advantage of a geographic location in proximity to Europe and a calm harbour that didn’t freeze, two geographic factors that contribute to the harbour’s role in transatlantic shipping today.  Specific to the settlement itself, they ensured a supply of fresh water and materials to build shelter.  Decisions were made in response to context to ensure survival, and once immediate survival needs were met, they began organizing themselves.

Figure 2- City Organizing Spiral

Four levels of organizing (Figure 2) are evident in early St. Johns: reacting (survival), gathering (collective survival), doing (power and might), and planning (authority and moral codes).  In the early days of St. John’s people did what needed to be done.  Activities were coordinated – the port authority, the court house, government house, custom house.  Resources were coordinated – water supply, roads.  Likely in ‘do’ mode, decisions were made by the governor about where to locate the church, the various government buildings.  In ‘do’ mode, forts were constructed.  In ‘do’ mode, the homes and fishery in support of the fort were constructed.  As authority was needed, it arrived.

Once our survival needs are met, we are able to expand our view and consider others.  We gather with others to make meaning of what has happened and what will happen.  We work together to survive and begin the journey to thrive – in the pub or church.  When things need to be done, we meet to sort out what to do.  Some individuals will just do what needs to be done and set up fish flakes wherever it works.  Build a dock where it works.  This can feel unruly, and when sufficiently so, someone will try to give structure to things – in the case of St. John’s we the Port Authority, government house, custom house, the court house.

In St. John’s, the ‘doing’ also takes place at the scale of nations: the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese all want to claim the fishery and access to the fishery.  In ‘doing’ mode, they build kingdoms and lay claim to territory.  As time goes on, hints of plans take root in St. John’s.  And plans come with authority to make sure that the plan is implemented.  St. John’s’ early maps reveal how this took place: pipes for water supply, the custom house (and its rules), road construction, property ownership, and who occupies premises.  In response to our life conditions we organize as appropriate (Figure 2).

A sixth purpose for cities

The fifth purpose for cities is to generate prosperity for its citizens, in thriving economies, a mitigation of the rules that emerged from authorities, and a renewed sense of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity.  In St. John’s this id evident in the corporate structure for the St. John’s Port Authority: users of the port, City of St. John’s, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Government of Canada.  This is partnership, not a central authority simply consulting with stakeholders.  And while not a ‘city’ organization, it certainly shapes St. John’s.

A sixth purpose is emerging for today’s cities (Figure 1): to create the conditions for people to fully access our diversity of knowledge.  We are growing into an understanding that city hall is not the only player who organizes a city but that there are many others involved: chambers of comer, community foundations, advocacy groups, developers and builders, citizens, health authorities, school systems, provincial and federal government, citizens, etc.  All and each of these players shape our increasingly complex cities.  They are increasingly demanding a role in the process of creating our cities.

The planning profession – new work

The formal act of planning our cities emerged as new work when we required additional order in response to life conditions of a certain time, geography, challenges and social circumstances.  Planning in Canada is a fairly recent phenomenon: The Town Planning Institute of Canada was established in 1919, later turning into the Canadian Institute of Planners in 1974.  Further evolution of the profession has involved the regulation of the profession by provincial governments in recent decades:  Alberta, New BrunswickNova ScotiaOntario, Quebec and Saskatchewan.

Today, we see the formal act of planning land uses in municipal legislation: zoning by-laws, area structure plans, municipal development plans and official community plans.  In their work, planners help us organize our social and community services, build economic capacity, address transportation and infrastructure needs, manage cultural and heritage resources, ensure environmental protection.  The Canadian Institute of Planners defines planning as:

the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities and services with a view to securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities.  

While this definition is complicated, it is clear that the planning profession is in place to help the city be the best it can be for its residents.

Two roles for planning today

The challenge for citizens and planners today is to recognize two different kinds of planning support to cities:

  1. Provide the answers – traditional, linear, planning expertise.
  2. Create a habitat for exploration – support the city’s awareness so it can respond purposefully, appropriately.

The difference between the two is simple: planners have expert knowledge vs. citizens have expert knowledge.  There are times when the specific expertise of planners is needed.  This is “top-down” activity, which is the right thing under certain circumstances.  The second role, however, requires acknowledgement that a city is trying to organize itself and there is work to be done to help the city see itself (more on this, what Marilyn Hamilton calls integral vital signs monitoring, in later posts).  To get what we need from our cities, we each need to be in tune to what our cities need of us.  This means honing our telling and listening skills in our work in the world. We need to notice not what we want to do, but what is being asked of us.  This is where the next evolutionary step will emerge for the profession – a profession in service to cities and their inhabitants.

Planners are relevant when supporting the work of a whole city to organize itself.  Individually and collectively, planners support our work to improve our habitat.  Planners are well positioned to create the conditions for cities to see changing life conditions and for cities to figure out how to adjust.  Our work, then, is to create the conditions for ourselves, and our cities, to see and respond to life conditions.  Some of this work takes the form of planning as we know it, and some will take other forms.  The purpose of planning is to support city efforts to notice, adjust and organize to ensure people survive and thrive.

To answer the question, ‘Is the unplanned city unplanned?’, I note that all cities are organized to meet a purpose in a given context.  ‘Planning’ is only one mode of organizing.  The unplanned city is unplanned, but not created without purpose.  This is significant.  Planned cities don’t achieve their plans exactly anyway.  The real matter at hand is knowing the purpose(s) of cities.  Whether planned or unplanned, all cities are organized.

My next post will explore the voices that make a whole, integral city.

Sources –

Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.

Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)

Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.