Improvement means scratching the itch


Last week, I attended the Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Institute of Planners conference in Banff.  As I was there, I was noticing that I was very uneasy, itchy.  While there, I posted a blog about scratching the itch, recognizing that 800 of us were there to collectively scratch an itch – to find and implement better ways of organizing ourselves and our cities to work better.

This is a universal itch for humanity, to make our world a better place, at any scale.  I observed at choice last week about what to do with the itch.  Sometimes it is best to ignore the itch and let it go away.  Other times, the best thing to do is scratch,  inviting the discomfort that comes with learning something new.

At the conference, I chose not to itch.  Today I do.

For the last 15 years I have had great difficulty giving my full attention to speakers at conferences.  I am often, but now always, physically unable to sit and listen to any length of time.  The reason for this is becoming more clear to me.

Over time, I have begun to choose very carefully where I spend my time.  At conferences, I choose to go to sessions that call me.  I take time to generate the issues that I was tackling with at work.  It may have looked to others like I was not paying attention, but I was exploring what was working for me, and not, allowing the words of presenters to pop in and out of my head.  It is a wonderful opportunity to generate a plethora of ideas and ways to improve my work.  It was time well spent.

As I became older and started to meet more people, the conference also became an opportunity to connect with people.  My itch this week was how little opportunity there was to connect with each other.  A professional conference is a room full of professionals engaged in parallel play.  Each of us is taking in what we find of value for our personal, individual work.  We are a collective because we do the same work.  We do not have the power of a collective that engages in deepening our work together, learning how to create the social habitats our cities need to reach their full potential.

Planners work out of a passion for our cities.  As our last speaker went overtime, allowing no questions from the audience, I was acutely frustrated.  And many of the audience rose to their feet in ovation.  We celebrated a one-way transaction.  No interaction.  No feedback.  In fact, we celebrated this one-way information delivery.

This stopped me in my tracks.

I see the value in the presenter’s message.  I see it was appreciated, for it articulates our shared understanding of city life, and a shared intention to improve city life.  And I see that the presentation also, in its delivery, was anti-itch cream.  It maintained the status quo of our shared frustration, slowly-paced change.  We didn’t scratch.

The maintenance of the status quo takes place because there was no opportunity for the interaction of our minds, hearts and souls as we work to similar purpose – the well-being of our cities.  We are able to hide in ourselves because in traditional conference settings there is no, or minimal, opportunity for:

  1. the audience to ask questions and help the presenter share insight relevant to their work
  2. the audience and presenter to hear what resonated with the audience
  3. the audience and presenter to hear what the audience struggled to understand
  4. the collective to make collective meaning
  5. the collective to discern, together a collective course of action

Just as our cities need quality feedback, so too does any group of people wishing to take conscious action together.  Conscious action does not come from hiding.  In fact, as I moderated a session on public engagement strategies, I noticed a further challenge: while together, we do not practice our practice.  We spoke about engaging the public in new ways.  And we did not engage the audience in new ways.  So the audience did not experience something new.  They only heard about it.

And here I am writing about it, telling you about what I see, but not giving you the experience of what it could be.

There is value in simply receiving information, and sitting to get it.  The value of this diminishes, however, when we do not create opportunities to digest individually and collectively the information that comes our way.  I itch for balance.  To hear what others have to say, and to figure out what WE think it all means, and what WE and I ought to do about it.  What we need is no different than what our cities need.  There is a big gap between what we want to do and how we go about learning how to do it.  Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle hearing about it, we can’t learn to work with communities, stakeholders, citizens and cities hearing about it either.  We need to practice what it means to live, work and serve our cities.  We need to practice active citizenship, rather than excessive, passive downloads of information.

I love this irony: I figured out the language for this tension as I sat and listened to a plenary speaker at a 2008 planning conference.  My body snapped up straight as Bill Sanford said these words: ‘Akrasia – Greek for the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.’

Akrasia implies a gap, a space for improvement that compels us to work to make things better.  The conventional conference has its time and place to share information, but let’s not mistake it for the development of citizens, or professionals.  From time to time, it is the right thing to do, to receive information and hide ourselves.  I am wary of when it tucks us away from working for what we want.

What we need more of: stepping into the uncertainty and unease of living in community and dreaming together explicitly about what our cities are and can be for us, and what we need to be for them.



Two poems to sum up


The two poems below emerged as I participated in last week’s Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference held in Banff, Canada.


Perpetually unfinished cities

We do not take

this place for granted

as stewards

we threw away

our cities

we now reclaim

the future


changing climate

where more is better

spirally upward

to walkable urban neighbourhood

places making


perpetually unfinished

serially created

with no fixed destination

the city’s conduits

are webs of learning

recovering, adapting


Learning cities

learning cities

are naturally


connecting everything

we do


simultaneous success and failure

catalyzing complexity



Recalibrating the purpose of planning

Figure 1 - Evolving City Purposes

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

Figure 2 - Evolving Modes of Organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3 - City "Nestworking"

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

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

[3]   As quoted by Hodge and Gordon

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

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


Other Sources –

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

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

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

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

Luke and Yoda

Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate and Slide;ology, belives that we each have the power to change the world with our ideas.  She notices that when an idea is embedded in a story arc, the audience gets attached to ideas and they take root.  When a story is told, we physically react, and it is through this process that ideas take hold in us.

Any presentation, then, is about the story and the audience.  The story’s arc is grounded in the hero, but the hero is not the presenter, as we usually think: it is the audience.  In her TEDx EAST talk, Duarte offers the perfect metaphor: the presenter is not young Luke Skywalker out to save the world, but his mentor, Yoda.  The presenter is not the star of the show; the presenter is more like Yoda, who helps the audience move from one thing to another.

There is more to this metaphor than meets the eye:

  1. The world is full of Lukes.  There is not one Luke Skywalker that will save the world, but 7 billion.  It is not up to one hero to make a difference, but the hero in each of us.
  2. Yoda intelligence is everywhere.  There are, all around us, people with Yoda intelligence offering their wisdom to anyone willing to receive.
  3. The Luke in us works on inner well-being.  As was the case with young Luke, heros have moments when they are frustrated and do not believe in themselves. In this mode they have great difficulty hearing the messages of their mentors.  It is life’s journey to face difficulty and find peace and strength in such difficulty.
  4. The Yoda in us notices the right challenge at the right time for apprentices.  Each of us will at several points in life play the role of mentor or coach. Our default is to imagine that we must provide direction to our apprentices, but recall Yoda, who sits patiently, waiting for Luke to learn at his own pace.  He knows what challenge will, at the right time, best support Luke’s learning.  And he remains ever calm and patient with the apprentice while the angst of learning is taking place.

With so many Lukes and Yodas in the world, the odds are for us, not against us.

I dream of a city…

A poem from the WE space at the United Way’s gathering with John Ott yesterday:
I dream of a city
truly great
for everyone
and I wonder where
we will put the line
between possible and
or will there be no line
and just an invitation to
my story led me
with allies
supporting aspirations
to evoke new stories
collective knowing and
no formula
will suspend certainty
or see the whole
no checklist
will seek diverse perspectives
or welcome all that arises
for formulas and checklists do not trust
the transcendent story
larger than me
the transcendent story
serving me
serving us
aligning with what is
a lifelong commitment
to what we long for

Mark’s wicked 10 year old wisdom

A 10 year old friend of mine has nailed down the simplest way to grow as a person.  I am fascinated by how simple this is – and how hard.

Mark made some errors on the soccer field last week, got put on the bench and got a “talking to” by the coach.  Mark felt really bad and hurt – he made mistakes, which made him feel bad, and his coach told him in no uncertain terms that he had screwed up.

Mark and his mom had a challenging conversation about this.  Here is Mark’s wicked wisdom:

1.     If I do something right, I want to hear about it.  I want to know what I am doing right.

2.     If I do something wrong, I want to hear about it.  I want to learn how to play the game better.

3.     It is really hard to hear that I am doing something wrong but I want to hear it anyway.

4.     At times, coaches are not so good at delivering a message.  I have to look past that because I want to hear what s/he has to say.

The gift of the sprained ankle

Sometimes you have to be hurt before you sit on the sidelines.

My outdoor soccer team decided this last summer that we would field a team for the indoor season.  We love doing this together and so off we go into a new adventure.

The morning of Game 3 I took an unexpected and tumbling trip down the basement stairs and landed in the emergency room, and left with four staples in my head.  I went to the game that night and watched from the bench.  I support my team no matter what.  Then on my first shift of Game 4 I got tangled with the opposing team’s keeper and hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle.

And so I am wondering what the Universe is telling me.  It might be about soccer, or just the phenomenon of noticing when it’s time to take to the sidelines for a bit.  A question from a couple of team mates startled me in the middle of Game 3: “are you in agony watching and not playing?”  As I reflect on this, I notice that I wasn’t in agony.  I didn’t even think of being in agony until it was mentioned.  I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just watched and enjoyed my team’s efforts.

I have a feeling that the agony, however, is setting in around this ankle.  Not only can I not play soccer for a while, I am required to keep it elevated.  I can’t be physically active.  I have to sit or lie down.  This could well drive me nuts.  It is not lost on me that also at risk, if I do not heal well, is skating, cross-country and downhill skiing.  I love winter and I consider not being able to do these things agony.

But I am curious about what windows might be opening.  One gal on my team has suggested I start doing other things to keep my fitness level up.  I could do weights, and she advises that combined with the weight I have lost I could get quite ripped!  There might be other physical activities that could serve as cross training for running and soccer, that might even improve my performance.  Beyond the physical, I can spend additional time writing and doing things I like around home.  I can find a balance of these things.  Nothing is lost when I notice that other things are gained – I just have to be open to finding them.

So the conscious choice I make is to be on the sidelines enjoying my team’s games and friendship.  The other choice I make is to receive the gift of the sprained ankle.  I see opportunities to try new physical activities and reacquaint myself with quiet things to do at home and work.  I am curious about other places where I need to step back into the sidelines and let others have a turn.

Inviting onlookers

Last week, in a room full of people milling around, I was in conversation with a handful of leaders.  A couple had leadership by virtue of position/status – senior people in an organization.   A couple of others (including myself) also by position/status in that we were the “experts” brought in to teach.  A couple of others were leaders by virtue of their ability to step up and do/say what needs to be done/said.   Just outside our circle was Onlooker.  Listening in.  Hanging on every word.  Clearly interested, but removed from the conversation.  Clearly keen to be a part of what was happening, but clearly separate.

At first, I wondered why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to jump in and join.  None of us in conversation would mind.  Clearly, we weren’t speaking of anything top secret to be having such a conversation within earshot of others.  I felt frustrated that this onlooker didn’t just step in – it seemed even sinister that Onlooker would just listen in like that.

So I made an invitation.  “Onlooker, why don’t you step into the circle?  You are welcome to join us.”  “Thank you – I was waiting for the invitation.”

Onlooker was waiting for the invitation. I was floored.

I have been sitting with this question for a few days: whose job is it to make someone feel welcome?  As I reflect, my first reaction was to question why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to step in.  I see now that there is a vital relationship between the circle and onlookers:

  • The circle could have something important for the onlooker
  • The onlooker could have something important for the circle
  • One must take initiative to make the connection
  • The other must reciprocate to make the connection
  • If the connection is not made, the possibility is lost or destroyed
  • If the onlooker wants to play, s/he must risk jumping in
  • If the circle wishes to grow and learn, it needs to seek out and invite onlookers

At the heart of this are the possibilities that come with risk.  An onlooker risks indifference or rejection in seeking to play. The circle risks having to shape and adjust to make room for someone new.  The bottom line, though, is that we all know what it feels like to be an outsider.  It is a lonely place to be – even powerless.  Not everyone is always brave and courageous in this place against the power and camaraderie of the circle, so it is necessary for the outer edge of the circle to be permeable and welcoming.

A permeable, expansive circle will:

  • Recognize the power/status of being in/out of the circle
  • Freely invite onlookers
  • Trust the onlooker brings value
  • Expect and welcome the onlooker’s turbulence
  • Adapt and adjust to turbulence
  • Notice what is understood differently

As you read this, onlooker, I invite you to my circle.

The swimming pool strategy for work

My epiphany this summer that I am just figuring out now: I use the swimming pool strategy to find meaningful work.

For a few years out of high school my brother Scott and I worked at the local swimming pool as swimming instructors and lifeguards. Wonderful work, especially in the summer.  A flexible schedule, well paid, new and unexpected friends and a lot of fun.

The challenge was that we were part of a huge pool of casual employees working part-time hours.  Each of us was lucky to get 20-26 hours a week.  When saving every penny for university in the fall, we had our eyes on the extra shifts that came up – some at a moment’s notice, others when we saw an opportunity and took it.

As I reflect on this, I see two strategies that play out for meaningful work – then and now:

Play in the pool

A hot day is a wonderful day to do what you love – play and float around in the pool.  On a hot day the pool will also fill up with hundreds of other people.  There is a head lifeguard whose job is to make sure that there are enough lifeguards keeping an eye on things and make sure everyone is safe.  But since there are not enough lifeguards in the schedule, more will be needed.

When you love your work, it shows.  You are available to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  Let the head lifeguard know explicitly that you are ready to serve when needed. While it might not be your turn on the rotation, others might not be available and voila!  There you are.  Doing what you love and ready to serve.

  1. The above applies to a hot summer day and an outdoor pool – I have to be conscious of the context each and every day
  2. I will be called on when I am needed.  If others are called, they are needed, or it is simply their turn
  3. When having fun, genuinely, I make myself more available
  4. I show up for work,  even if I don’t know I will be needed, to see what will happen
  5. Play and have fun, splash, float, swim, bob

Do the hard work

We also had our eyes on the work nobody else wanted.   We cleaned the grunge off the waterslides.  We tarred the filter tank.  Crawled into the crawlspace under the pool and then crawled into a 1’ x 3’ hole into the surge tank to scrape the slime off the walls.  Then volunteerd to do it again the next year.  We cleaned the changerooms.  In all of the above, we played music, joked around, and laughed hysterically – usually right when our boss showed up to see how we were doing.  Every time we thought we were in big trouble, especially when our boss found a big blue happy face (the clean part) on the brown floor of the changeroom.  Now we see that we were never in trouble because we were doing the work others did not want to do, we were doing it happily and we were getting the job done. Well.
  1. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to do good work
  2. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to have great fun with my mates
  3. Do grungy hard work with mates