The purpose of the city: create conditions for conflict

This thought just struck me – what if the purpose of the cities/towns/villages is to bring people closer together?  And the closer we get to each other, the more conflict there is.  Is the purpose of the city then to generate conflict?  What is the purpose of generating conflict?

Conflict generates dissonance, a distinct or subtle sense that things are not right.  A city, just like a person, can sit quite a while with the feeling that things are not quite right before we decide to take action.  Smoking in restaurants, idle-free parking, deciding to support active transportation are all collective decisions that have come about as a result of conflict in a community.

There is a pull in us to be closer together, but we also push each other away, to not live too close to each other.  We resist being close, because we resist being in conflict.  As a city planner and community volunteer I regularly hear people – on the public record and off – say they do not want people close to them, especially more people close to them.  I wonder if we resist the pull to be closer to people because it brings conflict with it, and we tend to either avoid conflict wherever possible, or even stir it up, neither of which takes acknowledges of the wisdom within conflict.  What are we missing as a result?

I am left with a series of questions:

  1. What if I/we let conflict teach me/us?
  2. What would happen to cities if I/we welcomed and invited conflict for the purposes of generating new understanding?
  3. What if I/we viewed conflicts as opportunities?
  4. What if I/we found ways to work through and beyond conflicts?

In the end, I notice that when I work through conflict, I arrive a new understanding.  I change.  Is that what I/we am/are afraid of when avoiding conflict?

I dream of growing and learning in new ways

When planning practitioners reflect on their practice, they notice that their own behaviour is unusual when their communities find success – they seek and embrace challenges, they are aware of strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others, they endlessly seek opportunities and the place trust in others.  There are, indeed, emerging essential non-technical competencies that make a planning practitioner effective.

As an effective individual planning practitioner, the following elements are emerging as essential:

  • Find your passion and spend your time there
  • Be self aware
  • Be open to any communication
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Seek to understand

Further, it is useful to consider what could make a  collective planning practice effective.  The following elements are emerging:

  • Get on the radar vs. duck the radar
  • Be political and get political
  • Build coalitions
  • Generate allies and advocate
  • Step forward

There is a gulf between what we know we ought to do, and what we actually choose to do.  The Greek work for this phenomenon is Akrasia. The leadership challenge for the planning profession is to step through and over the gap – to what is possible for us in service to Alberta communities.  As individuals and as a collective, we will find our voice if we dare to dwell on what we dream.  While the collective voice for planning practitioners is unknown, it will only emerge as we seek our collective leadership capacities.  This is our challenge for 2010.

I dream of growing and learning in new ways.

The full article can be found at  –

auto-matic impact

we transport

from land to land

by moving

with auto-matic impact

the dice are loaded for the car

in the city we’ve been building for 100 years

awake or not

in a perfect world we’d plan


staging practical problems


to shift the dream from

white picket fences

with exemplars built from opportunity

trusting in learning and adapting

striving for alternative

futures, knowing risks

of doing nothing

the style of life we choose is up to us

by design

(harvest from Eric Miller’s presentation September 28, 2009 with the City-Region Studies Centre, University of Alberta)

The Audacity of the Autocity

If you build more roads, they will be immediately filled with cars. So think about how people move around and the options you can provide to them.  This is one of the messages I gleaned from the latest installment in the speakers series hosted by the U of A’s City-Region Studies Centre.  The presenter was Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, and the Director of U of T’s Cities Centre.

We have been building autocities for 100+ years in Edmonton.  There is no denying the impact the car has had on how people move from place to place in their communities.  The car is prominent in new subdivisions, where the home is attached to the two-car (minimum) attached garage.  The car is prominent in our investment in freeway construction.  The car is prominent in older neighbourhoods as we complain about the state of potholes.  The car is prominent as we move all over the city to get to the services we need.   The car is prominent as we complain about how many cars are out there with us and the time it takes to get to where we want to go.  The car is prominent as municipal and provincial capital budgets are consumed by the need to create and maintain roads.   The car is prominent in the declining health of people – and Earth.   The car is even prominent in government efforts to revitalize failing economic systems.

Please do not infer that I am against the car – I own a car and I enjoy it.  I have to confess that I am hungry for some balance, however.  And this requires rethinking how we think about our city experience and providing transportation options.  As my engineer friend would put it: mode split.

First question is why would a city want to look at transportation options.  Immediate response is that the more people use alternatives to the car, there is more room on the roads.  Providing options actually makes the investments we have made more effective.  Further, providing options improves the health of people in cities by creating opportunities to walk or wheel to some of our destinations.  Or carpool or use public transportation, which decreases pollution levels, hence our health again.  All of these improve the bottom line for municipal budgets – less money spent on building endless bigger and bigger roads and bridges (that we eventually add to the list of capital assets that we have to maintain when cities have difficulty maintaining what we already have).

The big question is around what will it take to generate viable opportunities?  Again, it means rethinking what we think about the city by asking what it will take to make the options viable.  We should be asking ourselves what makes a place worth walking in?  What makes a place safe to cycle in?  What are the destinations that need to be on the LRT line for me to want to use it?  What makes a place worth living in?  This isn’t about what comes first, the planning or the engineering.  They ought to occur simultaneously – this is the new conversation.  That is the ultimate form of planning.

There are questions that should be explored in every planning decision –  Are the connections within communities created and strengthened?  Are places to enjoy the city and each other created and strengthened?  Are our choices in the city healthy for us?

Design to Plan, Plan to Design

Last night I moderated a public session on behalf of the University of Alberta City Region Studies Centre.  The speakers were George Crandall and Don Arambula, and architect and landscape architect from the firm Crandall Arambula out of Portland, Oregon.  The topic – Regional Transportation: Lessons from Portland.

Regional planning is regional planning, wherever it occurs.  And there are some lessons for Alberta’s Capital Region and the government of Alberta.  The lessons I drew out for Capital Region planning as well as the Land Use Framework:

  1. There is a place for provincial government to ensure that local governments are  not only cooperating, but ensuring that they are producing a plan that is useful in the end.  This means what is “useful” needs to be well defined.
  2. Creating a growth management plan is not about just creating a plan, it is about creating ownership for a plan.  This occurs by working with the public.  Not just polls and workshops, but engagement where people roll up their sleeves and have an impact on the outcome.  Particularly if this process marries the interests of builders and developers (ie practicality) and citizens.
  3. Mechanisms to make a regional plan a reality are essential.  It is not enough to have a big plan and leave it up to local governments to implement.  Sample mechanism – public transportation authority, regional waste disposal strategies, regional land use design expectations and authority.
  4. Clear implementation plans and commitments are as much as the plan itself.  This implementation must factor in design front and centre to ensure the product created is what is desired.  A design purpose is front and center.
  5. In times of growth, we rely on Silver Bullets, to “just get us through”.  What we need is an overall plan.  That plan, must indicate what is to happen where.
  6. A plan that indicates what will happen where clearly delineates priorities for public infrastructure investment – best use of tax dollars.
  7. A plan that indicates what will happen where offers predictability and stability for developers and builders.  This will work well for some, and not well for others, but the direction must hold.
  8. It all revolves around great political intrigue – the creation of any plan is necessarily messy.  If it isn’t tough to create, then that is a sign that it isn’t the right plan.
  9. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle – each piece comes with a shape and a piece of the picture – is that clearly articulated for each piece of the region, or will it be for each region of the province?

In the end, we must design planning processes with the above expectations.  Then we must plan to work in design to make it work.