Content with invisibility

I’ve noticed lately that the work I do is invisible to most people.

Last weekend I played a lead role as MC and hosted generative conversations at the Council for Canadian Urbanists annual CanU Summit–I was not the topic of conversation. I provided little content and set people up to meet each other and explore how to move their work forward. While they got into conversation and the room buzzed and hummed, I tended to their well-being in invisible ways.

A highlight of the Summit was the conversation I hosted between Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and neighbouring Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin. In the conversation, the Mayor proposed a new national aboriginal museum that made the headlines. The picture that appeared in the newspaper is the Mayor and Chief sharing a laugh, as it should be. Only my microphone and paper are visible in the bottom right corner.


Earlier this month I co-costed two conversations with citizens, business, government and community leaders about how the city learns–and how we can embrace being a city of learners. I found myself, as part of the hosting team, setting them up to make learning habitats, enabling them to identify and embody the living city systems of which they are a part. They did the work, they provided the content and they made meaning of their work. My content was invisible. It was not even my job to make meaning of their work: it was their work to do.

Photo: @britl
Photo: @britl

Nine years ago I walked away from a high-profile job in city hall and shelved the ambition that fuelled my ability to sustain that work. At the CanU Summit I watched the movers and shakers move and shake. I was out of the frame as the Mayor and Chief had a moving conversation. I was looking after plates and spilled coffee as my city figured out how it learns. I have to admit that my ego has a hard time being content with invisibility.

I’ve been wondering, what does the invisibility have to say? Here’s the response:

CONtent vs. conTENT

What are the gifts of invisibility? What is the CONtent I have to offer about invisibility? I realize that the invisible is asking to be made visible, and I also realize that I’ve been making the invisible visible these last few weeks in a series of blog posts. Here’s what I’ve seen and shared over the last few weeks.

About work:

About my approach to life: 

  • A scarcity mindset lends itself to fixing. An abundance mindset invites our expansion as citizens and as a species. (Improve vs. fix)

About hosting others in conversation: 

A big lesson from a participant in a workshop who felt lost and couldn’t find her place in an unfamiliar way of collective listening (listening through World Cafe vs surveys or interviews): I am only one voice in many. (Making meaning as a system).

The feeling of being invisible is part of what we have to grapple with to create cities and communities that will thrive for each and all of us.

Where do you find meaning in your invisibility? 

Note – This post was published in Nest City News on September 30, 2016.

Making meaning as a system

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me? This is the undercurrent of skepticism that surfaced in the closing circle at an event I co-hosted earlier this month. While the gathering generated a great deal of meaning for participants and the client, this question compels me to dig into listening and meaning-making. Who listens and who makes meaning?

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me?

Here’s the situation: we invited people to 3-hour workshops to explore how a city can be a learning city. We started with a World Cafe, a series of conversations in small groups with a variety of people, as a way for people to get to know each other and dive into the topic. (Our questions reflected the 4 pillars of the UNESCO pillars of learning: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together.)

After this ‘warm-up’, participants were ready for the big event: to make a 3D model of the city as a learning habitat.

As we made and explored the models, the groups saw patterns in the metaphors and operating principles. They identified the qualities of the system that wants to come more fully into being. They could see:

  1. Connected webs of relationships with multiple layers of pathways and connections
  2. Circles of life
  3. Synergies and exchanges
  4. Nature and natural, organic processes
  5. Gathering places where people come together
  6. Inclusivity and diversity
  7. Beauty and art, whimsy and creativity, fun
  8. Sustainability and self-sufficiency
  9. Infinite possibilities
  10. A city that evolves by learning

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them. For my client, who is figuring out her role in stewarding a project to foster learning in the city, this vision is essential. Her work is to figure out how to nurture this system. Not be the system, or make the learning habitat alone, because one person is not responsible for the well-being of a system. Her role is help it be healthy, to live more fully into its pattern. She is one of many gardeners.

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them.

The challenge we face is the inertia of staying in familiar ways of relating with each other and being in relationship with the city around us. Just because we can see and feel a new way of operating does not mean we are ready to jump into it. This tension surfaced in our closing circle: one participant spoke to the work as a state of mind, another voiced skepticism about whether we got what we needed to move the project along. While the former could lean into a new way of ‘hearing’ the system, the latter could not.

The skepticism was about the ability of the process to listen. In a World Cafe the hosts–the ‘official’ listeners–don’t hear the conversations, which means that people are not heard–by the ‘official’ listeners. The assumption: if the ‘authority’ doesn’t hear me directly I am not heard.

Four questions come to mind:

  1. Who has something to say?
  2. Who needs to hear you?
  3. Who will digest what you say and make meaning of it?
  4. Who is responsible to respond to what you have to say?

The purpose of this gathering was not to figure out how one person and a steering committee will roll out a project, but how a whole city can live into a project, and the critical support it needs from the one person and a steering committee. This involves a very different kind of listening.

A conventional way of listening to many people is through an interview or survey, where someone sits down with you to hear what you have to say verbally, or reads what you have written. In this way of listening, you tell me what you know or think directly and then I turn around and make sense of what I have heard from you and everyone else I have heard from. An interview or survey is a familiar way of ‘speaking into’ a system; it’s what we know.

METHOD Interviews, Surveys World Cafe + Model Building
WHAT HAPPENS You tell me what you know and think with no interaction with other people You talk and think and go deeper with other people (who may have very different perspectives)
WHO SPEAKS Individuals Individuals and the whole
WHO LISTENS I listen We listen
WHO MAKES MEANING I analyze and make meaning alone We figure out what it means as a group
WHERE YOU FIT You remain outside the system We are inside and part of the system
OUTCOMES I see what’s happening and I tell you We see what’s happening and we build relationships with each other to figure out what’s next
RESPONSIBILITY  I maintain responsibility We share responsibility
WHY I want to know what people think  (informative) We want to know what we think and figure out our way forward together as a whole (collaborative)

Interviews and surveys are informative tools, with their time and place, not collaborative tools. Their purpose is not in helping a system see the relationships and patterns within itself. The choice for my client: informing herself or the city informing itself. The choice for citizens: rely on her to fix things, or jump in and help to improve (see improve vs. fix).

My client’s work, ultimately, will be to help people see and operate in a system that is not linear and tidy. That is the learning for a learning city. The challenge is to figure out how to nurture this system and do so in a way that honours the familiar, linear ways of learning as well.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many. Our choice: entrench in the familiar or expand into new ways of making meaning that include us all.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many.


Prototype social habitats


As I prepare to host friends new and old at the November 12-15, 2013 Art of Hosting BIG Decisions gathering, I have engaged in a learning experience with my co-hosts, and a few others, to explore Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s new book, Leading from the Emerging Future. As we meet each week, chapter by chapter, new learnings emerge for me as we explore this work individually and collectively.

Scharmer and Kaufer outline the evolution of economic thought and our economy as the evolution of human consciousness. They see a meta-journey of communal then state-centric paradigms, then a free-market paradigm followed by stakeholder or social-market thought. They sense the we may be evolving into an intentional eco-system economy that creates well-being for all. As they take us through 8 acupuncture points that explore how to effect deep systemic change (at the bottom of this post), they remind me that:

  • Our economic life – an essential part of our evolutionary journey – is connected to our view of nature.
  • Our work, and our passion for our work, is how we connect to economic life.
  • Our creativity, individual and collective, is the source of value creation in our economic life.
  • Our shared intention, as individual players connected to a larger whole, serves as strategic direction.
  • Our awareness, of self and whole, allows us to see where we would like to go, and if we are aiming – and moving – in that direction.

Moreover, Scharmer and Kaufer remind me that the Art of Hosting is an invitation to co-create the the world that wants to be. Our time together in November is an opportunity for us to practice “being and doing” the social habitat we long for, where we gather diverse constellations of people to connect with each other to, as Scharmer puts it, co-initiate, co-sense, co-inspire, co-create and co-evolve.

An Art of Hosting gathering is a safe place to invent and prototype social habitats to power and sustain our well-being, and our evolution.

Will you join us in our work to co-create new social habitats here in Edmonton, in just over a month?  November 12-15, 2013


***** *****

Here are Scharmer and Kaufer’s 8 acupuncture points:

  1. Nature – How can we rethink the economy and nature from “take, make, and throw away” to an integrated closed-loop design, in which everything that we take from the earth is returned at the same or a higher level quality?
  2. Labour – How can we relink work – the profession we choose to pursue – with Work – what we really love doing?
  3. Capital – How can we relink the financial economy and the real economy by recycling financial capital into the service and cultivation of ecological, social, and cultural commons?
  4. Technology – How can we create broad access to the core technologies of the third industrial revolution, blending information technology, regenerative energy, and social technologies in order to unleash individual and collective creativity?
  5. Leadership – How can we build a collective leadership capacity to innovate at the scale of the whole system?
  6. Consumption – How can we rebalance the economic playing filed so that consumers can engage in collaborative conscious consumption and become equal partners in an economy that creates well=being for all?
  7. Coordination – How can we end the war of the parts against the whole by shifting the mode of consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness?
  8. Ownership – What innovations in property rights would give voice to future generations and facilitate the best societal uses of scarce resources and commons?
 _____ _____ _____

Some friends and I have started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book, chapter by chapter. This is the meaning I made of Chapter 3. Here’s what came of our circle when we met to explore Chapter 1 (Life guard) and Chapter 2 (The antennae of possibility).



Neighbourhood is up to us



In the excitement and anticipation of getting to the heart of a favourite neighbourhood, its ‘bumping place’, on a bright and fresh day hinting of spring, I lost my wallet. I had a choice: explore without any hint of purchase, or leave and go look for my wallet. The call of the wallet, more as a sense of security in knowing that it was not truly lost, won.

On Saturday, I attended Myrna Kostash‘s writing workshop hosted by the Canadian Authors Association. This little trek without my wallet started from Holy Trinity Anglican Church, where we gathered for the day, only a few blocks from Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market. I took advantage of the opportunity for an extra long lunch break to acquire fresh groceries, a walk in the fresh air and fulfill the writing task as assigned: explore the neighhourhood.

Upon arriving at the market, I made my way to a bank machine, where I realized that my wallet was not with me. I quickly made the decision to leave the market and retrace the day’s steps. I needed to both know where it is and if possible return to obtain the fresh apples and tomatoes that were calling me. I sped along the sidewalk, found my wallet, sped back to the market and proceeded to gather my needed nourishment for the week. (Here are some of Edmonton Journal photographer John Lucas’ photographs of the market, a hub for food and bumping into people.)

On my way back to the church, I noticed that I had been speeding back and forth along the same path. I noticed I had a choice I wasn’t noticing.

The physical layout of the Strathcona neighbourhood, in a grid, offers many paths of travel. I chose to go straight up the street and arrive at the church from a new angle, with a new perspective. On my new route, I quickly caught up to an elderly gent shuffling uncomfortably along the icy sidewalk. I slowed, easing myself into a new pace, simply stepping in behind him. After a few moments, the path widened, allowing me to modestly accelerate beside him, and as I did we began to chat about the state of our neighbourhood’s sidewalks.

He observed that despite a city bylaw requiring property owners to shovel sidewalks adjacent to their property, he was required to ‘rat’ on his neighbours. The City does not have the resources to scour the city for offenders, but rather awaits complaints. Complaining is what will compel neighbours to shovel and avoid the treacherous ice.  In the end, we decided that it was a beautiful day and our discomfort on the ice would not last long.

This quick exchange highlighted how each neighbourhood, each place we inhabit, is a place that we create. While this gent, myself and all the surrounding residents did not build this neighbourhood one hundred years ago, we continually recreate it – even with our shovelling practices. The basic structure of the city is in place here for a walkable neighbourhood. The rest is up to us, bylaw or not.

Where is the heart of your neighbourhood?  

Where do you bump into your neighbours?  

_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibilities, 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:

_____ _____ _____


City’s destination is our evolving purposes


At the beginning of December 2012, I began exploring the role of purpose and destination as we organize our cities with this question: is our destination alive or adrift?  In Focus, learn and choose, I share a personal reflection on the role of purpose as I was struggling with the increased darkness as we approach the winter solstice; when things are feeling adrift, I sense a higher purpose that connects me to my work.

As a species, our work shapes what we emerge into yet the very purpose of evolution is evolving. What is constant, however, is our quest for survival and improvement; humans, and the settlements we create, share this quest. I came across 100 urban trends that highlight the emerging destination of our cities. While this list of highlights are not definitive, they do elucidate a trajectory in our cities’ development. They demonstrate that there is direction in destination.

Just as I may feel adrift in my personal work, so too can our cities. Teasing out the direction in which we wish to go is as important as a specific destination. These are two different scales of purpose, perhaps, where destination is specific and in the short term, while direction is more difficult to latch onto an essential element in our quest to improve. Understanding what constitutes improvement points us in a direction. And as we move in a direction, the purposes that show up as specific destinations along the way evolve.

As the purpose of evolution is evolving, so to are the purposes of our cities. I see a nest of purposes for the city (Figure A) that manifest at various scales, from the self, to family/clan, group/tribe, neighbourhood/organization, city, and eco-region (Figure B).

Figure A: Nest of city purposes
Figure B: Hamilton’s nested hierarchy of city systems

Each scale of individuals and collectives, are reaching, as interested and able, into expanded purposes (Figure C). A range of purposes are alive at every scale, from the individual to the city, to the planet and universe; even purposes we can not yet contemplate and imagine. Each purpose is in response to context and circumstances and are therefore always in flux. As life conditions change, we are pulled down the Spiral to ensure survival, and we are pulled up the Spiral as we aim to improve.

Figure C: Spiral of purposes

This all takes place as a dance between our individual and collective lives, and especially in the co-creative dance where we built our physical, social and economic habitats together: the city.

A city’s destination is to serve the evolution of our evolving purposes.

What purposes are alive in you? In your city?

What purposes are you and your city expanding into?


_____ _____ _____

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.



Stop and listen – to Self and city


There is great momentum in being busy, being distracted from who we really are and the possibilities we offer the world.  The result is that each of us, and the city habitats we create for ourselves, are not reaching our full potential.

Yesterday’s post, performance with purpose, articulated the phenomenon of performance momentum, were we find ourselves caught in a drive to perform.  In this state, we lose track of who we are and the inner passion that drives our work.  We lose track of the purpose of our work and dismiss the feedback loops that ensure our work is responsive to the needs around us.  The result is work that does not move the self, the organization, or the city forward.  There is no improvement; which is itself a fundamentally driver to our work.

In the work we do creates our cities, I concluded with two questions:

  1. To what extent is our work, even new work, blind to our changing habitat?
  2. How would we change how we organize ourselves to consciously choose to create habitats for ourselves that serve our present and evolving needs and desires?
The answers to these questions, or rather the exploration of these questions, are part of the city’s learning journey.  How each of us approaches our work has an impact on our cities.  How we collectively approach our work has an impact on our cities.  The cities we create, in return, have an impact on us.  If we are ‘busy’, missing the clues around us, then our cities will also miss the clues and not serve us well.  If we need healthy cities, and they are made by us, then we need to be well for cities to be well.  The development of our cities is a survival skill.

From time to time, it is essential to stop, to pause and have a look at the deeper inner self, the one that wants to be let out, free in the world.  As we each allow our hidden self to emerge, our cities will change to serve us better.  As our cities improve, they are creating the conditions for us to be better again.

It is hard to stop and listen – and we need to learn how to do this, for self and the city.  David Whyte, in The Three Marriages, has this to say:

… anyone who has spent any time in silence trying to let this deeper hidden self emerge, soon finds it does not seem to respond to the language of coercion or strategy.  It cannot be worried into existence.  Anxiety actually seems to keep an experience of the deeper self at bay.  This hidden self seems reluctant to be listed, categorized, threatened or coerced.  It lives beneath our surface tiredness, waiting, it seems, for us to stop.
Stopping can be very difficult.  It can take exhaustion, extreme circumstances on a wet, snowy mountain ridge or an intimate sense of loss for it to happen   Even then we can soon neutralize and isolate the experience, dismissing it as illogical, pretending it didn’t count, then turning back to our surface strengths and chattering away in a false language we have built around our successes. 
Success can be the greatest barrier to stopping, to quiet, to opening up the radically different form of conversation that is necessary for understanding this larger sense of the self.  Our very success can be the cause of greater anxiety for further preservation of our success (p, 154-155).
It seems the opposite of busy, performance momentum is to pause, to stop.  The lure of momentum, particularly if it is full of what we perceive as success, makes it difficult to slow down enough to give ourselves an opportunity to notice the purpose of our work, the meaning in our work and our innermost qualities of who we are individually and collectively.
How do you pause and stop to listen to your Self and city habitats?  

_____ _____ _____

This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

Organizing for emergence – fractally


As I reflect on last Monday’s post, A retreat from the retreat, I realize that my experience is a fractal of the city experience.  It is a smaller version of the same thing.  I had a sense of where I wanted to go, I had some learning to do along the way, and I ended up somewhere that I could not have predicted.  It emerged.  Whether I organize as an individual, or as part of an organization or at the scale of a city, nation or planet, we are doing the same thing.

These three aspects of organizing our self and selves are each critical.  Without a destination in mind, pulling us along, we don’t go anywhere.  The power of knowing that we want to be somewhere other than ‘here’ is essential.

Movement toward that destination is a learning journey that includes both the process by which I see the destination as well as the journey I undertake to get to the destination.

With all of this, we live with great uncertainty in the world.  We never know what will come, who we will be in response to what comes and who we will become.  As a result, we may never get to an exact destination.  Or, we may not get there the way we had planned.  Uncertainty requires that we learn along the way.  It also means that we don’t know the destination precisely either; it reveals itself over time.

Destination emerges as a result of our learning journey.  While it might not be the exact destination aimed for, in hindsight we recognize that we travelled in the right direction.  The trip was about moving in a direction, not getting to a specific predetermined destination.  This does not undermine the value of having a destination in mind, however.  It is the critical element that pulls us into the future we desire.

We have a choice before us about how to live with these three aspects of organizing ourselves.  Most significantly, we have a choice to make about how we nurture each of these elements as individuals and collectives.  We can create habitats for them to work well with each other.  We can create habitats for them to work well with us, organizing ourselves for unknown possibilities of our choosing.

I can create a nest for me.

We can create a nest for us.





A retreat from the retreat


My intention for last week’s writing retreat was to define, describe and discern.  I just didn’t define, describe and discern what I expected.  I had to retreat from the retreat.

I had a destination in mind:  chapter 1 of Nest City would be tight and clear; my book proposal reworked; and clear sense of what a ‘Nest City Manifesto’ would look like.  I stalled out on the first. Wednesday night I made my way to Strawberry Creek Lodge, settled in, and paused to think about what I wanted to accomplish.  Thursday morning I joined my writing colleagues for breakfast, left the table as soon as I was fed and headed outside into the icy, cloudy day for some fresh air and a visit to the creek, before dropping into the task at hand.  I worked feverishly.  I recorded exact time spent sitting and writing – 10.25 hours.  By bedtime I was exhausted, but still giving myself enough time to sleep so my body would be ready for more writing on Friday.

Friday was more of the same until, after an afternoon run, I sat down with my journal because things weren’t feeling right.  I see now that the land I explored that morning at the top of the valley’s bank, really was subsiding.  I did not register that the shaky ground I saw that morning was shaking within me.

To explore the tension I decided to try something new.  I drew three oracle cards: the first to articulate the situation at hand, the second to reveal what I am missing, and a third to point to my Soul’s most pressing assignment in the moment.  The three cards: accept what is, retreat, and nurture yourself first.  The message – accept the struggle, I am missing the retreat (at the retreat!) and a pressing need to nurture myself.

Stunned. I could not wrap my head around the “what is” that needed accepting.  I could not get my head around what it could possibly mean to be missing the retreat.  I could get my head around looking after myself, and I could get my heart engaged in looking after my Self, my inner Being that needs to be well for me to be well.

So I went rogue at the writing retreat and stopped writing.

I went to meditate with trees as the sun set.

I strolled through the forest, noticing the circle of life and decay, both vibrant and full of energy.  I noticed a trail I hadn’t seen before, despite having passed it innumerable times, leading down to the creek.  After a few steps I was spooked by a structure, on the surface of the land, caved in, screaming danger.  I walked back up the hill and abandoned my quest to explore a new part of the valley.

After a few paces along the familiar trail, I realized I was unsettled, that I needed to go back to the unexplored path and investigate, peek around the corner for a look.  I steeled myself and went back for a closer look, from a distance.  As I reflect on this, I see that this was Saturday’s reminder that I was on shaky ground.  That the ground could drop out from underneath me at any moment.

I went on an analog quest: a long walk to find my road, and time with my little red notebook.

I spent time with words, contemplating the meaning of key words in my writing: habitat, nest, conglomeration, conglomerate, conglomeration, hive, conglutinate.  I played with words that connect to the writing to come: manifest, manifesto, proclaim, declare, display, exhibit, voice, perspective, whole, holon, view, role, inhabit, inhabitants.  I sketched what I saw in the forest – the habitat and its inhabitants.  At last, some insight into questions I have been sitting with for a couple years, began to emerge.

I have been pondering how my writing and my corporate, work identity intermingle.  It seems simple now.  My work out in the world takes place through POPULUS; it is a forest habitat for many nests, one of which is the Nest City Blog.  Over time, I will have Nest Publications,  articulating ways to work in the world and how I see cities working in the world.  Each of these will have their own life, first in the immediate nest habitat in the POPULUS forest, then further afield when they leave the nest.

A second, big question has been looming about my relationship with readers/followers.  I have been explicitly sharing bits of the emerging book.  I have made commitments to share what I see here, with you, without contemplating fully what I expect in return.  While I believe I receive much in giving freely, without explicitly naming what I ask for in return leaves me, with a deep and significant energy imbalance.

So here is the transaction underway.  I give content, awareness, and understanding about the relationship between cities and citizens.  I give my time where asked.  In return, I am given opportunities to work with passion.  I receive feedback about the value of what I offer, and what specifically is of value so I can, where passion aligns, provide more value.  I receive what I need for this work, in money and otherwise.  This whole dynamic allows me to see where this work wants to go, where it wants to take me, what I need to do to best support it.  I am a nest within which this work is unfolding.  I am the work’s immediate habitat, and also a creator of the habitat further afield in the forest.  If I am not well, I can not look after the work well.

So the retreat was a retreat into me, not writing.  Yet all about writing in the end, since I am the writer.

Before I left, the sun came out and I could see what was happening under the riverbank.  It was giving way to Me.



Social habitat key to journey


I started this chapter with a reminder that cities are meant to feel uneasy.  And living in cities, and the process of creating and recreating them, is a journey in two senses: as we travel along in our evolution and as an act of learning.

The learning that takes place in our cities is a result of our drive to endlessly think, make and do new things to improve the quality of our lives.  The work we do creates our cities.  But getting improvement means we need to scratch the itch, for the itch is what tells us that there is something to improve.  It bothers us, compelling us to do something about it.

We are itching for improvement.  At any scale (self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, region, nation, planet), we experience akrasia, the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.  This tension serves as the evolutionary driver of cities and our own development.

Our response to our habitat (our surroundings) is what drives the creation of new work, and the development of new work is a survival skill.  But this only takes place if and when we are receptive to receiving feedback from our surroundings. Our ability to seek feedback and receive it is a survival skill – at any scale.  This practice is critical for our cities, for they are habitats we create for express purpose of improving life.  We shape our cities and they, in turn, shape us.

Our ability to evolve our cities is a survival skill.  Understanding that our cities, and all their inhabitants, are on a journey together is crucial.  We do not know exactly where we are going and we never will.  What we do know is that we are going on this trip together.  Ensuring a healthy connection between our work and our habitat is crucial, and this connection is dependent upon the social habitat we create for ourselves, for it is our social habitat that invites and allows feedback to flow.  If our social habitat is not well, our actions are ill-informed and possibly harmful.  If healthy, we are wise.  For our cities to be well, we need to create a social habitat where feedback flows.

It is time to embark explicitly on a journey together where we create a social habitat that brings the best out of us, that support each of us, and the collective, in the discomfort we find when we start to scratch the things that itch.  We need to organize ourselves to physically build cities that work for us, AND we need to organize ourselves to support each other in the uneasiness of city building.

This is tough work, and critical work.  And it will never end because we are forever recreating our world in city, creating new life conditions to which we adapt, creating new life conditions to which we adapt, creating new life conditions to which we adapt etc.

Tomorrow, on Wednesday October 24, 2012, I am spending the day with 18ish to 30ish year-olds in Edmonton to declare the impossibly awesome neighbourhood possible.  For this event, I am working with The Natural Step Canada to create a social habitat in which dreams come true.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  


_____ _____ _____

This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.

A hole in the roof

My home, my nest, is getting an overhaul.  And it has a hole in its roof.  The truth is, we put the hole in on purpose, which is a little counter intuitive.  But we have our reasons.

Our home is a post-war building with very little insulation, and little or no ventilation, so we are installing a new roof on top of the old roof to improve the building’s ability to keep itself and it’s occupants warm and dry.

We decided not to simply replace the shingles, for that only solves a portion of the building’s challenges.  We have chosen to improve how the whole roof system works for the building.  We decided not to build a whole new nest; we are making an investment in this one.  She has lots to give us yet if we look after her.

So the whole in the roof…

There is a part of us that would love to make massive changes to the building.  We realize that the space gained with an addition will not be needed in less than a decade (kids are 12 and 14).  We also don’t have the strength to organize ourselves for a big reno.  We also don’t wish to put our money in a big reno.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to treat ourselves.  We chose a skylight to light up the stairwell and serve as a solar chimney on hot days.  So our contractor cut a hole in the roof.

As we stood in the stairwell today, the kids and I looked through the roof out, over the neighbourhood, right through the fresh air.  In the evening it is covered with a tarp, but as we move up and down the stairs we can hear the hum of the city.  When it rained last night, it sounded like we were sleeping in our tent.

As I was falling asleep last night listening to the rain I realized that roof has an important job.  For our species, we need to have somewhere warm and dry, our shelter, to survive.  The very roof we choose to build on our shelters reflects our life conditions.  Our home was built in a time when energy  to heat homes was abundant and cheap.  Energy is more scarce and more expensive and we are compelled to improve our building.  Our context changes and we eventually change too, and our structures, our physical habitats, with us.

It took a hole in the roof for me to realize that the new roof is really about, at a family scale, fixing our nest, our family habitat.  We are doing what we need to do to make sure the building functions well.  We are also moving beyond pure function and sorting out as a family how we can ‘dress up’ the building so it conveys our style, our identity.

We have a chance to put our mark on our nest.  As we come and go from our nest, we come and go from a place we have created for ourselves.  A home can pull on the heart strings and we are choosing colours and materials that pull on our heart strings.  We are also adding to the neighbourhood’s identity of itself. Collectively with our neighbours, we make our streets and neighbourhood.  Everyone’s choices accumulate to a feeling about our place and our collective identity.

When we chose to put in a skylight, it felt gratuitous.  But I am glad we put the hole in the roof.

Every time I travel the stairs I will be able to see the neighbourhood, the treetops and the stars from a new vantage point.