Cities need quality feedback from habitat

Figure A - City Dynamic

A city that meets our needs pays attention to three critical relationships within the city’s habitats:

  1. between economic life and social habitat;
  2. between social habitat and physical habitat; and
  3. between economic life, through social habitat to physical habitat.

In the first relationship, between our economic life and our social habitat, we make personal investments to come up with ideas and turn them into new work. Likewise, how we organize ourselves shapes our collective investment in the idea – the labour we put to it, the skills we put to it, or simply the ‘human potentialities’, as Jane Jacobs put it, shape what becomes of the idea.  In the workplace or in a community, for example, new ways of thinking, making and doing new things emerge when welcome; they likely remain invisible or nonexistent if the social habitat is hostile.

At a societal level, sometimes we just are not ready yet for new things until conditions change.  Sixty years ago my home was built with no insulation.  Energy prices were low and the notion of human-caused climate change did not exist.  In contrast, today we have building codes with minimal requirements for energy efficiency and government grants to upgrade older homes.  As our social habitat changes, so does our work.  And as our work changes, so does our social habitat.  Notice the adjustments we have made to life with computers, the internet, social media, etc.

This relationship between our social habitat and our economic life is critical to Jacobs’ refueling principle: “… no matter how efficient a cow may be, if it doesn’t self-refuel, it’s a dead cow.  Self-refueling is so fundamental to survival, and to all other process of life made possible by survival, that conceptions of whether it is a good or bad thing are pointless.”[1]  The ideas that survive in cities (new work) must be applied or used for economic life to thrive.  This is the essence of refueling – capture the good ideas, let new ideas emerge from them, try them out, see if more new ideas emerge.  The more this takes place, the stronger and healthier our economic life.  In our social habitat, we must create the appropriate ‘equipment’ to capture and make use of the ideas, as well as finding additional ways to capture ideas.  The social habitat supports, hinders, or removes our ability to self-refuel.  This is where we demonstrate our tolerance for diversity, new work and change.

The second relationship in the city habitat is between the social habitat and the physical habitat.  This is where we notice our physical conditions and whether they are changing or not.  This relationship is about our receptivity to our physical reality, when we notice how habitat creates us and how we create habitat. An open relationship between our social and physical habitats is exemplified by our ability to take in the good and bad news.

The third relationship in the city habitat, between economic life and physical habitat involves travelling through the social habitat.  Our social habitat creates the conditions for a relationship with our physical habitat and our economic life and between our physical habitat and our economic life.  In this relationship we recognize explicitly that the city affects our work and that our work affects our city.  We boldly look for feedback to link the three spheres.

Each of these relationships involves our social habitat, where there are degrees of mutual support and information exchange.  On a continuum, we are either open to the exchanges between habitats, or closed.  Like a tap, the choice is open with maximum flow, or closed with no flow.  In the middle the tap is open partway, with flow constricted.  And the degree of relationship compounds: the first two relationships must be open in order for the third relationship to take place.  If one is open only partially, the third relationship will also be partial; it is only as open as its constituent relationships.

As a whole, the city is a habitat that encompasses our economic, social and physical habitats.   Our social habitat allows the new work that creates and recreates our cities to take place in the context of our physical habitat.  This means that new work is needed to create a social sphere that allows the necessary data to go back and forth between our physical environment and our economic life.  The quality of the relationship between our economic life and our social and physical habitats dictates our ability to generate cities that meet our economic, social and physical needs.  

This framing reorganizes how we think of balancing the well-being of economic, social and physical factors for sustainable development.   My next post will explore the value of reorganizing these elements.  

[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 68

Cites: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

To organize ourselves to ensure our species is able to sustain itself, we need to fully contemplate the relationship we have with our work, and our work’s relationship with our habitat.  Figure A illustrates this relationship.

The development of cities is a survival skill.  When I say this, I mean the development of diverse and innovative work in cities is a survival skill.  It forms what Jane Jacobs’ referred to as our economic life – the force that creates and sustains cities.  The work we do creates our cities.  This post begins to articulate further the relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat.

Economic Life

At the center of the illustration is economic life – the sphere where we work.  Our work, at a minimum, is to ensure personal well-being of self and family.  It most often involves a relationship with something, or someone else.  If no one did any work, if no one ‘lifted a finger’ we would not exist. There is always work to do.  We have to make an effort to survive; it doesn’t just happen.  

The location of work varies greatly: it can be at home, out in the fields or the barn, on a construction site, in an office, or on a train.  Our work is generally a transaction for something in return.  When times are tight, work may be building shelter and growing food for family.  If the skills to do this are not on hand, we work for others in return for those skills, or do something to barter for those skills.  Moreover, the work done in cities is a transaction that results in money for the worker that is exchanged for shelter, food, clothing.  And, if affluent enough, the worker purchases additional things for enjoyment.  Or we may make work transactions with no money changing hands and instead a service changes hands, such as when we volunteer for a community event or work in our homes.  There are paid and unpaid jobs everywhere.

The common thread in our work lives is a transaction with others.  Very rarely, as a species, do we live alone.  We are regularly in contact with others and we have chosen to live in communities, towns and ever-growing cities, and the source of our contact is in the exchange of work.  Our economic life, the sphere in which we exchange our work with one another, is at the heart of the dynamic from which cities are created and recreate themselves.  But it is not as simple as being in contact with each other.  New work must be generated.

At the scale of the city, our economic life is the accumulation of all our work, combining and interacting, transacting.  Our work creates our social, physical and economic worlds; this is what builds our cities.  We inherit our physical habitat, but our work changes our habitat.  We build settlements, roads, swimming pools and airports.  We all build and create: individually we plant flowers, maintain our homes, build garages; collectively we build highways, schools, and businesses.  The outer ring of the illustration is our physical habitat, which is both the habitat we are given and the habitat that is physically created by our work.

Physical Habitat

The outer ring of this illustration is the physical habitat in which we live.  A city’s very existence hangs on its environmental (physical) context.  Our economic life is very connected to our physical habitat. A settlement begins with the inheritance of a resource.  As I write from Alberta, Canada, I am compelled to notice that my province’s economic life today relies on the oil and gas resources within our boundaries.  As we have developed this resource, our physical habitat has changed along with our activity.   Oil wells, mines, equipment and roads cover the landscape.  We have grown cities and built new cities to accommodate the extraction of oil and gas for cities across the planet.

Our physical habitat also includes the spaces we do not include as traditionally being within the city.  It must include all of the land that supports the city: the land and water from which food is grown and water is provided for citizens.  It includes these resources and others that allow us the life we have: transportation, buildings, recreation, business, government, etc.  It includes the impact of our activity, individually and locally, as well as collectively and globally, on our planet.

At the outset of a settlement, the physical habitat gives us the opportunity to develop new work with a resource.  We have also, historically, created new work to accommodate a changing climate.  New work in the context of our habitat continues to be an operating principle today.  The habitat for most humans is now the city, which generates the conditions for more diverse work, which means we generate more change to which we must adapt.  The physical habitat we build – cities – generates the conditions for more new work, which grows our cities.  In the middle of these two elements is our social habitat, the connective tissue between our economic life and our physical habitat.

Social Habitat

From our African ancestors until now, it is clear that we are social creatures that gather and work together to ensure we do more than simply survive.  Whether implicit or explicit, the reason we gather is that it affords us the ability to create the conditions to find new and improved ways of doing things.  Together, rather than alone, we best face the challenges put to us.  Not only do we physically create cities to face our challenges, but we also create a social habitat conducive to this.  The quality of our social life – our social habitat – has an impact on our economic life and our ability to create the conditions to thrive.  Cities are where we organize ourselves with social structures to create the world we live in, and, of course, be recreated by what we create.  Cities are the world in which we look after self and other.

The City Emergence Dynamic

Our economic life is at the heart of our ability to create and recreate cities that respond to our changing world.  Our social and physical habitats are always in flux and we shift and adjust our behaviour – our economic life – to learn and evolve.  Building cities is a never-ending quest to do much more than survive.   This quest takes place at many scales in the city, in what Marilyn Hamilton has articulated as a nest of city systems (Figure B).  Moreover, our very work to adjust (at any scale) creates new conditions to which we must respond again, and again, and again…  Cities are the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.  

In this week’s posts, I will explore:

    1. the relationships between economic life and habitat in more detail; and
    2. how these relationships show up at scale (self, neighbourhood, city etc.)





Be a part of feedback loops in your city

We only know how well our city is doing when we have feedback loops, giving us data on our city’s performance.  I have been exploring to date the relationship between our economic life – and our ability to create diverse, new work – and our city habitat.  The only way to fully comprehend the relationship between our work and the cities we build (our habitat) is through feedback systems.

A couple of simple feedback loops have popped up in my city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada this week about the city we are building.  The topics: a growth coordination strategy and design guidelines for our new neighbourhoods.

The City of Edmonton released this week a draft Growth Coordination Strategy, highlighting the  necessary steps to coordinate the city’s population growth to ensure environmental, social and fiscal sustainability.  This is an effort to consider more information as we make decisions about how to build our city.   The local news media have covered this story, providing feedback to the wider population: Edmonton Journal, Metro News,  Even City Councilor Don Iveson has information for constituents on his web site.  Little bits and pieces were on the radio this morning, and a bit on twitter under the #yeg hashtag.  It’s emerging as a public conversation about what we are building, who pays for it and what it costs.

In the meantime, Edmonton is developing design guidelines for Edmonton’s new neighbourhoods.  The City is asking the public what they think are the building blocks of great new neighbourhoods.  At the beginning of this project, the City is offering a way for the public to reflect on the city we are building.  Everyone can see the collection of photos people are posting on flickr or pinterest.  Everyone can see the twitter feed using the hashtag #yegDNN.  There is even a blog for the project.  Most importantly, citizens are discussing in IdeaShare the city we are building and what they want from it.  (Here is a link for more information on this project.)

The work of creating Edmonton to day did not rely only on planners and engineers.  Politicians make critical decisions about infrastructure.  Business owners and leaders make decisions about where to locate their business.  Builders and land developers choose what to build.  Citizens make decisions every day that impact the physical shape a city takes, and certainly the spirit of a city.  NGOs also make key decisions that affect how a city takes its shape.  So how do a couple of reports in City Hall serve the role of feedback loops?

City Hall prepares reports, which is one form of feedback. It also creates opportunities for citizens to discuss and reflect on our city.  Even if you don’t read the document, the media coverage is helping us collectively reflect on what we build, where we build it, why we build it and what it costs. If you are a citizen of Edmonton, I invite you to take a look at the Growth Coordination Strategy.  More importantly, they will be asking for citizen feedback.

In the case of the design guidelines for new neighbourhoods, the IdeaShare is a fantastic way for citizens to see what we collectively think about the city we are building for ourselves.  If you are looking for ideas, you might want to check out Edmonton’s promising practices that have been documented.  There is no report yet for this project, but you have an opportunity to help it take its shape.  More importantly, you can reflect and be part of shaping our city habitat here in Edmonton.

In future posts, I will be articulating more intense feedback loops.  In the meantime, look for ways to provide and be a feedback loop.  Be a part of the city’s feedback system.  That work will certainly create city habitats that serve us well.



Evolving cities is a survival skill

Over millennia, settlements and cities have started and thrived when and where the physical context was right, in an appropriate ‘habitat’.  They have declined – and ended – when the physical habitat changed and the city didn’t or couldn’t adjust.  A city may decline when the economy struggles, but the ultimate decline comes when there are physical limitations, such as no food or water.

A city and the citizens that make up the city rely on its physical habitat for its wellbeing.  We rely fully on our physical inheritance and the decisions we make about what to do with our inheritance.  Authors James Lovelock, Bill McKibben, Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery argue that as a species we have overextended ourselves; we have overused our inheritance.  The result may be an over correction, as nature does with any species that reaches too high a population.  It is not difficult to imagine this possibility given the rate that our population growth (overall and in cities) is accelerating.

Perhaps, unlike other earlier civilizations, we will cultivate our capacity to be conscious to what is happening around ourselves, to adapt, and survive.  The stakes, though, are higher this time.  This time the physical context we have to adjust to is planetary in scale, not local.  The floundering of ancient civilizations did not mean the extinction of the human species.

In the 1960s, Lovelock first articulated Earth system science in what became Gaia theory.  Seeing Earth as a living system, he defines our home as “not the house or the street or the nation where we live, but the Earth itself.”[1]  Earth, or Gaia, is an emergent system on which climate and organisms are tightly coupled and evolve together.”[2]  As things change, we adjust to them.  Gaia does the same thing.  We change her and she adjusts.  Lovelock’s point is that she will self-regulate to survive.  She doesn’t care if we survive or not, so if we wish to survive we need to heighten our abilities to adapt to the changing world.  To do that, we need to heighten our abilities to notice our habitat.  If cities are engines of innovation – and innovation is the engine of cities – our understanding of cities and habitat must advance.

Keeping an eye on our habitat, and responding appropriately, is a survival skill – one that we as a species can choose to hone.  Earlier this week, I wrote that the development of cities is a survival skill.  Perhaps this would be better stated this way: the evolution of cities is a survival skill.  Ancient civilizations met their demise because of a lack of ability to adjust to changing life conditions: weather, food supply, environmental disasters or economic conditions.  Our habitat can change for years over large geographies, such as the North American drought of the 1930s.  Our habitat can change in hours, such as the forest fire that swept through the town of Slave Lake, Canada in the summer of 2011, destroying a third of the town.  In the longer term, there is debate about whether we are on a trajectory of environmental demise as a result of climate change caused by human activity (which I do believe).  But the debate is moot.  Regardless of the cause, using any metric, it is hard to ignore that the world is no longer the place with which we have become familiar and that it is constantly changing.

The very nature of cities is changing.  As cities grow, the very systems we put in place to organize ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, are in flux.  The physicality of cities (what we build) is changing. Cities grow and adapt to the needs of citizens over time.  The economic systems we create also change constantly: sometimes dramatically.  Our social systems are also changing.  All of these systems emerge as a result of our work.  As much as these systems and structures create who we are, at the same time we are creating them.  We shape ourselves in relation to our environment, our physical, economic and social habitats.

So far, I have explored our economic life and it’s relationship in a physical habitat.  In my next post I will add a third city habitat – the social habitat – and lay out the dynamic relationship of these three city habitats. 


[1]   James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, p. 2

[2]   James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, p. 113



The development of cities is a survival skill

At the scale of self or the city, economic life is the development of new ideas in response to changing life conditions.  Something changes and either consciously or unconsciously, we adapt our ways of thinking, making and doing.  New work emerges.  This is the force that drives the growth of cities.

Last week’s posts were the first of my efforts to blog my book – Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  I started out with this question: Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?  I presented the intense proliferation of cities on Earth and our population growth.  In my second post, Driven to do more than merely survive, the work of Spencer Wells is front and center.  Using genetics, he has charted the migratory odyssey of the human population from a small African Village 10,000 years ago to our current population across the planet.  In an evolutionary eye-blink, our population has blossomed.  In an even shorter timeframe the number and size of our cities has grown significantly.   In my third post, Cities are engines of innovation, I reach the conclusion that cities are engines of innovation AND that innovation is an engine of cities.  As we find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things at every turn, we constantly create new work.  This is our economic life, the heart of innovation in cities.

Drawing on the work of nineteenth century embryologists and evolutionists, Jane Jacobs highlights the patterns in the generation of new work, informing us about the economic well-being of cities and how they come about.  The insight I gain from Jacobs work[1] falls into 3 categories:

  1. Habitat
  2. Relationship
  3. Meshes at scale
Figure A - Our Work in Habitat

Our habitat shapes our work, and as our habitat changes, our work changes and adapts with it (Figure A).  When fuel prices rise we become compelled to seek new technologies for fuel efficiency.  When a child is born our work within the family shifts.  When a resource is found, we find ways to extract and make use of that resource.  When the global economic marketplace struggles, we look for new ways to organize ourselves.  New work arrives in response to our habitat – our economic, social and physical contexts of the time and place.   New work does not arrive for the sake of change, but is purposefully in response to something –  known or unknown.

Figure B - Collective Work in City Habitat

New work is in relationship with other new work.  To begin, all new work builds on previous new work that has become conventional, or commonplace (Figure B).  All new work offers something different and may become the next commonplace work upon which future new work can be built.  As Jacobs puts it, new work has lineage and will serve in turn as the basis for new work.[2] The development of new work also depends on the co-development of other new work; there is significant interdependence.  Nothing happens in isolation.

The pattern of the development of new work is not a tidy linear process, but an endless mesh of interconnections that are both seen and unseen, an open-ended process that creates diversity and increased complexity.[3]  When repeated over and over, greater diversity and complexity are created.  Moreover, this pattern takes place at all scales of time and size: at the scale of self, family, city, nation, or planet; an hour, a day, a lifetime or 3000 years.  In Figure B, the work of each individual is included in the economic life of the city.  The self is nested in the city.

Figure C - Hamilton's Nested Hierarchy of City Systems

For Jacobs, the ‘development’  of new work means a qualitative change – new kinds of work, a greater diversity of work, new ways of working.  The cumulative effect of these qualitative adjustments is a world that becomes larger in scale and more complex.  Our world has evolved from a village to a territory, nation, planet and universe.  Each rise in scale brings new understanding and more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond, etc.  Marilyn Hamilton, author of Integral City, and Integral  City Meshworks blogger, has caught this phenomenon of cities and scale.  Imagine a nested holarchy of city systems (Figure C), where each holon (circle) is a system responding to its own life conditions.  As Hamilton puts it, “The city as a human system is a nest of systems; one cannot just look at the city as a whole or integral system without recognizing that it is made up of a series of whole systems.”[4]

At the end of my last post, I wrote that growing cities turns out to be a survival skill.  This is why:  A city with a well-developed economic life – where new work is created in response to changing conditions, in relationship with other work at various scales of complexity – is a city that has the ability to adjust and adapt and evolve.  

Cities in particular, where we are constantly changing our habitat, require us to adjust and adapt: develop new work.  For each of us, our work, and our approach to it, adds the necessary diversity to the economic life of our cities.  As Jacobs point out, new work is the qualitative development of economic life, the expansion of economic life is the quantitative implementation of new work.  

In tomorrow’s post, I will examine the word ‘habitat’. and its relationship with the quantitative expansion of economic life.





[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, and The Economy of Cities

[2]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p.24

[3]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 17

[4]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, p. 65