Nest City in three parts

The overall frame for Nest City is John O’Donohue’s blessing, The Time for Necessary Decision.  The chapters of the book follow the trajectory of the blessing by moving from seeing patterns (Part 1), to the organizing patterns we create in cities (Part 2) and the ways to integrate our organizing patterns to achieve cities that serve us well (Part 3).

In the column to the right of each post, if you click on “Categories” you will be able to navigate to all the posts in a Part or Chapter of the book.  I have categorized the most recent posts that form Chapter One – The City Impulse, and I have sorted out the older posts into Chapters as well.  Please feel free to explore and comment.

Here is the gist of each Part (and group of corresponding chapters):

  1. Part One – City Patterns builds a broad foundation for my argument: cities build evolutionary capacity.  The foundational ‘impulse’ patterns are introduced, explaining why cities exist, how they are created and the underlying values that evolve within and with us as our cities grow and develop.
  2. Part Two – Organizing for Emergence explores the organizing patterns of humans as we create and live in cities.  We set plans to reach a destination.  We experience uncertainty along the way.  Then a whole new and unexpected future comes to pass.  The first level of city “nestworks” are presented.
  3. Part Three – Nest City integrates the three elements of destination, journey and emergence presented in Part Two.  This is a second level of city “nestworks”, cog-like features of the nest city: city making, civic practice, city emerging and a sweetspot at the heart of city nestworks.

The next series of posts originate from Chapter Two – The Planning Impulse and focus on the impulse within us to “plan” our cities.  Are our cities actually planned?



Time to build the nest we need

The staggering rate of population and city growth alone are enough for me to recognize that something, at some point, is going to give.  We are going to have to adjust to something.  And given the rate of change, we are going to have to learn how to adjust quickly.  That means we have to welcome change, quickly examine what adjustments are necessary, and take timely, appropriate action.  Debating whether or not something is happening, such as green house gas emissions, is a distraction from what we need to do: learn how to organize ourselves to be adaptable.  Adaptability will ensure we survive and thrive and, as it turns out, adaptability is what got us here in the first place.

(This post concludes a series of 14 posts that constitute my first efforts to blog my book, Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  For readers wanting to go to the first post, here is a link.  These first posts assemble into Chapter One: The City Impulse.)

Figure A - City Emergence Dynamic

There is within us an evolutionary impulse to do more than merely survive.  At the core of this impulse is our work – the efforts we make to innovate and find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  And this impulse to innovate generates cities (and cities generate innovation too).  Developing cities, then, is a survival skill.  And the role of our work – and our approach to our work – in cities can not be understated because it creates cities.  All of this happens in the context of our physical habitat (see Figure A).  Our ability to evolve, along with our cities, is a survival skill.

The dynamic relationship between our economic life – our work – and our habitat is only as healthy as the feedback that flows back and forth.  Cities are, in fact, a result of this relationship. In this dynamic, our social habitat is the conduit between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is the sphere where we allow, or disallow, connections to be made between our economic life and our physical habitat.  It is where we create the conditions individually and collectively to notice what is happening around us and integrate our world with our work, our work with our world.  Or, more appropriately, where we integrate our cities with our work, our work with our cities.  Our cities need quality feedback.

Innovation hinges on looking at things in new ways, but it is the innovative quality of our work in the context of our habitat that drives whether a city declines or thrives, not just the fact that we are innovative.  More of the same work – without innovation and adaptation – makes us busy, but it does not mean we learn and grow.  More and more new work, for the sake of innovation, does not mean we adapt either.  Innovation in the context of our life conditions, which are constantly changing, means we adapt – and evolve.  Innovation + adaptation means we are thinking, making and doing new things.  This is a critical understanding in light of the challenges we face as a species with a quickly growing population.

As citizens we have choices about the work we do and our awareness of whether the work we do is responsive to our life conditions.  We must be brave enough to look at life conditions, let alone acknowledge them.  We must be brave enough to notice what is happening and to respond appropriately.  This bravery is needed at many scales – in citizens, in organizations, in cities, in society.  How do we create the conditions for this kind of courage?

Figure B

Jane Jacobs suggested that it is sensible to foster desirable new work and select from those worth fostering further.  Our evolutionary path isn’t about simple generating more and more and more new work, endless innovating.  The word ‘select’ implies that someone will do the selecting and that we know the criteria to choose the work that will work.  But we will never have criteria for this kind of work because we have never been here before.  Each moment ahead of us is new, and the criteria we have used for previous situations are criteria for previous situations – not the present or the future.  But it is a far more diffused, yet simple, process than that.  We need to know the direction we face and we need to ‘notice’ what works along the way, to get us there.

The work ahead of us is about creating cities – our habitat – that allow us to change the work we do and how we go about doing it.  It is about creating cities, right now, that work for us.  The challenge is recognizing that our work, whether paid or unpaid, and our desire to improve our work is an innovation-generating evolutionary impulse.   This impulse is the force that creates  and recreates cities, which in turn creates the conditions for further innovation.  We shape the city and in return it shapes us.  We build the nest that nurtures us.  It is time to notice how we go about organizing ourselves to get what we need from this relationship.

Figure C

We have never been here before.  We are at a point in time unlike any other and our efforts to understand the world in the ways we have always tried to understand the world are not accurate.  We face together a world full of uncertainty and unpredictability.  Any actions we take as individuals and as collectives have unexpected ripple effects in ways we can not contemplate or anticipate, which means that each of us is connected to others in significant and unimaginable ways.  We are in this experiment of humanity together.  To be dynamically stable – to steer well – we need to be willing to receive feedback and we need to explicitly seek feedback, even if it is telling us information we do not want to hear.  We need this feedback to do our work well, and our cities need this feedback as well.  We simply need to be awake to notice things around us.

This will take great courage, because to invite honest feedback is to invite hearing that we are not getting the results we would like.  It is time for us to organize ourselves in such a way that we are clear about our destination, that we provide ourselves with the support we need to be courageous enough to be awake on the journey, and we create the conditions for success within our world of unpredictability by self-organizing so the best possible way forward will emerge.  It is time to consciously create our nest city.  It is time to jump into the driver’s seat of our own evolution.

The next series of posts will revolve around what it means to plan our cities.  Are cities really planned?  What patterns can be discerned in how we go about creating our cities?  The dynamic that generates cities is not linear, yet our current efforts in North America to create sustainable cities are limited to linear approaches.  The next round of posts will make the case that a new way of designing for cities that serve their citizens well is emerging.  You can aid an abet its emergence by exploring these questions:


What can my city do for me?

What can I do for my city?

What can our city do for us?

What can we do for our city?



Note –
For those interested in exploring the preceding posts that form Chapter One: The City Impulse, here they are in order:
  1. Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?
  2. Driven to do more than merely survive
  3. Cities are engines of innovation
  4. The development of cities is a survival skill
  5. The work we do creates our cities
  6. Evolving cities is a survival skill
  7. Be a part of feedback loops in your city
  8. Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat
  9. Cities need quality feedback from habitat
  10. Dynamically steering cities into the future
  11. Work at scale to serve the city
  12. Inter-city tournaments
  13. The city as a nest


The city as a nest

Thinking of our cities as nests means we understand that our cities are what we build for ourselves.  Like other species we build our most immediate habitat: our shelter from the elements.  We also build structures that, once our survival needs are met, nurture our families and our well-being.  As a collective, we build larger and larger communities that address the needs of more than just a family.  Over the course of our evolution we build infrastructure to protect ourselves and our livelihoods (fortifications) and we build infrastructure to ensure order (transportation systems, government facilities).  We also build infrastructure to enjoy the opportunities that present themselves to enjoy life (recreation facilities, art galleries, sports arenas, etc.).  All of this is enabled because of our relationship with the resources that surround the beginnings of settlement and the subsequent work we have developed and expanded over decades, centuries and millenia.

Consider a simple definition of nest – a place or structure made or chosen:

  • in which to lay and incubate eggs or give birth to young
  • where a number of animals of the same species and their young occupying a common habitat: an ants’ nest
  • where an animal or insect breeds or shelters: an ants’ nest

The qualities of a nest are various.  A nest has some density.  Perhaps as a snug retreat, or tucked away all by itself, it is where a concentration of a species calls home.  A nest is also warm, safe and comfortable.  Whether a nest for birds, or a nest of shredded paper to hold a fragile bowl, a nest is a container that holds, protects and supports its contents.  A nest is pocket-like, usually a more or less circular structure.  It is a refuge from the elements.  It is home.

At a basic level, “nest” describes the habitat humans build for themselves very appropriately.  Our cities are made by us.  We build our homes and cities for ourselves as a species and with each generation.  More and more humans are choosing cities as their habitat.  In addition, cities provide heightened care for our young (specialized health care).

The qualities of a nest also coincide with those of a city.  People conglomerate in the city.  The city – at its best – provides shelter for more and more humans as more and more humans make cities their home.  At a minimum, we go to cities with the intention of making a better life, pursuing our work, looking for opportunities.  Geographical constraints aside, our cities take a circular form.  Cities are the habitat that holds, protects and supports the generation of new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  Cities cultivate innovation, the very thing we need to ensure the cities we build are able to hold, protect and support us, citizens of the city.  We make the nest – the city – in which we settle.

In exploring definitions of nest, I found that as soon as the word nest is associated with humans, a shadow side emerges: a place filled with undesirable people, activity or things; a place or situation that is full of bad people or activities; or a place that fosters something undesirable.  The examples: a nest of spies, a nest of thievery.  It certainly is the case that as more and more good things happen in the city, more bad things will also take place.  The city is not a perfect phenomenon.  Our work in cities must acknowledge and attend to the healthy and unhealthy aspects of our nest.  Which do we wish our city nests to nurture?

We build our nest cities to serve ourselves – to survive and thrive.  We build our nest cities to allow us to grow and develop – to emerge into what we need to be in order to survive and thrive.  We have a choice about whether to create cities that serve us poorly or well.  They are the place from which we leap to new ways of thinking, making and doing new things.  They are the place from which we fly to new nests, as we reshape our cities and what happens in them now at an unprecedented rate.

Figure A

As we think about our nest cities and our relationship with them, we must consider the nested hierarchy of systems that make up the city (Figure A).  (Three posts have explored the nested hierarchy of city systems: Work at scale to serve the city, The development of cities is a survival skill, and Cities: the result of our evolving interaction with our habitat.)  A city is full of similar things of different sizes that fit inside each other, where the smaller element fits in a lower position in a hierarchy: a nest of tables, organisms classified in a series of nested sets.  This involves a set of things in graduated sizes that fit together.  The notion of hierarchy offers yet another way of looking at the city and its systems.

There is a lot for a Nest City to hold.  It is simple and complex and it is ever changing.  Knowing this changes how we look at our cities.  It changes how we design our cities.  It changes the very process by which we create our cities.  Nest City requires us to host ourselves and our evolution well.   

Nested elements of a city: economic, social and physical

Resources that may be of interest



Nest City – a slow release


Nest City: the Human Drive to Thrive in Cities is the title of the book I have been working on now for a few years.  I have 100,000 words that now sit in a structure that makes sense. I know where it is going and my ask now is to make it clear and compelling.  I have very purposefully over the last 9 months chosen not to blog very often; it seemed to be a distraction from the writing time I need for the book.

But I have received several signals from the “universe” that it is now time to get the blog back to life with renewed purpose.  It is now time to start taking steps out of my safe little nest where I have been working so feverishly and start putting my writing efforts out into the world.  The signals:

  1. The signal: Agent rejection #1. My first proposal to a literary agent was declined.  This is normal, but it made me rethink the traditional “publishing” trajectory of finding an agent, who finds an editor who wants to publish your work, and so on.  This serial world is at odds with the messy and meshy world that I live in.  Response: Diversify my efforts to find my audience.
  2. Signal: I keep reading about small publishers.  My goal is to put my material out into the world.  Once out there, it will grow if it is meant to grow.  While it would be a thrill for my ego if my writing went viral, the reason I am writing is to find and support people who are working to create cities to be the best habitat they can be for as many people as possible.  Response: Just start small.
  3. Signal: Writing about blogging keeps coming my way.  The Writer’s Guild of Alberta‘s most recent edition of WestWord has an article on blogging. My takeaway: blogging time feeds other writing time.  Response: It is time to blog and put my ideas out there.
  4. Signal: People want to read Nest City.  After one of my sessions at the Manitoba Planning Conference this year, a participant asked me where she could get my book.  I had no answer and no way to connect people to my work.  I am being asked to very explicitly put my work out into the world. I do not need to wait for a book to be published to do this.  Response: It is time to share what I’ve got and invite feedback. 

SO.  I intend to release my work here.  Each Tuesday, in short little pieces, I will release the pent up energy that is vibrating in my whole being.  It will be a slow release…  to feed our capacities to build cities in which we nest and from which we go on great adventures.