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)

City – a dance of voice and values


Figure 1 - Integral Theory 4 Quadrants (illustrated by Brandy Agerbeck)

Drawing on the work of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, Marilyn Hamilton gives us a very simple way of seeing a whole city.

Integral theory conjures four quadrants for life experience.  The two axis in Brandy Agerbeck’s illustration (Figure 1) reflect our individual / collective experiences, and our interior/exterior experiences.  The upper left quadrant is about how I show up inside myself – my inner well-being.  The upper right quadrant is about how I show up on the outside – my behavior.   The lower right is about how we show up collectively on the outside – our structures.  The lower left is about how we collectively who up on the inside – our culture.  Simply, what is going on inside – our inner weather – and what is going on outside – the structures (physical and otherwise) we create.

The understanding that integral theory offers can be used at any scale – an individual, family, neighbourhood, city, nation, species.  Hamilton applies this framework to the city, revealing four voices:

  1. City Managers – elected officials, decision-makers, institutions
  2. City Builders [1] – those that physically build our cities – developers, builders, utilities, transportation, inspectors, municipal organizations, health authorities
  3. Citizens – the people who live in our communities
  4. Civic organizations – service organizations, not-for-profits, community organizations (chamber of commerce, sierra club, united way…)
Figure 2 - Integral City Voices

At quick glance, it is easy to see how each of these voices have a hand in shaping the place we live – both the physical structure of it, as well as the social structure.  What we don’t contemplate is how each of these roles has a legitimate role to play in our creation (and re-creation) of our communities and cities.  For example, the city managers run our institutions – the very organizations that are charged with working for the public interest.  Yet the city builders are the people and organizations that actually build the city we live in.  They take the risk, they do the work, they reap the rewards and losses.  Typically, these two facets of city creation are in conflict with each other.

Figure 3 - City Purposes

In the end, these four quadrants can be quite separate from each other.  They can be very firm in their ‘silos’, with very little interaction (ie only when necessary), let alone integration.  And this can take place within each quadrant as well.  It is easy to imagine citizens in conflict with city hall, or civic organizations in conflict with city hall.  Or an environmental group and a developer in conflict.  Conflict and opportunity is everywhere.  How does this connect to the purpose of the city and our levels of organizing that emerged when asking the question, Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.  (See Part 3 and Part 4 for specifics on the Spiral diagram).

Figure 4 - City Voices May See Various City Purposes

The purpose of the city (Figure 3) and the levels of organizing evolve within and between each of the four integral city voices (Figure 4).  The purpose and levels of organizing do not necessarily advance equally, but the order of advancement is the same.  City voices could, in fact, be in several places at once; it is not a uniform experience.  The city managers could be looking for a high level of order while the city builders could be looking for a lesser degree of order.  Civil society could be looking for a higher degree of order than citizens.  As a whole, the city is a dance among voices and values.

The Integral City voices give us a way to look at the voices in the city – the perspectives.  Each voice, as an individual and as a collective, will see the purpose of the city differently depending upon the life conditions experienced.  How we see the purpose of the city, whether explicitly or implicitly, shapes how we organize ourselves as well. The city is a dance of voice and values, where we organize ourselves to thrive.

In my next post, I will explore how varied these voices and values can be.

[1]   I have used the word ‘builder’ here instead of developer to ensure a distinction from the qualitative aspects of the word ‘development’ in Chapter 1 – The City Impulse.


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)

Is an unplanned city unplanned? Part 2

… the continuing story of St. John’s, Newfoundland.  A wonderful example of how our life conditions, our habitat, connects to the purpose of settlement and cities.  (Here is Part 1.)

Five hundred years ago, St. John’s was a sheltered, ice-free harbor, a place for ships to rendezvous at the eastern point of North America.  As power and might were driving European colonial expansion, securing the lucrative Newfoundland fishery became a military imperative.  When Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived in St. John’s harbour in 1583 with 5 ships and 260 men, he announced to the men of thirty six Spanish, Portuguese, French and English fishing boats that they were under English sovereignty.[1]  The port of St. John’s was fought over: the Basques took it from the French; Dutch from the English; and several wars between the English and French wars culminated in English possession of St. John’s in 1762.

Zoom in of Sir Frances Owen's 1798 Map

The early recorded shape of St. John’s is as military life on the edge of North America.  A map of St. John’s in 1784 shows two forts (Townshend and William), the town, consisting of a series of buildings along the harbor.  Sir Francis Owen’s survey map of 1798 shows more fortification: numerous batteries, a block on Signal Hill, Fort Amherst and Fort Waldegrave.  He also notes the hospital, court house and custom house.  The settlement is still small – still a series of buildings along the harbour.  The church illustrated, but not named.  Other familiar names of the places in St. John’s are named:  Kitty Vitty [sic], Georges Pond, Cuckold’s Cove.

For the Empire, the purpose of this settlement of 3244 people is military presence to claim its stake in the fishery and it is organized to do so.  For people living in the settlement, the purpose of the settlement is more immediate: creating the conditions for survival.  The settlement specifically is a means for survival and livelihood (of the Empire and individuals) by making a living, harvesting fish from the ocean and trading it with Europe.  Fishing is a dangerous way to make a living: isolation, cold winters, scarce food, no health care, minimal contact with “the world”.  From birth until death, endless hard work on land and water provided the basics needed to survive this harsh environment.  The settlement is organized to meet these needs: a hospital, homes, wharfs, public houses and even a church, to support the settlement’s ability to make meaning of life and hardship.  The settlement is organized to survive and thrive.

By the end of the 1800s, Newfoundland secures its position as the worlds largest exporter of salt cod.[2]  In St. John’s, this means more houses at the edge of the harbor and the fish flakes on hand to preserve the catch.  As trade with others grows, more docks and wharfs appear and more houses and boats.  And the trades to support this work: pharmacies, offices, stores, warehouses, trades and suppliers.  A plan of St. Johns in 1856 shows a much larger physical settlement to accommodate a population of 30,000[3], almost 10 times that of 1798. The unplanned, disorderly city we recognize in today’s St. John’s, between the water and New Gower Street, has appeared.  However, the map itself reveals extensive order and thoughtfulness.  What the settlement needs is on hand:

  • Fortifications to protect the settlement and interests of British Empire
  • Wharfs and docks to accommodate the fishery
  • Land and buildings to accommodate
    • authority and governance  (government house and grounds, custom house, court house, public wharf)
    • various spiritual needs
    • needed services (confectionary, hotels, auction mart, fishing rooms)
    • future needs (‘site taken by telegraph company’)
    • land transportation networks
  • Clean water supply by aqueduct from Georges Pond
  • Information about who occupies premises, such as Theodore Cliff’s Auction Mart, William Woodley (Fishing Room), Brooking, Son & Co., or J.G Kidder (Boston, U.S.)

The people of St. John’s, and the authorities supporting St. John’s, provided sufficient order to meet the needs of the emerging city; the activities of fishing, preserving, storing and shipping the catch needed a town with it to support the industry. As years passed, citizens and governments alike noticed when conditions changed and something new was needed, and likewise, things no longer needed were discarded.  And so the city evolves, constantly adjusting to changing life conditions.

In the 150 years since the ‘unplanned city’ that we now recognize surfaced, life conditions continue to shape St. John’s.  Geography continued to play a significant role: Marconi’s first transatlantic (wireless) telegraph is sent to Signal Hill in 1901 from Cornwall, England.  A Coronation Souvenir Map, 1937 shows a city still expanding.  In World War II the fortifications were again used to protect transatlantic shipping routes and America’s most Eastern point of land from the attack of German U-boats.  Torpedo nets were set up across the narrows to protect the harbor.  New gun batteries were placed at Fort Amherst, and the American military base, Fort Pepperell, was built. The territorial impulse expanded from the British Empire to the Allied Forces.

Our times change the activities of the city: the decline in demand for salt cod and the increase in demand for frozen fish in the mid 1900’s industrialized fishing patterns; the decline of fish stocks resulted in the 1992 fishing moratorium and economic hardship.  The late 1990s brought offshore oil production – 100 million barrels of oil in 2010 for Newfoundland and Labrador – and St. John’s role as the primary offshore energy supply and service center for East Coast Canada.  Today, cruise ships regularly visit St. John’s as part of their ‘Operation Titanic’, ‘Voyage of the Vikings’ and ‘Top of the World’ expeditions.

St. John’s sits right where the land meets the water, connecting the past with the present and the future.   The sheltered, ice-free port is strategically located 500 years ago and today.  In reality, this port city never existed in isolation; it has always been about connections, a meeting place.  It served as a rendezvous site and safe harbour for European nations 500 years ago.  It supported the connection between Europe and the North America through the fisher.  It connects communities by providing supplies and services with other Newfoundland and Labrador communities, with Canada and the United States, and ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean from points all around the world.  And to be all of that, St. John’s became a city.

The shape of St. John’s is derived from its geography, its purpose, the activities within and in connection to other cities.  It may not have been planned to be what it is today, but it is certainly  not unintentional.  Is that enough to say that it is unplanned?  It did what it needed to do in each stage of its development.  Does ‘planning’ mean that it should have done more than respond to the life conditions at each stage of development?

In my next post, I will bring the pattern to light: that there are evolving purposes to cities.  

Cited Sources –

[1] Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of Canada: Canada’s History Illustrated with Original Maps, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., Vancouver (2002) p. 35

[2] Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage: Fisheries.  Available at

[3] In 1857, 30,476 people resided in St. John’s. Statistics Canada. Nfld Table I – Dwellings, Families, Population, Sexes, Conjugal Condition, etc., 1857 – Newfoundland(table), 1857 – Census of Newfoundland (Population/Sexes/Conjugal Condition) (database), Using E-STAT (distributor).\English\SC_RR-eng.htm

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.

Inter-city tournaments

As I spent  the long weekend at a soccer tournament, I pondered what it means to be at a tournament – for both 11 year olds and for cities.  Immediately to mind is Marilyn Hamilton’s work on Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive.

In her blog, Hamilton writes Howard Bloom’s story of the honey bee, and the roles in the beehive.  There are four roles that form a strategy for individual adaptation, hive innovation and species resilience.  These roles ensure the beehive is adaptable to its surroundings:

  1. Conformity enforcers – 90%.  Find the pollen by doing what the majority of beehive is doing.
  2. Diversity generators – 5%.  Find alternative sources of pollen.
  3. Resource allocators.  Reward successful behaviour of diversity generators and resource allocators by putting resources where the ‘return’ is favourable.
  4. Inner judges.  Work with the resource allocators to ensure the hive meets its sustainability goal of generating 40 pounds of honey per year.  When conformity enforcer bees come back to the hive with less pollen they engage with the new information from diversity generators.
  5. Inter-group Tournaments.  The competition between hives that share territory (their eco-region).

For Hamilton, “the Inter-group tournaments operate at the level of species survival – ensuring any hive that gets an edge in the innovation and evolution curve is the one most likely to survive and pass on its learning.”  Inter-group tournaments advance not just a hive, but the species.

So how does a soccer tournament for 11 year olds fit into this picture?  To begin, let’s contemplate the basic transaction.  A team of 16 kids is learning how to play the game of soccer. They are serious about the game and have joined a club team to play competitively.  They have a coaching staff that is keen to give the kids opportunities to play the game and to play against teams that challenge them.  For the coaches of this team in particular, the tournament is not about winning at this age, but about having time to play – in games, rather than practice – to try out the technical training they receive between games.  In most tournaments, the team gets to expand its horizons.  They get an opportunity to play with unfamiliar teams.  They get a chance to advance their game – technically, physically, mentally – as individuals and as a collective.
They are at the tournament to better themselves.  That may mean winning, it may not.  The purpose of this Inter-group tournament, for this team, is to improve the game for each player and the team.
This is where the city comes in.  Competition between and comparison of our cities is part of a naturally occurring aspect of human life in that it compels us to be the best we can be.  We always have a choice about what the purpose of the “tournament”.  For some cities, it really is about survival in the strictest sense.  For others, it is simply about a learning journey and putting ourselves in situations where we are challenged, for their is no improvement without challenge.
For our cities, if we stop striving to improve, we risk losing our ability to survive at all.  The honeybees and the coaches of 11-year-olds have some insight for us:
  1. Most of us will conform with the behaviour of others around us.
  2. A handful of us will regularly seek out new ways of doing things.
  3. There are people in positions to reward (and withhold reward) our performance.
  4. There are people in positions to assess our performance.
  5. We advance our contributions with competition.

For our life in cities (and elsewhere), this means:

  1. It is natural and appropriate to conform and be part of a team.
  2. It is natural for some of us – but not all of us – to look for new ways of doing things.
  3. There are naturally occurring boundaries on our efforts (referees, coaches, supervisors, parents).
  4. It is appropriate to assess performance related to an identified goal.
  5. We learn about ourselves – and where we need to improve – when we see how we “stack up” against others.

In the end, this little blog is a reminder for me that cities, and the relationships within and between cities, are complex adaptive systems.  As the bees adapt to ensure they create 40 pounds of honey each year while also supporting their habitat that allows them to do so, I wonder what the similar goal is for humans and cities.  The purpose of the tournament over the weekend was not to win the tournament, and this makes a huge difference to the learning opportunity for the players and the team.  A city, on the whole, isn’t out to “win” either.

What performance goals do we set for our cities?  

What efforts to we make to reach those goals?

How will we know when we reach them?


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

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.

The purpose of the city: create conditions for conflict

This thought just struck me – what if the purpose of the cities/towns/villages is to bring people closer together?  And the closer we get to each other, the more conflict there is.  Is the purpose of the city then to generate conflict?  What is the purpose of generating conflict?

Conflict generates dissonance, a distinct or subtle sense that things are not right.  A city, just like a person, can sit quite a while with the feeling that things are not quite right before we decide to take action.  Smoking in restaurants, idle-free parking, deciding to support active transportation are all collective decisions that have come about as a result of conflict in a community.

There is a pull in us to be closer together, but we also push each other away, to not live too close to each other.  We resist being close, because we resist being in conflict.  As a city planner and community volunteer I regularly hear people – on the public record and off – say they do not want people close to them, especially more people close to them.  I wonder if we resist the pull to be closer to people because it brings conflict with it, and we tend to either avoid conflict wherever possible, or even stir it up, neither of which takes acknowledges of the wisdom within conflict.  What are we missing as a result?

I am left with a series of questions:

  1. What if I/we let conflict teach me/us?
  2. What would happen to cities if I/we welcomed and invited conflict for the purposes of generating new understanding?
  3. What if I/we viewed conflicts as opportunities?
  4. What if I/we found ways to work through and beyond conflicts?

In the end, I notice that when I work through conflict, I arrive a new understanding.  I change.  Is that what I/we am/are afraid of when avoiding conflict?

City By Design

Edmonton's children: Where they live, where they learn (Share Edmonton)The Edmonton Journal’s Sarah O’Donnell and Edmonton programmer Mack Male, have painted a picture for Edmonton residents and decision makers about how our city is growing, especially in light of recent Edmonton Public Schools decisions to close inner city schools.

The article and mapping show us where young families are living, and by implication where schools are needed based on the numbers of children nearby. Using this logic, it makes perfect sense to close schools where there are fewer children.  Need is based on numbers of children, no more no less.  Families move to the suburbs and school trustees follow the families. It’s that simple.

Or is it?  This conversation seems to make several assumptions.  I offer several below to test if they are the assumptions we are using, and /or if we wish to consciously create a new set of assumptions.  They drive how we build and adjust the city we live in, the city we are designing while living in it.

Assumption 1:  Growth just happens. Growth happens where we choose to make it happen.  Cities choose where growth will happen and has a legislative framework to guide growth.  Ultimately, the decision makers are City Council.  There are, however, many other decision makers that influence how and where we build: home buyers, developers and builders, school boards, health providers, realtors, etc.  We spend a lot of time and energy designing and building infrastructure to accommodate us living in this place together, and it is not haphazard. It takes years (and decades) to plan for Anthony Henday, LRT routes, water and wastewater systems, electricity, gas and our extensive roadway system.  We build all of this in the public eye.  None of it “just happens.”

Assumption 2:  We have unlimited funds for infrastructure now and in the future. We expand our city without contemplating the full costs of doing so.  We let school buildings close.  We let vacant land remain vacant when servicing infrastructure is near by.  We let land, and all the utilities serving that land, remain underutilized.  If we are not able to maintain our current infrastructure well now, how do we expect to do so in the future?  City Hall, for example, faces huge capital and operating budget challenges, yet we continue to spread ourselves thin.  We behave as if we have unlimited revenue now and in the future.  Are our pockets (as taxpayers) that full?

Assumption 3:  We need a lot of space from our neighbours. It seems that having oodles of space – in our yards and homes – drives Edmonton’s design.  Why are we afraid of being close to other people?  Or sharing park space instead of large private yards?  What is behind this?  What makes neighbours bad, especially if there are a lot of them?  Perhaps the devil is not in the density, but in the design of how we build the buildings and the space around them.  What if we built exciting spaces and ensured the services were on hand – like schools, LRT – to create viable neighbourhoods.  Viable from a social, environmental and fiscal perspective.  We have yet to really pay for all this space we are enjoying.

Assumption 4:  School boards don’t build cities – City Hall does. Schools have an absolutely critical role to play in physically building cities – look at the schools and green spaces everywhere.  They also play a key role in supporting the well-being of neighbourhoods. Schools are critical formal and informal gathering places that help make a neighbourhood healthy.  A school board’s decisions are critical.  They are not isolated from everyone else’s actions.  Our city builders include school systems (secondary and postsecondary), health systems, energy and water systems, city hall, and our builders and developers.  No one entity or initiative works completely in isolation – they all have a piece of the neighbourhood puzzle.

What if we switched those assumptions for the following principles in decision making at many scales (from citizen up to a large city network of organizations):

  1. Use current infrastructure before building new
  2. Create and design for exciting spaces where people want to spend time
  3. Bring nature to the people and people to nature
  4. Create and support a transportation system that moves people and goods efficiently (rather than the most cars/trucks efficiently)
  5. Integrate the interests and dreams of citizens, community organizations, our city institutions and our city builders
  6. Consider the cumulative costs of our city design choices – actively seek feedback on our choices

I suspect that these principles seem innocuous, but they are not when we  have the feedback systems in place to truly understand if our actions are in line with our goals.  The City of Edmonton, in creating and providing open source data, is providing a critical feedback loop for Edmontonians to understand how the city we are creating works.  There are exciting conversations ahead in Edmonton’s future.

Our collective actions -as  citizens, community organizations, school systems, business owners, city government, health providers, developers, builders, realtors, home buyers, etc.  – create our city.   Is it the one we want?

I wonder if the evidence shows that we are getting what we want, or if we are getting what “just happens.” ttp://