Improve vs. fix

Does what you say you want translate into what you do? Consider these questions:

  1. When you want to listen to people do you put yourself at the front of the room?
  2. When you want a group of people to figure something out do you give them directions?
  3. When you want to figure something out for yourself do you defer to experts around you?
  4. Does the work you do feed your soul or your desire to distract yourself from your self?

At the heart of these questions is our relationship with ourselves–and whether we believe we have the smarts and ability to do what we are called to do. The question beneath the questions: do we believe in ourselves?

The question beneath the questions: do we believe in ourselves? 

The beliefs we hold about ourselves shape our relationship with the world around us at every scale (self, family, neighbourhood, organization, city, nation, species). If I believe I have all the answers–and no-one else out there has anything to add–then I set myself up as the expert. If I believe I am incapable of figuring things out for myself then I rely on the directions of others. I am a knower, a teller and a fixer, or someone who does not know, needs to be told, needs to be fixed.

In contrast, if I believe that I don’t have all the answers, that together we will find the right questions and answers, then I contribute to the creation of habitats where we explore questions  and discern right action. If I believe that I am capable, with all that I know and don’t know right now, I rely on my–and our–self direction. I contribute to our ability to see together rather than defer to others, and take action together. I am a learner and I help others be learners too.

When I look at myself and the world around me with a lens of scarcity I see all that is wrong. I see that there isn’t enough, there never will be enough, and that there are things to be fixed everywhere. This leads me to a stance where I prefer control, even though I have no control, as well as a stance where I take whatever I can because it might run out. I hoard information. I hoard goods. I hoard relationships. I accumulate all that I can because somehow it will protect me from what I am most afraid of: not having. Worse yet, I believe myself to be not good enough, in need of being fixed, usually expecting others to do the fixing.

When I look at myself and the world around me with a lens of abundance I see all the possibility inherently within each of us. Scarcity distracts us from being who we are because it tells us what is wrong with us. It does not answer, let alone pose the question, “who am I?” Abundance is a stance where I believe in myself and others. Further, it requires me to trust that who I am, and what I have, is more than enough. I don’t need to be “fixed”, but rather to continue my never-ending journey of learning who I am and who we are. Where scarcity constricts, abundance invites our expansion as citizens and as a species.

Where scarcity constricts, abundance invites our expansion as citizens and as a species. 

This is about mindset–about me and my world. Do I choose a stance where everything is wrong and begs to be fixed, or do I choose a stance full of trust? I choose the latter, driven by a desire to improve, rather than fix, the world.

The distinction between improve and fix is significant. A fix is simple, mechanical and linear, and keeps us in the present, perhaps the past (we spend great energy fixing things that are no longer a problem). An improvement, in contrast, is more complicated and complex and reaches for a better future. Where a fix can be finished like a task on a check-list, improvements are continuous. Where a fix may be a destination, an improvement is about moving in a direction that will get more clear over time. Where a fix assumes brokenness, improvement accepts that something is not good enough and moves us along.

As we work in our cities this is an important distinction. When we trust what is happening we grow in whole new ways that provide everyone with what they need.



Do the work that is yours to do

Finding work that feels right is both complicated and simple. It is complicated because it can be hard to find. It’s complicated to figure out what we want to do for our work, and then complicated to find the right job, one that suits us and our aspirations. It feels simple when we’ve found it, when we look back and can see it was clear all along, even when we weren’t looking.

For a few years now I’ve been exploring what our work means in our cities and I’ve landed on the understanding that our work is the force that generates cities. Our work matters to our cities because it creates them; it shapes our economic life, our social habitats and our physical habitats.

We are each meant to contribute to our cities through our work. But what is the work we are each meant to contribute? How do we know if we are doing the work we are meant to do? I’ve noticed two things that help me notice if the work I am doing is truly mine to do.

First, work that depletes me is not my work to do.  Even if I am good at that work, if it takes energy from me it is time to let it go. It is the work that gives me energy that is the right work to do. This is a simple and staggering realization. It is the work that fuels me that is worthy of being done by me.

If your work depletes you it is not your work to do. (Choose work that fuels your being.)

Second, work done from a place of panic and urgency is from a place of fear and mistrust. There are times when urgency is necessary, when lives are threatened or harm to others is immanent. For most of us this is not the case, yet we behave as if it were. Many of us do work that we believe will not be done if we don’t do it. The opposite would be to trust that with others, all the work that needs to be done will be covered.

Do the work that is yours to do and trust that, with others, all the work that needs to be done will be done.  

All the work that needs to be done in the world can not be done by any of us alone. Moreover, we all have different skills and interests, and we have different passions and purposes to pursue in our work. If we trust in this, we make room for ourselves to take very unselfish action and do the work that is authentically ours to do. In doing this, we make the world a better place.

There is a voice inside each of us that tells us about the work we are meant to do. It is in the classes we loved in school. It is in the games we love(d) to play. It is in our hobbies. It is in the things that thrill us. Our duty is not to do the things that someone else says we ought to do, but in figuring out the work we are meant to do.

I am convinced of this: the essence of who we are as mall children gets obscured as we age. The journey of work is to find the lost parts of ourselves and stitch them into the lives we live. This might take years or decades, even a lifetime, yet the time it takes is not a reflection of our worth. The value is in noticing we are on a journey.

At 46 years old I recognize that my own journey unfolds in stages; just when I think I know who I am an the work I am to be doing a wrinkle comes along to nudge (or knock) me into the next stage of my journey. I can feel, though often in ways I can not articulate with words, the direction in which I am moving.

Now as I look at my life story I wonder at how I missed some of the clues, though I recognize that there was no other journey for me to take. I now pay more attention and I can better see the hints and synchronicities that feel like my soul sends to me about where I’m going and the work that’s mine to do. When I pay attention it’s far simpler.

What is the work that is yours to do? 

How do you know that work is yours to do? 


Lifestyle of the lifecycle


The words that instinctively came out of my mouth were wiser than the words I scripted for myself. At the opening of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference, in front of the crowd, I was to named the conference theme, “Lifecycle of a Planner,” but the word “lifestyle” came out.

This made immediate sense to me as professional citizenship, and the practices that enable professional life to include the interests of the citizen in each of us, as well as the citizens (and the public interest) we serve as professionals. As I listened to Paul Bedford’s story of this life as a professional planner, including as Chief City Planner for the City of Toronto and now as an urban mentor, I found these underlying questions that underpin a lifestyle of professional practice that serves both self and citizens well.

  1. What fascinates you?
  2. Do you get paid to do what you love?
  3. Where do you have a contribution to make?
  4. Who are you? Where do you belong?
  5. What are you learning?
  6. What do you do to nourish your self, and your creativity?
  7. Do you feel good about your work?
  8. How much courage do you have?
  9. What are the principles that guide you?
  10. Where am I growing?
The questions underlying Paul Bedford’s Keynote at 2014 APPI Conference

Explore these questions in your own way. On a walk, in a journal, while at the gym or playing the guitar. Find some time to settle into you, and settle into a question, recognizing that any one of these questions is a point of entry into the messiness and confusion that is naturally a part of being human. Transition from one part of your life to another part of your life is part of the lifecycle. How we live in these transitions sabotages or nourishes our personal growth. The lifestyle with which we live the lifecycle matters.

Spend some time with yourself.

Listen to what you have to say to yourself.



Professional citizenship


I had clear instructions. Introduce the speaker and remind the audience about the hashtag #lifecycleofaplanner (for twitter), the conference theme. What came out of my mouth was #lifestyleofaplanner. As I listened to the speaker, I realized I wasn’t wrong. My mouth knew something my brain did not know.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience working as a city planner in Toronto, including as Chief City Planner, Paul Bedford described the life of a planner: connecting the dots, capturing the heart and mind, and the need to be bold or go home. He described a lifestyle. The planner as a person and the work s/he does are not separate.  As he put it, the ability to learn is the only constant in change. That is lifestyle.

To be the planner our cities need of us, you:

  1. Live, breathe and love your city. You choose to be a part of your city. You dive into your city to better serve your self, citizens and your city.
  2. Know what you believe. You have figured out your personal beliefs, and they align with your work.
  3. Live your work as a privilege. You approach your work with curiosity and passion. You choose this work, or maybe it has chosen you. You do not take it for granted and fully enjoy
  4. Live as a change agent. When you know what you believe, and you choose to live what you believe, you make change happen. Anywhere and everywhere. 
  5. Serve citizens in the present and future. You are positive and proactive.
  6. Search for, and make decisions based on purpose and principles. You are connected to the underlying purpose and intention of your work. You are flexible in how you get there, noticing which methods are the the best things in each given context.
  7. Experiment with creativity. As you learn and grow in your practice, you explore how to experiment and be creative in your work.
  8. Connect the big picture and the ground in simple ways. You find synthesize and integrate everywhere you go, enabling yourself to better understand your context, as well as others. You find language that has meaning for others.
  9. Welcome the constant renovation of life. You recognize that you are always under renovation, as your city is too. You shed what you no longer need, and allow the new to come forward.
  10. Choose to swim, not float. You choose the direction you move in.

This is the lifestyle of a planner who serves citizens well. This is professional citizenship, a lifestyle, a personal journey on the inside that shows up on the outside in the work we do. If these do not apply to you, you are in the wrong job, or the wrong line of work.


Want to explore your own professional journey a bit further? Check out The Art of Hosting BIG Decisions (While Looking After Self Others, and Place).


Weaving a basket of generosity


Weaving a basket of generosity

in which we waken

to promise

to harmony

of no harm



A poem caught while meeting with colleagues as we support a city embarking on a visioning process for a city and a surrounding First Nation. The above is the work we are sensing into.


Habits of professionals


Two ideas of Charles Montgomery:

… cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being…

The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways, but also in the habits of professionals who make our cities.

A question of mine:

What role do professionals have in the design of our cities – and our entrenchment, replication and expansion of our current city pattern?

In a recent post, Cities design our lives, I touched on Charles Montgomery’s notion of autopoieisis in cities: that cities, like many other systems, are prone to reproduce themselves. So what is the role of the professional in this process? The engineers, architects, landscape architects and city planners?

Let’s start by getting clear on the roles in city making.  Marilyn Hamilton offers four perspectives of the city, each of which has a distinct and essential role in the creation and recreation of the city (check out Integral City):

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

  1. Citizens express the centre of gravity of the city’s values. In democratic countries, citizens have the power to elect and criticize the other voices in the city.  They have power as intentional consumers. They express the power of engagement and intention.  They are the voice of the city spirit.
  2. Civic managers are the voice of city expertise; they are the guides  that oversee the needs of the city.  They are the people who work at city hall, school boards, health institutions on our behalf.  They are the voice of the city brain.
  3. Civic developers are the people who traditionally ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’.  These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.
  4. Civil society are the cultural voice of the city. These are the social organizations and non-government organizations that attend to the social needs of the city. They are the voices of the city’s heart.

While the dispersed city is the result of the habits of professionals, it is also the result of what we expect of professionals.  City-building professionals are city managers work in city hall, reporting to the elected officials who are chosen by the citizens. City-building professionals also work for civic developers (or are developers) who are responding to the consumer choices of citizens, as well as to the rules and incentives established by the civic managers. Moveover, all of these roles are responding to the cultural voice of the city and civil society.

These roles are a network of feedback loops that, all together, are the dance of city making. The city-building professionals shape the perspectives, and are shaped themselves by the perspectives. The habits of professionals have influence and are influenced.

This means that the whole city system needs to see, and make, the shift toward a more sustainable, or happy, city. We are all a part of it. And yes, there are habits of professionals – and everyone else’s habits in what is expected of professionals.

Professions support the status quo and push new things, but the new things only happen when the decision makers decide to make the new things happen. And those decision makers are everywhere: in city hall, in living rooms, in board rooms, and in community centres. Everyone’s work on the margin, promoting and trying out new ideas, is essential for us to see what else is possible for our cities.

Remember this: city-building professionals are required to serve the public interest.

In your city, who is talking about whether your city is serving the public interest?



I’ve posted a couple times about Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design. Here they are for you to explore:



Nourishing transformations


Our cities are transforming, and so is the role of planners in the midst of this transformation.

Last month, I hosted a conversation at the Canadian Association of Planning Students annual conference about transformations, to give them an opportunity to dig into what they know and see. Here’s what we found.

We are transforming into organizers. We think of planning as a linear, mechanistic activity but cities don’t work that way. What’s coming is a new social habitat, so we played with this idea using a World Cafe, using these new operating principles:

  1. Create places for you and others to experiment
  2. Know and trust that the transformation never ends – it’s  a never-ending quest
  3. Cities will forever learn and adapt, and they will only learn and grow as much as we – the component parts – learn and grow
  4. Choose to swim, rather than float

So here’s what the students noticed.

The best stuff and what we're transforming into
What is the best stuff happening in our cities? What are we transforming into?

There’s great stuff underway in our cities and we are transforming into cities that are about people. We are paying more attention to public spaces, to diversity, to our cultures. We celebrate with food and festivals. There is a shift underway, where we share more. Technology and social media are changing how we look at our cities and planners. Everything is more visible.

And we face significant challenges.

The challenges and vulnerabilities
What are the challenges we face? What are our vulnerabilities?

When we resist change, we are at our most vulnerable.  We are lured by convenience. Small thinking and  lack of vision make us vulnerable. We feel the pressure to do it “right,” yet it is not possible to know what is coming. We grapple with the unknown. The choices we make matter. The leadership we create and support matters.

There is a way through.

Planners role through
What role do you want to play to move through these vulnerabilities?

Look at the whole. Grasp a vision and keep it in mind. It’s not about sacrifice, its about choice, and choosing to be informed and to inform. It’s about facilitating understanding, so that we can hold and consider new possibilities. Its about respecting and honouring roles and responsibilities, but also challenging them to see and pursue new possibilities. It’s about improvement.

We have no idea what we are transforming into. We just know that its underway. And we can transform into what works for us, or what does not. The only way we’ll get what we want is if we choose to engage with the transformation.

What transformations are taking place that you wish to nourish?   

_____ _____ _____


This post is a wee bit of the book I am working on, while I am working on it. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City – The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:


Your role in citizen engagement


In last week’s edition of Nest City News, I made a provocative statement – citizens choose to engage.

Here’s the rub – they do choose, but how do our decisions as community leaders encourage or discourage their choices to get involved in city decision-making? How can we, as leaders on city council, in city administration or in our community organizations and businesses create the conditions for citizens to choose to engage, and choose to engage well? As leaders, we need to look to ourselves, and what we believe, first.

Last week I shared 10 conditions that encourage citizens to involve themselves. Here’s a reframe of these for those of you in leadership roles. As a leader, you will best work with others when you:

  1. Bring your best self. Leave the negative at the door and appreciate all points of view, all sources of information. When you bring your best self, so will others. You set the stage.
  2. Create time and space for people to tell stories. Stories are ways for people to connect to what matters to them, and to each other, even when they have differences in opinion. This feels like it takes a lot of time, but its about moving slow to move wise and fast later. Stories allow us to see what is really going on.
  3. Trust that people want to contribute and take responsibility. This is a choice for you as a leader. If you believe that people have something to offer, you will see it. If you do not believe this, you will not see it. Be open to be surprised.
  4. Offer minimal structure. Too little structure means confusion. Too much structure stifles what people have to offer and closes off opportunities for communication and collaboration. Find the balance of just the right amount of structure for the processes you use to work with each other.
  5. Pursue unusual partnerships. Get together and bust the silos right from the start. To engage a wide variety of people, you don’t have to do it alone. Partner with unusual people and organizations to broaden your reach. Integrate points of view from the outset.
  6. Practice working with each other. It isn’t good enough to organize for a one-time relationship. Or even a series of meetings that will end at the end of a project. Build longer-term relationships and spend time talking about how you can work together, and under what conditions it works best.
  7. Take action. All the possibilities in front of us can paralyze us from taking action. The specifics of how to proceed can also paralyze. If the intention is to build relationships, we don’t worry about specifics because we are also agreeing to learn to work together. We do not need a specific plan about how to work together. We just need to get started.
  8. Pause to look at what’s really going on. Take time alone, and with the people you engage, to reflect on your relationship, what its for, what is working well and what needs to be improved. This allows you and your colleagues to bring your best selves.

City governments are making more efforts than ever to involve citizens in their decision-making, and it is not easy or clean-cut work. It is messy . The processes city governments use to make decisions are complicated and take years of experience to understand. Residents get frustrated. City governments get frustrated.

Many citizens engage themselves because of their interest to improve some aspect of city life. Others, get engaged when something is going wrong, there’s something they don’t like – NIMBY (not in my back yard). This needs to be said – there is nothing wrong with when a citizens chooses to engage. Everyone is busy making contributions to our city life and it is not reasonable to expect all people to be engaged in all things at all times.

Are we ready to involve citizens when they choose to engage?

In what ways do you go beyond the usual to engage citizens in your city work?



Beth’s hot tips for the job hunt


As I look back at the range of conversations I had with aspiring city planners at the Canadian Association of Planning Students conference in Toronto last week , I noticed 7 recurring messages in what I was saying. Here is a summary of my hot tips for the quest for a job:

  1. Have a sense of the kind of work you’ll enjoy. The more clear you are about what you want to do, or even simply explore to see if you like it, the more likely you’ll find work that will serve your development. This last post might help you figure that out.
  2. Have a sense of the kind of work environment you’d like. Are you most comfortable in a fast-paced environment, or one that is more stable. Do you need a serious place to work, or one that is more fun? Do you want to work in the trenches, or serve in other ways?
  3. Draw on all your work experience – paid and unpaid. All volunteer work counts as work experience. Notice the skills you learned while volunteering and give them prominence along with your paid work.
  4. Say what you can do in your resume. Your resume tells other about your work experience, but what can you do? Are you a good organizer? Do you know how to handle tough customers? Do you know how to resolve workplace conflict? Do you have any stories about how you took initiative?
  5. Tell stories in your interview. Draw on all your experience in your interview and tell a story or two about when something went sideways and you pulled through. These are not stories of vulnerability, but of your strength in seeing when you go wrong and your willingness, and effort, to get things back on track. Be specific. It shows your employer that you know where you have room to improve.
  6. Pick your boss. Is s/he going to invest in your development as a planner? Not just the money your employer may have to send you to conferences, or other professional development, but is s/he going to invest time in you as you learn how to do the work of planning? You want to do well, and if s/he is uncomfortable with the question, or can’t answer, the job might not be a right fit, but…
  7. Learn from every job. You might not get your dream job when you start out, but it will have a lot to teach you. If you don’t get to pick your boss, that’s ok. Show up for work and care about what you do and it will be noticed. You will find other work, or it will find you. You’ll be alright.

What other hot tips do you have?

Please let me know how it goes.



Beth’s hot tips for city organizers

I am my own secret weapon
An ad in Air Canada’s mag

As I look back at the range of conversations I had with aspiring city planners at the Canadian Association of Planning Students conference in Toronto last week , I found 5 recurring messages emanating from me. Here is a summary of my hot tips for city organizers everywhere:

  1. Get to know yourself. The more you know about how you work, and what drives you, the better you can serve others. I entertain regular conversations between my ego-self (who is afraid of what people think, judges others, and can get overly competitive) and  my highest Self (who, when I choose to listen, always know what to do and how to best do it). I entertain these two aspects of me in a journal and they even talk to each other when I go for a walk. The more you know your Self, the more you…
  2. Notice what is life affirming (for you). When you work in ways and places that are life affirming, you make your city and your world a better place. What we put our attention to is what we get more of, so when you focus on things that don’t work, or things that don’t fill you with joy, you get more of what doesn’t work, more of what fills you with “ick”. Trust that when we all pursue what makes us feel good, the diversity among us ensures that all the bases are covered. Choose work that feels good.
  3. Notice what you and others believe and understand – without judgement.  If everyone feels that what they believe and understand is true, and its not the same, then can you find a way to accept that they are all true? Are you able to honour the diversity? This is great subject matter for your self and Self to talk about. To better understand these perspectives, this post on values might help.
  4. Learn to speak multiple languages, then speak theirs, not yours. I’m not talking about Mandarin, Portuguese, or French (though that’s also a good idea). When touring the Steamwhislte Brewery the tour guide asked who we all were and someone replied, “we are practitioners of the planning and orderly development of our urban and rural environments.” That answer didn’t cut it. Someone else said, “city planning,” and our guide understood. It was just enough information in a way the tour guide could receive it.
  5. Figure out what you want to say, then translate it. This applies to anything you do with anyone. Take some time to be clear about what you want to say, in any situation, then make sure that what you say is in a language your audience will understand. The result is you will be more clear.

Journalist Christopher Hume has noticed that we are all terrified of who we are. But we each have to be who we are to ensure along the way that we create the cities and communities we want. Everyone’s work matters, because our work generates and regenerates cities. All together, and terrified, we make our places.  Be yourself, well, with others.

You are your own secret weapon.

You are our secret weapon.

_____ _____ _____


This post is a wee bit  of the book I am working on, while I am working on it. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City – The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:

_____ _____ _____