Wednesday, May 12, 2021

City streets create value, build community. Urban highways do exactly the opposite.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

City plans from sometimes decades ago written for a long-ago city, a city with little in common with the one we live in today

Photo: Kari Shea on Unsplash
Very often when new city councillors are first elected they post a picture of the stack of technical reports and comprehensive plans that they’ve been given to read by city staff.
The picture is meant to convey how complicated and technical the city is and how eager the new councillors are to learn the ropes.
My reaction invariably is what an aggressive thing this is for city staff to have done.
I'll admit I’d love to see a new councillor straighten an arm across the surface of the desk and with one swipe send all these plans and reports flying.
I don’t question that city staff are skilled professionals, hard working, and good people. This is not a criticism of personal behaviour but it is a criticism of institutional behaviour.
New councillors learn quickly enough that city staff over the years have spent a great deal of time and energy making plans and writing reports. Plans and reports for the most part written sometimes decades ago by people and for purposes long forgotten, often written for a long-ago city that has little in common with the one we live in today.
Plans that are too often created by departments isolated within their own silos, "each wielding their position & rules like a veto power,” as former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian says in an essay linked in the recent blog post Silos, organized complexity, complex adaptive systems. The 21st Century city.
City hall and the city itself, being made up of human beings and working within continually changing circumstances, are by definition complex adaptive systems, what Jane Jacobs identified as systems of organized complexity, “the variables are many but are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole,” they are interdependent.
No city plan should be on the books that has not had robust external review within an at most five year time span.
Political leaders and senior management “need to understand they are operating in a complex adaptive system, they should, rather than thinking that they can make master strokes that fix problems, keep on tweaking and improving, they should write the need for revision into every piece of legislation,” author, economist, former Dean Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Roger L. Martin.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

On this day, 2018

New waterfront public space at the Patkau Architects designed Polygon Art Gallery in North Vancouver. Here the sea walk and rippling seating. Public area extending into the harbour almost complete. Connects to the Quay Market, the Seabus, and the bus interchange.

Three years ago today I took the SeaBus across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver to see the new art gallery and seaside...

Posted by Nanaimo Commons on Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Monday, April 26, 2021


True and false diversity, by Léon Krier

Friday, April 23, 2021

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Silos, organized complexity, complex adaptive systems. The 21st Century city

The age of the siloed credentialed specialist is coming to an end.
“Credentialing, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities.” Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
There is a common thread that runs through much contemporary writing and thinking about economies, organizations, and cities. From Jane Jacobs to, most recently, author, economist, former Dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Roger L. Martin.
Martin's new book When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession With Efficiency, studies the system failures caused by applying machine-thinking solutions to complex-adaptive-system problems.
Jane Jacobs' arguably most important insight into the workings of the city appears in the last chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is that cities are systems of organized complexity. "The variables are many but are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole.”
Former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian in this 2015 Planetizen essay Better City-Making Means Breaking Down Silos—Here's How (to get a more holistic approach to city-building) recounts "the story of the NASA janitor being asked by President Kennedy what his job was, and the janitor giving the answer "I'm helping to put a man on the moon.””
The thread that runs through this thinking, is that human systems (the economy, the city) are adaptive systems like the life sciences. And that if we stubbornly persist in applying solutions to complex adaptive systems that would be appropriate only to machines, we will fail, often we will only compound our problems.
Organized complexity ("The variables are many but are not helter-skelter; they are interrelated into an organic whole.”) silo breaking ("I'm helping to put a man on the moon.” ) and the complex adaptive system ("theory-based approaches will produce deeply flawed outcomes") share an ethos. They counter, as architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg says, the neo-conservative ideological trend of recent decades, “beggar thy neighbour policies [that] inevitably lead to a race to the bottom and impoverishment of the public realm and public services."
And here the point is made yet again by Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn in his blog post “Do You Want to Know What Works?
"Those administering the complicated pattern — the technical professionals — quickly become obsessed with growth and the inputs (capital) necessary to create accelerating levels of growth. They become trapped in what we’ve called the Growth Ponzi Scheme as liabilities mount over time. Those administering the complex pattern—a co-creation of citizens and humble professionals—obsess over feedback as a way to discern what they should do next. They are seeking stability through the continual harmonizing of many competing objectives, one of which is growth (though not the only one)." — Charles Marohn