Pondering the purpose of a city/town

How we create our cities and towns has an impact on the quality – and longevity – of our existence.  While this may feel far off, irrelevant and easy to dismiss, there is a simple and familiar metaphor that highlights our individual and collective situation: it’s our bed, we have to lay in it.

Two examples from headlines one October day in 2009 in the Edmonton Journal:

  1. Cities tapping out our rivers, report warns: tampering with flow regimes has put ecosystems at risk; and
  2. Proximity to quality transit, parks may cut diabetes risk: healthy neighbourhoods are 38% less likely to develop disease.

People need to water to survive, let alone be healthy and thrive.  Further, “people who live in neighbourhoods with safe sidewalks, ample parks, good public transportation and ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables are 38 per cent less likely to develop diabetes.”   The point: as we create our cities and towns, we make decisions everywhere, big and small, that have an impact on our well-being.  We decide whether we wish to have a habitat that supports our well-being.  We decide whether or not we wish to make it easy or hard for people to exercise and eat right.  We decide whether we care or not if collectively we look after the places and people we live in and with, and rely upon.

I am not in support of or in opposition to the arguments in these pieces of journalism.  Rather, my intention is to highlight the often unconsidered consequences of our choices as we create and recreate our cities, towns and communities.  In choosing to leave with each other we have made implicit commitments to each other.  In choosing to create and live in larger and larger settlements (and even the small ones), we specialize what we do for each other and we advance what we are capable of.  We are growing and evolving as a species.  Because of this specialization, we have made great advancements in health care, in communication technologies.  None of this would have happened without the creation of cities.  We live together so we can grow and evolve as individuals and together.

Yet these articles point to a bit of a conundrum: what if the choices we are making in how we create our cities is undermining our very evolution?  What if we harm our ecosystem to a degree where our existence is threatened?  What if we design our cities to ensure people are nowhere near as healthy as they could be?  Is the purpose of a city to harm humans or to support humans’ growth and evolution?  Which purpose do the choices we make as citizens, community organizations, NGOs, businesses, developers and builders,  and public institutions serve?





Important Questions Stop You in Your Tracks


My brother asked me over the weekend what the goal of my business was.It was Sunday afternoon and I didn’t have the jam for a tough conversation so I begged off.But since I didn’t want to answer it, I knew it was a question worth spending some time with.Alas – what is the goal of my business?

POPULUS exists an infrastructure for me to do the work I want to do.As a legal entity for accounting purposes, as an entity to engage in contracts with clients and partners, and as a name and image that reflects what I believe about people and communities.In a strict sense, that is all it is.It doesn’t have a goal of its own separate from me, because I am the sole owner.POPULUS is a means for me to do my work.

So the next question is: what is the goal of my work? I aim to support people who see a whole new possibility about how humans can work together to meet and adapt to the challenges communities face.I create the conditions for people to see new possibilities and take bold, innovative and sustained action to make those possibilities possible. I do this work in collaboration with others, always modeling collaborative conversation.The nature of this work shifts from conversation to conversation, from situation to situation, intentionally responsive to the conditions at hand.While there are common ingredients everywhere I go, there is no hard and fast recipe.(Another big question for another blog – what are the ingredients?)

My perfect clients and collaborators see possibilities and recognize that we need to engage each other in different ways to get there. Sometimes the path is clear, sometimes confusing and muddy, but the quality of what we do on and with the path is key; they know that they wish to create opportunities for learning, and that quality conversation will support them in seeing and taking action toward new possibilities.

My intention is to co-create, with clients and collaborators, the conditions for people to get the best from themselves.There is not a clear, linear path to do this, so this work is messy and confusing at times.The truth is, it is challenging for me to articulate this work, yet my clients, collaborators and I find that we speak the same language in non-traditional ways.There is no list of credentials, or competencies.It is visceral,experiencial and even intuitive.Rather than a checklist of skills, it is a way of being with self and others. It is unconventional work to remind us of what we already know – how to listen to each other.

The quality of everything we do turns on the quality of our conversations.Everywhere I go, I aim to host myself and others well.And learning to ask – and receive – questions that stop us in our tracks.