A welcoming city has transportation choices

It doesn’t feel good when people in your city scream at you. Last month I was on my bike, on a downtown street, making my way to the new bike lanes a few blocks away. A truck driver yelled at the top of his lungs: USE THE F$&#ING BIKE LANES!!!

Only three days before this happened, I jumped on a bicycle, rode 15 minutes on streets of various sizes that accommodated many modes of transportation — bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and trams – to get to Utrecht’s Central Station in the Netherlands. I got on a train with my bicycle and in 30 minutes was emerging from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a map in my pocket and two hands on handlebars, to make my way on bustling unfamiliar medieval streets to Park Museumplein and the surrounding sights. I was in the busy throng of people moving in many ways through the city.

There were choices about how to move in Utrecht and Amsterdam. I could choose to move by car, on foot, on a bicycle powered by me or electricity or gas, or by bus, tram or train. The city is designed for choice and the inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves. There are people who choose cars. There are people who choose bicycles or scooters. There are people who choose buses, trams and trains. And there are people who choose it all. Most importantly, those choices are available just about everywhere. There is significant public investment made to do this, in the streets and even bicycle parking lots. (Check out this article about the Utrecht Central Station bicycle parking facilities for 22000 bicycles.)

The inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves.

There are sensible separations that are responsive to scale and speed, always with a the larger intention to allow choice. There are no bicyles on highways, but bicyles can be on trains or you can ride your bike between cities. In the city proper, bicycles are everywhere and the city is made for it. Make a sidewalk a bit wider, paint it a different colour and there’s room for bicycles on a busy street of any size. On a small local street, bicycles are on the street with the cars. Intersections are made for all modes of transportation and while messy compared to the simplicity of an intersections only for cars, it works perfectly. All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

Back in Edmonton, in North America, my experience is a startling contrast. In one 20 minute ride into downtown and back home I realize:

  1. There is no place for me to be. I have to choose to be like a car and be on the road or choose to be like a pedestrian and be on the sidewalk. My ride starts on a quiet street so I choose the street. When the car traffic gets busier I ride on the sidewalk. I don’t like to do this.
  2. The new bicycle path does not go to where I am going, so I choose not to use it, despite wanting to support the public investment.
  3. Friendly drivers don’t know what do to. On a quiet street I choose to ride on the street. At an intersection where I have the stop sign, a driver stops and waves me on. This is nice, but she would not stop like this if I was a car.
  4. The streets with new bicycle lanes downtown do not go where I am going. As I travel through downtown, I pass cross streets with bicycle lanes. I could move south, away from where I am going, to be on a bicycle lane, but that is out of my way and doesn’t feel right. I stay on the street because there are few vehicles.
  5. There isn’t a place to park my bike. I arrive at my destination, Edmonton Tower, for a meeting with City of Edmonton colleagues. There is room for 12 bicycles to park and it is full. I ask, again, for the security personnel to pass along to the management that more facilities for bicycle parking are needed.

    Bicycle parking at Edmonton Tower is oversubscribed.
  6. Some drivers are ANGRY. On my way home, I decide to go out of my way to use one of the new bicycle lanes, so there is one more visible cyclist using this investment. On my way there I find myself on a narrow street with no sidewalk because of construction. This is when the driver screams out his window: USE THE F&%$ING BIKE LANE!!!! I was in the only place I could be to get to the bike lane.
  7. Another driver is ANGRY. A bit later, while crossing a street (on the street like a car) a driver honks his horn at me. I look (maybe it’s someone I know?) and see him moving his fingers as if I should be walking across the street. I shrug my shoulders. He honks again. Longer.

This is not the Edmonton I want to be, where the power of the car dominates the choices of its citizens. But lets be clear — we give the car its power. It is our choice. We attach ourselves to the car life and feel threatened by the choices that are available to all of us. The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. This is, however, a form of power over people who by choice or need do not use a car. More of us have control – in the form of choices – if more of us have choices about how to move around in our city.

To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision for Edmonton:

  1. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens. This means both physical access (is the infrastructure there) but also the financial means of the user. This takes place both on the street and also across the city. (Note – street here means the entire public right-of-way.)
  2. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens EVERYWHERE. It isn’t about choosing specific places where bicycles and buses and trains will go. It’s about choosing specific places where bicycles will not go. Bicycle infrastructure is cheap and easy. Just do it. This takes place both on the street and also across the city.
  3. There are clear rules for how street users behave because there is a clear place for them. Pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle drivers all have their own place to be on the street and know what to expect of each other. The bicycle is not a pedestrian or a car or a train, but since we don’t have a place for bicycles, we have unnecessary conflict between street users.
  4. All street users are courteous and patient. It’s easy to navigate a street for cars or a street for pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street for cars and pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trams and scooters, but it is doable. Millions of humans live this in various parts of the world. The choice is ours, but it will take courage to behave in ways that are courteous and patient both as we recreate our city and figure out how to relate to each other and our city differently.

There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. This is a gargantuan task, but is not the biggest task. The biggest task is to be civil and friendly with each other while doing the difficult work of making cities that serve citizens well.

Some of the bicycle parking at Rotterdam’s Blaak Station near Markthal.

Navigating for settlement habitat

Figure 1 - The Skyline Trail (Photo Credit - B. Sanders)

I just got back to civilization yesterday afternoon after spending four days in the backcountry hiking Skyline Trail near Jasper, Canada.  We hiked 46 km in varied mountain terrain – up an old fire road, around mountains, over mountains, through mountain passes, down into valleys, through alpine meadows and a 4.5 km stretch simply along the skyline with a 360 degree view of of the Canadian Rockies.

I was far removed from the city, yet one simple, familiar premise about cities kept popping up in my mind as we hiked: humans settle where the habitat is suitable.

The hikers:  We were two families of four.  Eight of us ranging from grade 4 to early forties.  We chose to take three or four days for the hike.  Many hikers take two or three days; we met a running group who were doing the trail in one day.  We gave ourselves the option to spend an extra night and have a fourth day in case we needed (which is what we did).

Our navigation aids:  We travelled without GPS.  We knew the trail would be obvious.  We also knew there would be people on the trail with information on the trail ahead of us.  We had good topographical maps so we could monitor landmarks and determine our general position.

Our challenge:  We did not know exactly where the camps were located.  None of the maps we could find showed precisely where the ‘settlements’ were.  We knew how far to hike to get to each campsite, but we had no way to measure specifically how far we had hiked and how far we had to go.  On relatively flat terrain, we know we move at about 3 km / hour, including a break.  We were travelling very irregular terrain and our time estimates for distance were off.  Signage with distances to campsites were only at campsites, not in between.  Our challenge was when we were getting tired we needed to know how much farther we had to go.

Then we started noticing the characteristics of the campsites we had seen so for – these were the criteria that gave us clues about how to look for the next campsite for which we so desperately longed.   We grew new navigational antennae…

Figure 2 - Curator Lake from the Notch (Photo Credit: B. Sanders)

Campsite criteria:  As we came through the Notch and looked out over Curator Lake, we were ready to quit for the day. We were tired and we had no idea how far we had to go before we could stop for the day.  The pass on the horizon, just right of center in Figure 2, was part of tomorrow’s trek.  Just above Curator lake, in Figure 2, is a green area.  We made the correct assumption that somewhere in there we would find our campsite.  The vast majority of the terrain was not suitable for any kind of temporary settlement.  This green area off in the distance was the only place we could see that met campsite criteria:

  1. An easily accessible water source
  2. Protection from the elements
  3. Land suitable for setting up shelter (tents)
Figure 3 - Campsite organizing (Photo Credit: B. Sanders)

Campsite design:  Here what we noticed about how each campsite was organized:

  1. A place to set up shelter
  2. A place to cook and store food
  3. A place for human waste (toilet)
The trail and the campsites are described by Parks Canada as primitive.  These are very basic places to settle for a bit and they are fully in relationship with the surrounding habitat.  The way the sites are organized are for primarily the safety of hikers – the places we prepare and store our food are entirely separate from where we will spend the night.  This is for our safety and the wildlife.
A suitable settlement takes into account its surroundings – its habitat – and the needs of the settlers.  In today’s life conditions, we are not looking to establish new settlements.  We are recalibrating our settlements – our cities – to suit our needs. Increasingly, we are are again taking into account our relationship with our surrounding habitat.  We are making our way toward suitable settlements and finding new ways of navigating that will ensure we reach this goal.  We just need to know what we are aiming for.
My next post will put me back on track with my exploration of 12 evolutionary intelligences in our city life.




A new era of planning cities

I keep asking myself if planning is the right word any more to describe this organizing activity that takes place in our cities.  It is the right word if it can hold a lot more than a tidy, linear, mechanical, rational practice.  There is a time for this kind of work, but planning can and should be much more to accommodate the messy, uncertain, complex world we live in.

Of all the organizing we do, planning can simply be act of declaring a destination and the steps it will take to get there.  At the end of my last post, Recalibrating the purpose of planning, I left you with a diagram (Figure 1) noting that planning also involves the ability to learn and adapt along the way (journey) in order to accommodate a future that we have know way of knowing will actually be (emergence).  Our planning work shapes the future but does not define our future.

Figure 1 - City "Nestworking"

A new era of organizing our cities is emerging that is much more conscious of collective intention and purpose to drive our work.  I see a different kind of planning that doesn’t reject the work we already do, but adds to it and informs it.  It is time to build upon the mechanical processes and plans we have created.  There is a time and place for them, but like any tool, just because we like the took does not mean we ought to use it everywhere.  When we pretend to have control we thwart our ability to thrive as both citizens and as whole communities.  We sabotage the potency of our collective wisdom.  It is time to learn how to live with the messy, uncertain world – an plan accordingly.

We are not comfortable in a messy world, so our tendency to seek control actually reduces our ability to reach our destination.  We choose to ignore feedback that tells us something we would rather not hear.  This new era of planning is complex yet very effective – if we get out of the way.  Every day, every moment, we live with tension as we discern what we can control and what we can not.  This work is as much about our inner selves as it is about the work we do in the world.

Cities are growing and we are growing with them. We are organizing ourselves in response to life conditions, which are as varied as the purposes of a city are varied.  In fact, being in service to a city’s varied efforts to organize itself in response to life conditions is a role for the people that build the city, the people that manage the city, civil society and citizens. There is a role and responsibility for everyone to support a city’s efforts to notice, adjust and organize for the purposes of creating the conditions for citizens to survive and thrive.

I will next tackle Chapter Three – The Thriving Impulse, to explore what it means to thrive, a foundational piece before presenting how Nest City thinking works in Parts Two and Three.

I leave you today, at the end of Chapter 2 – The Planning Impulse, with the wise words of Ben Okri.

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.

Integrating voices and values

A city is made up of multiple perspectives, purposes and modes of organizing.  In Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 3 and Part 4, I showed the purposes for cities that emerge and the ways we organize in accordance with each purpose.  In City – a dance of voices and values, I made the connection between purpose/organizing and Hamilton’ four voices of city life: citizens, city managers, city builders and civil society (Figure 1).

Three cities, or three different points in time in the same city, could have completely different ‘maps’ of where their values lay.  Imagine dropping the spiral of city purposes on the four quadrants of city voices (Figure 2).  Instead of spirals, imagine concentric circles, radiating out from the center, illustrating the emergence of city purposes and modes of organizing.  The values in play can be seen and mapped for all four voices of the city.

Here are three examples (Figure 3):

On the left, most city builders value competition and prosperity while a good portion of citizens and city managers have a focus on authority and rules.   A portion of civil society puts emphasis on equality.  In the center illustration, the City Managers are in “turf mode”, with little power in authority.  In contrast, citizens, civil society and city builders appear to be in a position to take advantage of a lack of authority.  In the city on the right we see citizens valuing authority and moral codes while civil society and city managers are seeking much less formal structure with value systems that flatten hierarchy.  The city builders appear to be in turf-oriented competition.  Each map presents a different picture of what is valued in that city, from the perspective of those voices.


Varied purposes of cities, along with their associated levels of organizing that correspond with those purposes, coexist. This means that many modes of organizing are occuring simultaneously.  As we organize ourselves in cities, there are people attending to our various collective needs: individual organizations might be in survival mode due to budget cuts; new immigrants assemble to cultivate a sense of belonging and identity in a new place; the fire department responds to emergencies in ‘do’ mode; municipal governments establish order with by-laws regulating on-street parking; the Chamber of Commerce seeks strategic economic advantage; social justice groups demand participative decision-making processes.  As a whole, these are activities we undertake to organize ourselves and create habitats in which we will thrive.  One of the ways we organize is to plan, where we document where we intend to go and how we think we’ll get there.

When our basic survival needs are met, we organize ourselves with the aim to thrive.  As our cities began to grow, there was a point where we saw a need for order.  Eventually, we saw a need to create a new profession: city planning.  We saw a need to articulate, and document, a desired goal to improve our cities (no one plans for things to be worse) and the details of how to get there.  We aim in the direction of making things better, and we identify the steps we need to take to make things better.  This is planning in its simplest form.  It is work we are all engaged in, as profession planners and as citizens.

Planning our cities is work that belongs to all of us at once.  The Integral City model reminds us that we all have a role to play in city life.  The city builders organize themselves to physically construct our city and they make plans to do so.  Civil society organizes the social and cultural life in our cities; they look after various non-physical qualities of our cities.  Citizens, in our day-to-day life bring life to the city with every choice we make, particularly when we follow our passions in our work – whether paid or unpaid.  City managers have a role to play to create the minimal critical structure on which cities sit: our municipal government, health services, education, etc.  Each of the city’s voices shape the city, all at once, creating a world of messiness and uncertainty because no one entity has control of a city.  This understanding is critical for citizens and professional planners alike.

Planners used to be (and some still are, as appropriate) the people that write the plans for political approval.  As policy writers, they take direction from city council or propose policy to city council.  They ask the public and stakeholders what they think and make recommendations to Council.  The policy may be a transportation plan, a facility plan for a school division, a plan for future subdivisions.  We, as the public, assign great responsibility to this profession.  We also miss-assign this responsibility because professional planners shape and influence our cities, but it is a co-creative process.  Professional planners are expected to have the answers – and the recipe – but that is not how planning happens.  Planners do not have a recipe, let alone all the ingredients.

In my next post I will explore this question:  What is the purpose of plans and planning in today’s context?


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.

Wilber, Ken, A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston (1996, 2000)

Time to build the nest we need

The staggering rate of population and city growth alone are enough for me to recognize that something, at some point, is going to give.  We are going to have to adjust to something.  And given the rate of change, we are going to have to learn how to adjust quickly.  That means we have to welcome change, quickly examine what adjustments are necessary, and take timely, appropriate action.  Debating whether or not something is happening, such as green house gas emissions, is a distraction from what we need to do: learn how to organize ourselves to be adaptable.  Adaptability will ensure we survive and thrive and, as it turns out, adaptability is what got us here in the first place.

(This post concludes a series of 14 posts that constitute my first efforts to blog my book, Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  For readers wanting to go to the first post, here is a link.  These first posts assemble into Chapter One: The City Impulse.)

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

There is within us an evolutionary impulse to do more than merely survive.  At the core of this impulse is our work – the efforts we make to innovate and find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  And this impulse to innovate generates cities (and cities generate innovation too).  Developing cities, then, is a survival skill.  And the role of our work – and our approach to our work – in cities can not be understated because it creates cities.  All of this happens in the context of our physical habitat (see Figure A).  Our ability to evolve, along with our cities, is a survival skill.

The dynamic relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat is only as healthy as the feedback that flows back and forth.  Cities are, in fact, a result of this relationship. In this dynamic, our social habitat is the conduit between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is the sphere where we allow, or disallow, connections to be made between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is where we create the conditions individually and collectively to notice what is happening around us and integrate our world with our work, our work with our world.  Or, more appropriately, where we integrate our cities with our work, our work with our cities.  Our cities need quality feedback.

Innovation hinges on looking at things in new ways, but it is the innovative quality of our work in the context of our habitat that drives whether a city declines or thrives, not just the fact that we are innovative.  More of the same work – without innovation and adaptation – makes us busy, but it does not mean we learn and grow.  More and more new work, for the sake of innovation, does not mean we adapt either.  Innovation in the context of our life conditions, which are constantly changing, means we adapt – and evolve.  Innovation + adaptation means we are thinking, making and doing new things.  This is a critical understanding in light of the challenges we face as a species with a quickly growing population.

As citizens we have choices about the work we do and our awareness of whether the work we do is responsive to our life conditions.  We must be brave enough to look at life conditions, let alone acknowledge them.  We must be brave enough to notice what is happening and to respond appropriately.  This bravery is needed at many scales – in citizens, in organizations, in cities, in society.  How do we create the conditions for this kind of courage?

Figure B

Jane Jacobs suggested that it is sensible to foster desirable new work and select from those worth fostering further.  Our evolutionary path isn’t about simple generating more and more and more new work, endless innovating.  The word ‘select’ implies that someone will do the selecting and that we know the criteria to choose the work that will work.  But we will never have criteria for this kind of work because we have never been here before.  Each moment ahead of us is new, and the criteria we have used for previous situations are criteria for previous situations – not the present or the future.  But it is a far more diffused, yet simple, process than that.  We need to know the direction we face and we need to ‘notice’ what works along the way, to get us there.

The work ahead of us is about creating cities – our habitat – that allow us to change the work we do and how we go about doing it.  It is about creating cities, right now, that work for us.  The challenge is recognizing that our work, whether paid or unpaid, and our desire to improve our work is an innovation-generating evolutionary impulse.   This impulse is the force that creates  and recreates cities, which in turn creates the conditions for further innovation.  We shape the city and in return it shapes us.  We build the nest that nurtures us.  It is time to notice how we go about organizing ourselves to get what we need from this relationship.

Figure C

We have never been here before.  We are at a point in time unlike any other and our efforts to understand the world in the ways we have always tried to understand the world are not accurate.  We face together a world full of uncertainty and unpredictability.  Any actions we take as individuals and as collectives have unexpected ripple effects in ways we can not contemplate or anticipate, which means that each of us is connected to others in significant and unimaginable ways.  We are in this experiment of humanity together.  To be dynamically stable – to steer well – we need to be willing to receive feedback and we need to explicitly seek feedback, even if it is telling us information we do not want to hear.  We need this feedback to do our work well, and our cities need this feedback as well.  We simply need to be awake to notice things around us.

This will take great courage, because to invite honest feedback is to invite hearing that we are not getting the results we would like.  It is time for us to organize ourselves in such a way that we are clear about our destination, that we provide ourselves with the support we need to be courageous enough to be awake on the journey, and we create the conditions for success within our world of unpredictability by self-organizing so the best possible way forward will emerge.  It is time to consciously create our nest city.  It is time to jump into the driver’s seat of our own evolution.

The next series of posts will revolve around what it means to plan our cities.  Are cities really planned?  What patterns can be discerned in how we go about creating our cities?  The dynamic that generates cities is not linear, yet our current efforts in North America to create sustainable cities are limited to linear approaches.  The next round of posts will make the case that a new way of designing for cities that serve their citizens well is emerging.  You can aid an abet its emergence by exploring these questions:


What can my city do for me?

What can I do for my city?

What can our city do for us?

What can we do for our city?



Note –
For those interested in exploring the preceding posts that form Chapter One: The City Impulse, here they are in order:
  1. Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?
  2. Driven to do more than merely survive
  3. Cities are engines of innovation
  4. The development of cities is a survival skill
  5. The work we do creates our cities
  6. Evolving cities is a survival skill
  7. Be a part of feedback loops in your city
  8. Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat
  9. Cities need quality feedback from habitat
  10. Dynamically steering cities into the future
  11. Work at scale to serve the city
  12. Inter-city tournaments
  13. The city as a nest


The city as a nest

Thinking of our cities as nests means we understand that our cities are what we build for ourselves.  Like other species we build our most immediate habitat: our shelter from the elements.  We also build structures that, once our survival needs are met, nurture our families and our well-being.  As a collective, we build larger and larger communities that address the needs of more than just a family.  Over the course of our evolution we build infrastructure to protect ourselves and our livelihoods (fortifications) and we build infrastructure to ensure order (transportation systems, government facilities).  We also build infrastructure to enjoy the opportunities that present themselves to enjoy life (recreation facilities, art galleries, sports arenas, etc.).  All of this is enabled because of our relationship with the resources that surround the beginnings of settlement and the subsequent work we have developed and expanded over decades, centuries and millenia.

Consider a simple definition of nest – a place or structure made or chosen:

  • in which to lay and incubate eggs or give birth to young
  • where a number of animals of the same species and their young occupying a common habitat: an ants’ nest
  • where an animal or insect breeds or shelters: an ants’ nest

The qualities of a nest are various.  A nest has some density.  Perhaps as a snug retreat, or tucked away all by itself, it is where a concentration of a species calls home.  A nest is also warm, safe and comfortable.  Whether a nest for birds, or a nest of shredded paper to hold a fragile bowl, a nest is a container that holds, protects and supports its contents.  A nest is pocket-like, usually a more or less circular structure.  It is a refuge from the elements.  It is home.

At a basic level, “nest” describes the habitat humans build for themselves very appropriately.  Our cities are made by us.  We build our homes and cities for ourselves as a species and with each generation.  More and more humans are choosing cities as their habitat.  In addition, cities provide heightened care for our young (specialized health care).

The qualities of a nest also coincide with those of a city.  People conglomerate in the city.  The city – at its best – provides shelter for more and more humans as more and more humans make cities their home.  At a minimum, we go to cities with the intention of making a better life, pursuing our work, looking for opportunities.  Geographical constraints aside, our cities take a circular form.  Cities are the habitat that holds, protects and supports the generation of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  Cities cultivate innovation, the very thing we need to ensure the cities we build are able to hold, protect and support us, citizens of the city.  We make the nest – the city – in which we settle.

In exploring definitions of nest, I found that as soon as the word nest is associated with humans, a shadow side emerges: a place filled with undesirable people, activity or things; a place or situation that is full of bad people or activities; or a place that fosters something undesirable.  The examples: a nest of spies, a nest of thievery.  It certainly is the case that as more and more good things happen in the city, more bad things will also take place.  The city is not a perfect phenomenon.  Our work in cities must acknowledge and attend to the healthy and unhealthy aspects of our nest.  Which do we wish our city nests to nurture?

We build our nest cities to serve ourselves – to survive and thrive.  We build our nest cities to allow us to grow and develop – to emerge into what we need to be in order to survive and thrive.  We have a choice about whether to create cities that serve us poorly or well.  They are the place from which we leap to new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  They are the place from which we fly to new nests, as we reshape our cities and what happens in them now at an unprecedented rate.

Figure A

As we think about our nest cities and our relationship with them, we must consider the nested hierarchy of systems that make up the city (Figure A).  (Three posts have explored the nested hierarchy of city systems: Work at scale to serve the city, The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.)  A city is full of similar things of different sizes that fit inside each other, where the smaller element fits in a lower position in a hierarchy: a nest of tables, organisms classified in a series of nested sets.  This involves a set of things in graduated sizes that fit together.  The notion of hierarchy offers yet another way of looking at the city and its systems.

There is a lot for a Nest City to hold.  It is simple and complex and it is ever changing.  Knowing this changes how we look at our cities.  It changes how we design our cities.  It changes the very process by which we create our cities.  Nest City requires us to host ourselves and our evolution well.   

Nested elements of a city: economic, social and physical

Resources that may be of interest



United Airlines’ Plan G

I am on a mission to explore the evolutionary purpose of cities for human life.  This week I am checking out one of our big cities, New York.  This is a big nest we have built for ourselves.

On my way, I am struck by United Airlines’ annual green issue: that it is mainstream enough to be in an airplane’s seat pocket, and the wicked ideas. Thanks to United Airlines for sharing the ideas and technologies that people pursue in their work.  Here are some highlights (I have flagged links to other sites if interested to follow up further on each of these):

  1. Turn sidewalks into power plants.  Britain’s PaveGen has created sidewalk tiles that convert kinetic energy of pedestrian footfalls into power.  Check them out in high-traffic areas of London at the 2012 Olympics.
  2. How about SolaRoad?  Dutch company TNO is using bike paths in the town of Krommenie in northern Holland to test glass-covered, solar cell-embedded concrete panels to generate 50 kilowatt hours of electricity per square metre.  They are aiming for 85,000 miles of road!
  3. Mass market solar shingles.  Dow Solar has expanded its Michigan plant to produce Powerhouse shingles, making them more accessible to home owners.  Solar panels are not on the roof, they are the roof.
  4. City co-farmingThe Plant, in Chicago, produces food year round in an abandoned meat-processing factory.  Aiming to solve economic environmental and nutritional problems simultaneously, the vertical hydroponic farm (greens and fish), bakery, breweries exchange ‘waste’.  I call this co-farming.
  5. Buildings that clean the air.    Aluminum producer Alcoa has a line of panels with titaniaum dioxide.  10,000 square feet will clean as much air as 80 trees.  Next one is even better….
  6. Plant upward.  The world’s first vertical forest is under construction in Milan – Bosco Verticale.  The balconies will be full of trees, shrubs and flowers.

Cities have no end of ingenuity to offer.

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.

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