Our Nordic modes of transportation


Our modes of transportation.png.001
Caveat – we did not travel by bicycle due to a broken arm in the family.

Last week I returned from my winter tour of the capital cities of the Nordic nations: Reykjavic, Iceland; Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and Helsinki, Finland. Over the next few weeks,  will be sorting and sifting through my thoughts about the trips, searching for better understanding of cities, both Nordic and those on the Canadian Prairies.

The first thing I noticed is that these Nordic Cities are not the same as my home city, Edmonton. The way we moved around was totally different.

We chose to stay in apartments in neighbourhoods in close proximity to the city center in each city. We were able to get groceries and all services within a couple minutes walk from each location. We were able to access public transportation in most cases right outside the building, or at most a 3 minute walk. We noticed each city had schools everywhere. We noticed streets that were alive with people and business. We noticed an explicit infrastructure for bicycles (and the bicycles!) on busy streets, along with cars and buses and trams and trolleys.

Copenhagen - multiple modes of transportation
Copenhagen, December 28, 2014

These city amenities are found in tiny pockets in Edmonton. They are are everywhere in these Nordic cities.

In contrast, our arrival was significant time in a car, stuck on a highway, then a freeway.

Back in Edmonton
Traffic no longer moving on the Anthony Henday, Edmonton, January 7, 2015

Over the next few posts, I will dig into two city patterns at work here: one that aims to serve the movement of cars, an other that aims to serve the movement of people. The cities were designed for different purposes.

The city planner in me needs to dig into what is different about there and here.

Nifty nordic neighbourhoods

In two weeks, my family and I are heading out on what we call Nordex, a wee expedition to explore – in winter – the capital cities of  Earth’s five Nordic Nations: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Source: www.chriskresser.com

The stage is set. Our journey starts with easy flights: Icelandair will take us to Reykjavik for a couple days, before taking us on to Oslo. From there we will take trains and and a boat to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, spending 4-5 days in each city.

The details are emerging. Our objective is to capture the experience of Nordic city life in winter. We don’t have a lot of time to spend in each place, so where we do spend our time matters. In choosing our accommodation, we are choosing our neighbourhoods carefully, to get a sense of the place and what life is like. This can not be done in hotels. Enter Airbnb.

Here’s how our trip is shaping up:

  • In Reykjavik, Siggi is hosting us in her downtown apartment, near the Hallgrimskirkja church. We are in walking distance of all we need, but will likely rent a car on day 2 to explore further afield.
  • We will spend the shortest day of the year in Oslo. Line is hosting us in her apartment located in an old factory building a 5 min walk from Grunerlokka, a former rundown industrial district, now a vibrant arty neighbourhood, according to The Guardian. We will have excellent public transport to Oslo (13 min to city centre).
  • On Christmas Eve, we will arrive in Copenhagen. Michael, Rikke and baby Vilfred welcome us to their apartment in Frederiksberg, before heading off for their family celebration. Frederiksberg is a municipality surrounded by the City of Copenhagen, one of many municipalities in Denmark’s Capital City Region. The physical layout of Frederiksberg is different than the rest of Copenhagen – more parks, larger villas and wider streets.
  • We will spend New Year’s in Stockholm, in Astrid’s apartment that overlooks the Sofia Church in the Sodermalm neighbourhood. We will be in “SoFo”, a neighbourhood full of eclectic shops, fashion and design stores, art galleries and good food.
  • For my birthday, we will be in the Kallio neighbourhood in Helsinki, an old labour district, where Ollie and Sarah are hosting us in their funky 1930’s apartment full of vintage Nordic design furniture. Helsinki’s traditional market square is across the street.

We’re set for an adventure, to explore the city from the inside out.




Neighbourhood soccer fields


The panic set in as we realized moments before our soccer game that the required game sheet and player cards were in a teammate’s living room.  They could be retrieved – maybe – just in time to avoid forfeiting our game.  Coach Tim hit the road – he knew it was a 7 minutes drive each way. We had 10 minutes until the formal start time. After that it was up to the referee.  Tim had 10 minutes to run a 14 minute mission.

We broke the bad news to the team. We were here to play a game that we could probably win, but we might default. We entered the field and began our usual warm up while Assistant Coach Dan spoke to the referee. As players, we were pretty sure that if we didn’t have the sheet and cards by game time, we would forfeit. It was a half-hearted warm up.

The referee decided to start the game 10 minutes late, without forfeit, if the sheet and cards arrived by then. This grace period gave Tim  20 minutes to run a 14 minute mission.

So there we were, with a much longer than usual warm-up, forever checking the clock as the numbers counted down. At first, it just felt strange to have more than 5 minutes to warm up, then the panic started to set in. After 15 minutes, Tim had not returned. I kept having to remind myself that my job, as a player, was to get ready for the game. But the game around the game was front and center when time was getting tight, with only 3 minutes left: Tim should not park, but drive right to the door and run in; we should send a fan to the door and run in the sheet and cards.

Again, a reminder to get ready for the game. The extra ‘drama’ around this game was a distraction. When Tim did return, I had to be ready to jump on the field and play.

With less than a minute to spare, after catching all possible red lights, Tim arrived with the game sheet and player cards.  We played a shorter than usual game.  The distraction didn’t win – we were ready for the game and won 4-0.

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This soccer team is a group of neighbours and friends who decided to learn to play soccer in 2008.  We practiced for a full year before fielding our first team in 2009. We have learned a lot along the way.

Game One
Game One – May 2009

In my very first blog post in 2009, What does soccer have to do with leadership?, I noticed that the the lessons we were learning on the field apply to life. Simple principles :

  1. My mate will only do her best if I give her the space she needs.
  2. To give her the space she needs, I must trust that she can do it.
  3. My worries about protecting our net harm my team’s ability to reach our goal.
  4. Trusting my mates makes me open to the play around me.

The learning, as we field a team for our 5th season this summer, continues. I have learned that even when off the field, taking time for a rest, serves time on the field (Is it time to sub off?).  At the end of season one, the words of my teammate Veronica reverberated: when I have the ball I can’t see anything else. Our discussions as a team revealed a lot about how our cities and neighbourhoods work too, about how we panic when its our turn with the ball, and how we don’t have to be comfortable with a situation to be able to see.  We just need focus, flow and fun.

There was a point when I realized that there is a game around the game: soccer isn’t really about soccer (the yellow card story). There are layers of game, and a field around the field. There is a game underway physically on the field bounded by the rules, and the strategy, influence, and even manipulation we engage in to either ignore the rules or turn them to our favour. We also learn, playing a physical game at our age (we range from 38 to 56), that we each take turns having to sit on the sidelines due to injury, losing our chance to play the game but gaining opportunities for other things. Two years ago, I received the gift of the sprained ankle, and a whole other perspective of the game: that in a given situation, I can put my energy into fighting or choose to look for unexpected avenues to explore.

As I reflect on my neighbourhood friends and our quest to learn a game new to all but one of us, I see that we are practicing, as friends and neighbours, the wisdom of a 10-year-old friend:

  1. If I do something right, I want to hear about it. I need 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, people are not so good at delivering a message, but I will look past that because I want to hear what s/he has to say.

We are growing as a team and a neighbourhood, on and off the field. Our relationships serve us in private and personal ways, and also professionally. Our relationships surface in our work in neighbourhood volunteering. Our families all connect too – it is a big soccer net supporting us and those around us.

Our work is supporting the potential in each of us.

What relationships support the potential in you?


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This post is part of Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibilities. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:


Neighbourhood is up to us



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the heart of your neighbourhood?  

Where do you bump into your neighbours?  

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This post is part of Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibilities, here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Flexibility rules


I heard this a few times last week: citizens do not want every neighbourhood to be the same; developers do not want every neighbourhood to be the same; city hall employees do not want every neighbourhood to be thesame.  Seems everyone thinks that is what we have, and the finger pointing for the reasons why is dramatic.

Recall the four Integral City voices, each with their distinct perspectives and roles as we organize our cities: civic managers, civic builders and developers, citizens and civil society.  The civic managers run our public institutions: city hall, schools, health services, etc.  The civic builders and developers physically build our cities.  Both of these voices make explicit what we need as citizens: they put our intelligence in action by creating organizations that deliver programs, services and physical structures, all of which is to serve citizens.  Civil society is the cultural voice of the city.

Each voice plays a valid role in how we organize ourselves.  All four are needed.  While each voice has myriad perspectives within it, I hear a smattering of citizens, developers and city hall employees all say the same thing: rules have a place, but the wrong rules stifle our ability to create the neighbourhoods we want.

Remember Spiral Dynamics?  Our value systems, emanating from each of us, our organizations, our neighbourhoods, our cities, nations and planet, are forever in flux in response to our changing life conditions.  It seems there is alignment of values among some portions of the Integral City voices in a call for a recalibration of the ‘rules’ that shape our neighbourhoods, a recalibration of the BLUE vMeme.

Let me be clear – not everyone sees or desires this alignment, but that does not make it less relevant.  There are citizens looking for ways to make existing neighbourhoods more interesting and they find that City Hall’s rules get in the way.  Developers and builders are looking or ways to build new neighbourhoods, or build new homes in existing neighbourhoods, that respond to the desires of citizens.  There are folks working in civil society that wish to better serve the city, and they struggle with this.  There are even City Hall employees that are looking for flexibility.  Do all these folks share the same intention?  We don’t know if they do.

This is the essential work for us in cities if we wish to create cities that serve us well: to clearly see what is we wish to achieve, our destination.  When we know what we wish to achieve, then we will know what rules are necessary.

Rules articulate standards and practices necessary to achieve an outcome.  Rules only make sense with a purpose in mind.  The growing demand for a change in rules indicates a need to declare a new destination.  The contrast appears to be a change from rules for certainty to rules for support.

What we want from rules says a lot about us.  This is the clash I see in my city: the need for rules to prescribe our future vs. the need for rules to support our emerging, unknown future.

At last week’s workshop with The Natural Step Canada, Awesome Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable City, the Integral City voices together articulated neighbourhoods for which there is no recipe.  There are no rules that will give us, with certainty, what we are aiming for.

Rules are needed, however.  They play a critical role in guiding what we create, flexing with the changing conditions.

Flexibility rules.

Are the rules in your world aligned with that they aim to do?


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

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



Cities – more like Titanic or iPhone?


At the Awesome Neighbourhoods for a  Sustainable City workshop I co-hosted last week with The Natural Step Canada, a question surfaced that is still simmering for me: Are cities more like the Titanic the iPhone?

Windmills to power the city – without noise

We started the day building models of awesome neighbourhoods that contribute to the city’s sustainability.  Citizens, developers, civil society and city managers (the four integral voices of the city) worked together to find what makes a neighbourhood look, feel, sound and smell awesome.  The models told the stories of what people are hungry for in our cities.  Andrea and Daniel, two participants from Workshop 1, summarized the stories.  It seems we are looking for neighbourhoods that:

  • Appeal aesthetically – beautiful buildings, visual diversity, artistic expression and public art, and interaction between buildings, transportation and open space
  • Generate sustainability – community based energy generation, increased density, and a shift in modes of transportation away from the automobile
  • Invite – a mix of public and private spaces, places for community activities and gathering, a great place
  • Meet basic needs – safe and secure, housing for all stages of life, places of worship, health services, schools, mixed land uses and affordability
Model under construction

After having built a neighbourhood and taken guided tours of each other’s neighbourhoods, we settled in to look at our collective work.  We noticed that cities are like the Titanic: hard to turn.  We explored this metaphor and found it both negative and positive.  The Titanic sunk and killed many.  We noted that the Titanic was ahead of her time; she represented great progress in that she was something we had never done before.   Unlike the Titanic that was unable to turn in time, we see that our cities are turning.  They are changing and evolving to be what we need.

Cities are changing and evolving because they are created by us and we are changing and evolving.  All of us, as citizens, as the folks that run our public institutions, the people that physically go out to build our city, and our civil society that organizes to live and speak our values and culture, play a role in how much we consciously respond to our surroundings.

We choose to stay in the fun dance hall at the heart of the Titanic, perhaps oblivious to our fate.  We choose to dare look out the window or go out on deck for fresh air and a view, looking out for the obstacles that could sink our ship.  We each choose, in our Titanic cities, to assume everything is okay or to look for feedback that may require our adaptation.  We choose the information we would like to have on our city/ship instrument panel.

Here’s where the iphone fits in: it is a platform for adaptation and customization.  It is a source of open, public feedback for our cities.  At the workshop, Carmen dreamed of knowing where all the saskatoon berry bushes are in Edmonton.  I imagine an iphone app where citizens upload geographic locations, enabling Carmen to harvest her favourite food across the city.  In Edmonton we tweet about where the food trucks mysteriously locate each day.  We have at our disposal unimaginable opportunities to share our cities with each other.  We have, as well, opportunities to share our understanding of whether our cities are serving us well or not.  This is the feedback we need to ensure our cities serve us well.

Tour of an awesome public gathering place

No one person or authority builds our cities.  We depend on ourselves and others to make sure we organize ourselves to build the ship and that she is sturdy enough for the voyage and flexible enough to meet our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to  have appropriate standards and oversight to ensure what we create meets our needs.  We depend on ourselves and others to ensure that our cities reflect our evolving values and actively support the well-being of all inhabitants of the city and eco-region.

Our learning journey together revealed to me that cities are slow-turning Titanics that increasingly have inhabitants that create feedback loops.  The feedback within our ships/cities, between cities and among our planet of cities is improving.  These inhabitants are, from within the ship, creating new ways to turn and power cities so we no longer have the burden of the Titanic as a slow-moving ship heading to disaster.  Instead, we have ship that serves us well with a future of iPhonic feedback.

What makes your neighbourhood an awesome part of your sustainable city?  What would make it even more awesome?  


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

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


I’ll spread the word

Stepping back
from the glorification of busy
for good
collaborating on forms
emerging from living, seeing
globally with questions
I’ve never considered before
I’ll spread the word
with spirit spreading
learning, looking at
blind spots
bringing out inspiring
diversity together for
excitement, motivation
to explore the promise
of opening minds
humanizing connections 
the powers of one are
alive here
inspired here
nourished here
engaged here
renewed here
and out


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Awesome Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable City Workshop II with The Natural Step Canada.  Closing Circle.  November 22, 2012




A hole in the roof

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

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

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

So the whole in the roof…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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