Urban Aboriginal Round Tables: Community engagement from an Indigenous perspective

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By Cities for People / We Are Cities’ Urban Aboriginal Convenor - Ted Norris

The role of Urban Aboriginal Convenor for the We Are Cities national movement has enabled me to continue the work that I have been doing for many years – and that is to connect people and ideas through a common vision. Although there were distinct differences among the participating cities, each round table host and every single one of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants approached their engagement “in a good way and with a good mind and heart” as many Elders will proclaim during ceremony.

The tone of the four Urban Aboriginal round tables was one of overall optimism despite some thorny challenges and complex barriers that continue to hamper many Aboriginal people. Laughter and good natured teasing is an integral part of any gathering of Aboriginal people – whether sitting around a camp fire, celebrating family milestones or participating in talking circles.


We Are Cities Roundtable in Ottawa (Photo: Leah Snyder)

The overarching theme of these round tables was, not surprisingly, community engagement from an Indigenous lens. I want to delve into more detail about what this really means to the almost 60% of First Nation, Métis and Inuit who now live in urban areas.

First, a quick overview of some stats*:

  • The Aboriginal population was 1,400,685 in 2011, up from 1,172,790 in 2006 making it the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population.
  • Amongst the Aboriginal population, 46% of individuals are under age 25, compared to 29% for the rest of the Canadian population.
  • Aboriginal peoples represent 2.8% of the Canadian population, but account for 18% of the federally incarcerated population**.

In 2017 the life expectancy for the total Canadian population is projected to be 79 years for men and 83 years for women. Among the Aboriginal population the Inuit have the lowest projected life expectancy in 2017, of 64 years for men and 73 years for women. The Métis and First Nations populations have similar life expectancies, at 73-74 years for men and 78-80 years for women.

*All stats from Statistics Canada
**From Correctional Services Canada

The “Idle No More” movement, the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women (see the Native Women’s Association of Canada), First Nations education on & off reserve, and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), are a few recent and important examples that have focused country-wide attention on Aboriginal issues as never before. But, as indicated earlier, it is not all dire news.


Sisters In Spirit silent march for missing and murdered aboriginal women in Whitehorse, YKT (Photo: Yukon News)

“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Louis Riel – July 4, 1885

We have a burgeoning arts and culture scene – Indigenous writing, theatre, music, film and visual arts – being produced and recognized nationally and internationally. Aboriginal people are participating in local, regional and national politics in record numbers – and successfully advocating for change from within established European-based governance models. Our Aboriginal business leaders embody an entrepreneurial spirit that is countless generations old.

There is reason for optimism and this positive attitude came out loud and clear in the We Are Cities urban Aboriginal round tables. For the most part, urban Aboriginal people have very similar concerns and needs as their non-Aboriginal neighbours – safe streets, access to efficient transportation choices and affordable housing options.

Some unique aspects of the urban Aboriginal round table discussions in Ottawa and Vancouver, for example, were around the recognition of sacred and cultural spaces in the urban environment. In the National Capital Region,    is situated in the Ottawa River between Gatineau and Ottawa and is an historical meeting and trading place for the Algonquin peoples of Ontario and Quebec. Efforts are underway to preserve the integrity of the space for future generations, despite pressures from real estate developers (you can read about ongoing discussions about development plans for Victoria Island, and criticisms that have arisen from both First Nations and non-First Nations communities, here, here, and here).

Victoria Island

Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, Traditional Algonquin Territory (Photo: Rob Huntley)

In Vancouver, the Salish Sea Village concept is being touted as a potential model for other developments across the country that wish to celebrate the historical past and the current contributions of Indigenous peoples. Education and awareness are key to cement an on-going connectedness between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal interests. Efforts to bridge cultural divides will have long term, lasting benefits on all sides.

The important role of Elders and other traditional knowledge keepers was highlighted in Brandon, MB, as well as the other round tables. An Elders Council at City Hall would go a long way toward increased understanding and acceptance of First Nation, Métis and Inuit cultures and traditions. The spiritual element also includes the need for traditional ceremony and this was discussed at length at the Brandon University round table. Participants want to see more tolerance towards smudging in hospitals, schools and other public buildings for ceremonial purposes.

Recently at a youth event in a Thunder Bay hotel, I was met with an incredulous “of course” when I inquired about the possibility of our elder burning sweetgrass and tobacco in the meeting room for a traditional smudging / cleansing ceremony. It is all about attitude, and a relaxing of non-smoking restrictions for certain ceremonial occasions.

Youth leadership was high on the list of discussions at the Winnipeg round table hosted by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. As posted by Ma Mawi,

“The round table provided youth with an opportunity to share their dreams for the future of Winnipeg and first steps towards this dream.”

It was gratifying to see, just within the relatively short time period of the round table session, a growing self-confidence from some of the youth who have already gone on to actively develop their leadership skills. There is no limit to what these youth can do! But, as they themselves spoke about, they require the educational supports, safe streets, increased sports and cultural opportunities and an end to poverty to help make their dreams a reality.

Ma Mawi roundtable

We Are Cities roundtable participants at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg (Photo: Adesuwa Ero)

We are fortunate in Canada to have a number of existing program and institutional supports for the urban Aboriginal population. One of the prime examples is the National Aboriginal Friendship Centre movement (NAFC) which boasts 118 friendship centres across the country. The First Nations University in Regina and the Gabriel Dumont Institute are just two of a number of outstanding post-secondary educational institutions. Small and large businesses have a solid network through the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). Their model is bolstered by the efforts of the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy partners.

The urban Aboriginal landscape is vast. The voices of Inuit, Métis and First Nations will be key in developing an Urban Agenda that truly works for all citizens. To that end, a coalition of like-minded partners should be convened and encouraged to continue the momentum started by the We Are Cities initiative.

Note: You can read more from Ted Norris on the We Are Cities website, where he shared thoughts on using cultural practices creatively to adapt the We Are Cities toolkit to generate new ideas.


Thinking Hats at the We Are Cities Roundtable in Ottawa (Photo: Ted Norris)

Calgary’s Re-localize Fair demonstrates possibilities for community-based economies

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We are pleased to share some of the exciting work being undertaken by the We Are Cities cross-Canada convenor network! In addition to hosting and supporting We Are Cities roundtables this past spring, several convenors have been working on demonstration projects in their communities that test new approaches to resilient and livable cities. These projects are meant to engage convenors’ networks while forging new connections to strengthen localized city-building efforts. Demonstration projects range from pop-up public citizen spaces to neighborhood fairs to public transit experiments.

In this blog, we adapted the reflections of Calgary convenor Gerald Wheatley, Manager at the Arusha Centre, on their demonstration project: the Re-localization Fair, held at Calgary’s Bridgeland Riverside Community Association on April 18, 2015, as part of the 2015 Down to Earth Week

relocalize fair logo.

About the Re-localization Fair

What is Re-localization? Put simply, it is a movement away from global dependences and towards building resilience through strong local economies. It’s about buying local, yes, but also involves capitalizing on each community’s unique capacities to share knowledge and resources to build autonomy. (See here for an explanation of Re-localization from Megan Quinn Bachman). from In that vein, the Fair was an afternoon gathering of workshops, a market, and keynote speech all about the local movement, featuring Re-localization expert and author Michael Shuman. The event featured local music, waste diversion, pedal powered demonstration, and family activities. All this took place in a community association building located in a Transit-oriented Development (TOD) community with a tool lending library, farmers market, grassroots granting program and rooftop garden. The Re-localize Fair attracted 450 attendees and 26 market vendors; many attendees participated in one of the eight workshops on topics central to the Re-localization movement (workshops are described in detail below).

The Fair had several positive impacts on surrounding communities. First of all, it demonstrated that there is popular interest in Re-ocalization, a concept that is emerging and includes important social justice and environmental sustainability principles which have not been widely embraced. The event had a synergistic buzz of excitement between attendees, vendors, and workshops engaged in food, economy, and livability.

Second, the spirit of sharing and learning that characterized the Fair is central to the development of new economies based on knowledge-transfer. The Fair had an atmosphere of popular education with many local resource people sharing with Calgary citizens and businesses. These interactions were linked to networks of community economic development such as THRIVE employment development and the Respect for Earth and All Peoples (REAP) triple bottom line business network.

relocalize fair 5

Showcasing Calgary dollars - a local currency!


One of the standout features of the Fair were a series of eight one-hour workshops covering topics from gardening and composting to social engagement and activism. Using social media and word-of-mouth advertising, the sessions each brought crowds from five to 40. Many attendees were vocally supportive of the hosts and the workshop format, as many were hearing of the organizations and topics for the first time. Sessions on SPIN farming and Viegages (a community model that provides affordable financing– the opposite of “mort”gage) provided an opportunity to learn about something new, while the We Are Cities Mobilization (in which roundtable participants discovered the power of funny hats!) and Bike Calgary sessions provided ways to be active in community-building in Calgary. The experience was an empowering one, as people were able to learn, display, and activate a depth of skills and interests in a socially conscious and intimate setting.

SPIN farming

SPIN (Small-Plot INtensive) farming: look at those beautiful greens!

The Fair also featured speaker Michael Shuman, who offered insights from his work with the Business Alliance for a Local Living Economy (BALLE). Michael is the author of “Small Mart Revolution” and “Local Dollars, Local Sense” and ensured that attendees understood the social and environmental benefits of localization. Building on the theme of strengthening local economies, the Fair accepted Calgary dollars (Calgary's complementary currency system, started by the Arusha Centre in 1995), as well as promoting egalitarian business models being used in Calgary and beyond, such as the Canadian Worker Coop and Grain Exchange Worker Owned Bakery.

Finally, on the creative side, Ecoliving Events showcased chairs made from shipping pallets, and renowned local artist Daniel J. Kirk unveiled “Relocalize the Box”, an interactive art piece that allows users to create a three dimensional art piece from wood pieces featuring different themes. The Kidzone offered do-it-yourself buttons, a scavenger hunt, pedal powered lights, and three live music performers.

relocalize fair 7

Artist Daniel J. Kirk demonstrates the interactive art piece “Relocalize the Box”

Given the success of the Re-localize Fair, many participants and vendors expressed interest in a similar event next year. We are excited to continue following the Arusha Centre and other participating organizations’ work, and find out what might be in store for 2016!

You can see more photos of the fair on Arusha’s Facebook page.


About the Arusha Centre

The Arusha Centre is a collectively run, member-supported organisation that provides resources and initiatives on social justice and environmental issues. We help Calgarians through community economic development and community resilience programs and offers varied practical resources, animating activities which educate, inspire and connect with and between people and projects. Click here to learn more about their mission and here to find out what they’re up to and who they’re collaborating with.

Arusha logo with Programs lowres

About We Are Cities

We Are Cities was launched by a number of organizations that believe that a prosperous future for Canada depends on thriving cities. For cities to succeed, citizens need to take an active role in identifying a path forward to achieve resilience, prosperity and inclusivity. Through community roundtables and an online idea forum, Canadians are helping to build a vision and action plan to make Canadian cities healthy and exciting places to live, work and play. We Are Cities is also connecting existing city-building work in order to strengthen and mobilize our collective efforts to enable the change we need. Stay tuned for details on We Are Cities Day, coming up September 15!


How Tactical Urbanism “Adds Up”

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A review of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, by Anthony Garcia and Mike Lydon. 2015. ISBN 9781610915267. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 256 pp.

Book cover

This review was originally written for The Nature of Cities. This is a shortened version.

Tactical Urbanism: it’s one of the buzz words in the emerging people-centred planning paradigm. If you do a Google News search of the term, you’ll find articles from all the news sites beloved by urbanists: Next City Daily, CityLab, Slate, ArchDaily, et al. Often used in the context of citizen-led improvements to the urban environment, it can mean everything from small beautification projects to major city-led revitalization efforts. To me, it evokes images of renegade city-dwellers armed with spray paint, bollards, and patio furniture, taking urban planning matters into their own hands to improve their small piece of the city. But Tactical Urbanism can mean a lot of things: there is no unified definition to place it into the larger dialogue about citizen action in urban planning.

These many meanings are captured in Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a book by American urban planners Anthony Garcia and Mike Lydon, both leaders in civic advocacy and principals of The Street Plans Collaborative. By clearly laying out what tactical urbanism is—the authors define it simply as an approach to neighbourhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies (in other words, according to Professor Nabeel Hamdi, Tactical Urbanism is “making plans without the usual preponderance of planning”)—the groundwork is laid to build on this theory of change by providing successful examples and providing guidance for making it work in practice.

I found it to be an accessible read, heavy on place-based examples, personal narratives, and photographs, while touching on planning and public space theory. As a person who studied urban planning and is most interested in working in the community sector, I found this book to effectively bridge the worlds of quick and visible on-the-ground action with less exciting but very rigorous long-term planning that sets out comprehensive frameworks for development. It also does a great job of celebrating the many successes of citizen-led action, while acknowledging an integral part of the iterative “build-measure-learn” cycle of tactical urbanism: having the courage to fail.


he Tactical Urbanism cycle: It’s about trying things out, then continually adapting and refining.

I found the tone to strike a positive yet pragmatic balance: it has a “you can do it” inspirational voice, but includes frank discussion of the bureaucratic obstacles that continue to prevent the kinds of straightforward, low-cost interventions championed in the text. This left me with the impression that it is possible to create lasting change in one’s community—but don’t expect it to be smooth sailing. A note on terminology: while this book uses minimal planning jargon, the term tactical urbanism itself may not resonate widely in its attempts to capture a movement that presents an alternative to the long-range municipal planning processes that shape our cities. An alternative term used by New York’s Project for Public Spaces is “lighter, quicker, cheaper”. Jaime Lerner’s term “urban acupuncture” also seems to have leverage with a non-planning audience, although it refers specifically to pinpointing vulnerable areas and then using design to re-energize them. “Trial-and-error urbanism” might also capture Garcia and Lydon’s framework: rather than spending a lot of time, money, and resources on coming up with the best plan, we would do better to test things out on a small scale to see if there is potential for wider applicability and sanctioned change.

I found the weaving through of examples that illustrate how we shape our cities by doing something in the short-term, with the view of changing conditions for the long-term, to be immensely helpful in understanding the strategic nature of tactical urbanism. While any intervention that alters the urban landscape, such as yarn bombing a chain-link fence or adding life to an underpass with graffiti or paste-ups, can change people’s perceptions of a space, what makes tactical urbanism tactical is its efforts to shift thinking and patterns of development by demonstrating what is possible with a little creativity and often a whole lot of DIY smarts.

Throughout the book, Lydon and Garcia highlight examples in which an unsanctioned project was eventually supported by government—often a city’s planning or public works agency. This gradual shift from unsanctioned to sanctioned can ease some of the burden of project maintenance on volunteers while allowing cities to take leadership on facilitating bottom-up planning. However, the authors embrace the idea of having a spectrum of projects, from those steeped in DIY culture all the way to “tactical economies”, such as setting up pop-up businesses to attract private investment in a stagnant area. Not all tactical urbanism efforts will be okayed by government, and that should not necessarily be the end goal of citizens looking to test out urban interventions.

This dance between citizen-led action and long-term policy change was a motif throughout the book, and one that I think has potential to provoke conversations about shifting public participation in planning from “show-and-tell” to deep collaboration. It was incredible to read about such a range of stories about projects that began as one-off, localized efforts but have now been scaled up or out by budging municipal policies. For example, on a recent visit to Portland, OR, I noticed that neighbourhood intersections were often adorned with murals:

Portland Sunnyside Plaza_credit daily.sightline.org

A welcoming intersection in Portland’s Sunnyside neighbourhood (Photo: Daily Sightline)

Turns out, this is thanks to a crew of Portlanders who, concerned about road safety in their neighbourhoods, obtained a block party permit to undertake “intersection repair”: painting a mural across the intersection, adding a tea station, community bulletin board, and more. Despite initially meeting resistance from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the group persisted, demonstrating improvements to quality of life through resident surveys. Eventually, the City saw the light: facing a decrease in funding for art and public spaces, yet needing to fulfill livability and sustainability policies, they eventually adopted an Intersection Repair Ordinance. Examples like this show what is possible when residents pave (or unpave!) the way for city-level policies that enable more efficient and people-friendly planning.

For those who already have a tactical urbanism idea in mind, the book makes effective use of basic diagrams to explain the practice: one in particular that budding tactical urbanists might want to consult is the Tactical Spectrum, showing the range of projects from unsanctioned to sanctioned.  In this context, unsanctioned refers to projects that citizens can go ahead and do without any government support; sanctioned describes projects that require support and approval from government, usually city departments, by nature of their scale or complexity.


The Tactical Spectrum: Where does your project fit?

While budgeting, permit application, and other logistical matters aren’t the most exciting parts of planning your tactical urban intervention, it is helpful to think about how much government support you will need so you don’t find yourself facing unforeseen obstacles.

Overall, though, the authors stress that no matter the nature, scale, and degree of government implication in the project, the most important consideration is how it will affect the community. This is something that I find often goes missing in conversation about urban revitalization: who is doing the revitalizing, for whom, and to what ends?  In the second-to-last chapter, “A Tactical Urbanism How-To”, the authors present a series of questions that one needs to ponder before getting a project underway, from sourcing materials, to leveraging community support, to maintenance. I liked the emphasis on thinking through what the effects might be on the surrounding communities: it is easy to forget that what you think is a swell idea might not actually be what a particular group of people needs or wants.

This concern for ensuring that tactical urbanists do not end up adversely affecting the communities they are trying to improve gets to the crux of whether planning should come from the grassroots or “grasstops”. While tactical urbanism can bring alternative methods and accelerated timelines to municipal decision-makers’ attention, ultimately their goals are not so different than those espoused by planning policy: what city’s Official Plan doesn’t use words such as sustainable, vibrant, and resilient? One aspect of tactical urbanism that merits more exploring is what happens when the landscape of projects starts to become saturated. As with anything, the more people involved, the greater the need becomes for checks and balances. Does this kind of “lighter, quicker, cheaper” intervention only work when few people are doing it? How can multiple groups with competing visions negotiate the space of tactical urbanism without undermining each other’s’ efforts—and the visions, guidelines, and plans laid out by city government?

While these big questions aren’t answered in this book, the authors do suggest, through examples of informal partnerships between citizen groups and city government, the possibility of a new planning practice. This practice derives rigour from harnessing residents’ skills, energy, and imaginative foresight to balance comprehensive, long-term planning with the kind of quick-win, prototyping work that can get folks excited about improving the places they live. To refer back to Portland, the City’s Office of Neighbourhood Involvementcoordinates a 95 neighbourhood-strong network of district coalitions and offices which provide support and technical assistance to volunteer-based neighborhood associations, community groups and individual citizen-activists. It may be in this type of supportive partnership that the strengths of both tactical urbanism and bureaucrat-led planning can be leveraged to build communities that are both functional and personable.

Until that happens, though, people will continue to find ways to mobilize and to shape the places they care about. It may sound cheesy, but seeing photos showing regular people doing work in their communities, wearing normal clothes, and using simple methods, reinforces the authors’ emphasis that truly, anyone can do tactical urbanism. It’s hard not to be inspired by the go-getters described in this book: from Baltimore resident Lou Catelli, who painted a crosswalk at a dangerous intersection when city staff failed to do the job, to Matt Tomasulo who created simple wayfinding signs to encourage people to actively rediscover their city.


Getting it done: Lou Catelli painting a crosswalk in Baltimore

Walk your city

Matt Tomasulo’s wayfinding signs in Raleigh

In particular, understanding how to exploit loopholes in the web of planning regulations is a great skill to have in one’s pocket: from feeding the meter to roll out a temporary park in a parking space, to using a catch-all special events permit for “build a better block” programming, there are a surprising number of instances in which seemingly hard-and-fast rules can be reinterpreted, at least in the short term. Another takeaway message that seems obvious but may be underappreciated is the value of developing allies in city staff by getting them on board early in the process by documenting successes, including community buy-in. If staff perceive value in what you’re doing, they’re that much more likely to put pressure in their departments to make the big policy changes that can facilitate and even mandate what you’re championing.

While it is the individual stories of citizen-led action that bring the book to life, the authors also provide context to these stories by tracing the evolution of five broad categories of tactical urbanism: Intersection Repair, Guerilla Wayfinding, Build a Better Block, Parkmaking, and Pavements to Plazas. These in-depth explorations trace the origins of each approach while sharing resources that readers can draw from along the way. For example, understanding the genesis of now-iconic programs such as New York City’s Pavements to Plazas (see: Times Square, Park Ave, and many more) highlights how far the idea of people-centric planning has come in a short time period—and what we can look forward to as these ideas become championed by municipal leaders such as the formidable Janette Sadik-Khan (check out her TEDTalk: NYC’s Streets Are No So Mean Anymore). One aspect of the book that folks with great ideas but limited resources will appreciate is that often the best interventions are simple, and start on a small scale. Daniel Burnham famously proclaimed “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…”; rather, Lydon and Garcia posit that it is by testing new approaches in small ways that we create the kind of bigger shifts we’re yearning for in cities.

Okuplaza_credit Open City Projects

Okuplaza on San Diego Street in Santiago, Chile: a collaboration by Ciudad Emergente (Photo: Open City Projects)

I would recommend this book to both world-weary city planners seeking to be re-inspired to improve public spaces and the next generation of municipal “intrapreneurs” who are driven to catalyze big changes—as well as folks working on the ground in their communities seeking guidance on strategic and logistical matters. While many of the examples may be familiar to anyone interested in urbanism, I certainly found a few new ideas that sparked further research. Plus, the “how-to” parts of the book ensure that you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel: the wonderful thing about tactical urbanism is that it’s open-source by nature, so learning from others’ successes and drawbacks is part of the process.

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, I would recommend spending an hour with the last two chapters. I guarantee you’ll come out with a practical idea or two on improving your own neighbourhood through tactical urbanism—while avoiding getting caught behind a wall of red tape.

Gardening St Henri_credit Gazette

Guerilla gardeners in Montreal's St-Henri neighbourhood (Photo: Montreal Gazette)

PostscriptAre you keen to get you own tactical urbanism project a try? 100in1 Day is a good way to get started. It’s a global festival of civic engagement, designed to embrace our power as urban citizens by spending one day of the year testing out small urban interventions to ultimately improve one’s city. These can range from activities, to education, to installations that temporarily change the built environment. In 2015, 100in1 Day happened on June 6 in four Canadian cities. Check out the 100+ urban interventions that happened in Halifax (Nova Scotia), Hamilton (Ontario), Toronto (Ontario), and Vancouver (British Columbia).

We also hosted a webinar on 100in1 Day and Active Citizenship featuring Juan Carlos Londono and Cédric Jamet, two Montrealers who launched the 100in1Day movement in Canada. You can watch it here.

Montreal-urban-garden-credit The City Fix

100en1 jour in Montreal (Photo: The City Fix)

Sustainable Degrowth and Relocalizing our Economies: An Interview with William Rees

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By Jane Zhang*WmRees

  1. In your view, what are three key elements of "new economies"?
  • Recognizing natural limits
    The overarching problem is one that the mainstream has yet to acknowledge: on a planet already in overshoot, there is no possibility of raising even the present world population to developed country material standards sustainably with known technologies and available resources. By 2008, the world population had reached 6.7 billion—it’s 7.3 billion today—while there were only about 12 billion productive hectares on Earth, or just 1.8 average hectares per capita. We can refer to “1.8 average hectares per capita” as one’s equitable “Earth share.” It represents the biocapacity available to support each person, assuming the world’s productive ecosystems were distributed equally among the entire human population. The problem is, it currently takes 4-7 global average productive hectares to provide ‘natural income’ (resources) and life-support services to the average European or North American. How many more planets do we need for sustainability? You do the math!
  • Societal cooperation
    (Un)sustainability is a collective problem. No individual can implement the policies necessary (e.g. carbon taxes, resource quotas) to significantly reduce his/her ecological footprint or revamp the social programs needed for social stability. No country, however virtuous, can be sustainable on its own or remain insulated from global turmoil. Thus, the so-called developed world, long steeped in the rhetoric of competitive individualism, must now grapple with the notion that individual and national interests have all but converged with humanity’s common interests. Working co-operatively for the common good will require the ardent exercise of several intellectual and behavioural qualities that are unique (or nearly so) to our species, such as high intelligence, the ability to plan ahead, socio-behavioural means for cooperation, moral judgment, and empathy. The question is, are we up to the task or will we succumb to primitive combative tribalism?
  • Planned economic degrowth
    Renegrade economist Kenneth Boulding once said, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” The contemporary growth economy is a malignant social construct. We need to replace it with an ecologically benign and socially equitable no-growth variant. This idea is not new— in the mid-18th Century, Adam Smith predicted the slowing of growth as inevitable. Almost a century later, John Stuart Mill argued that society would reach a “stationery state”, but he hoped people would plan a deliberate transition to this steady state before nature imposed it upon them.

2. Why degrowth, and what does steady-state sustainability with justice look like?

First of all, remember that continuous growth of anything in a finite space is anomalous and ultimately self-correcting. For 99.9% of human history, local populations rarely grew for extended periods but rather fluctuated near carrying capacity as a function of food supplies, disease, etc. The recent 200 years of continuous growth that we consider the norm is actually the single most abnormal period in human history.

Keep in mind that economic production is actually mostly a consumptive process. Manufacturing, for example, immediately irreversibly transforms large quantities of useful energy and material into an equivalent mass of useless waste (and even the smaller quantity of useful product eventually joins the waste stream). Humans are literally converting the both the non-renewable and self-producing ‘resources’ of Earth into more human bodies, toys and furniture, and the infrastructure needed to maintain civilization. The present scale of economic activity depletes essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate.

Remember too that beyond a certain income level (long passed in high-income countries), there is no further positive correlation between GDP per capita and objective indicators of either population health or perceived well-being. Indeed, growth can become destructive. Once basic material needs are met, it is not rich countries but rather countries with greater income equality that perform better on standard quality-of-life indicators. Greater social equity is “better for everyone.”

With integrated fiscal, tax, employment and population policies and the like, it should be possible to create an ecologically viable, more equitable, economically stable, no-growth economy with minimal unemployment and poverty. It is important to emphasize that such a ‘steady-state’ economy need not be a stagnant economy. It can be dynamic, evolving, constantly improving. For example, as we phase out obsolete industries, new technologies and the service sector will actually expand. The idea is to maintain energy and material consumption at constant sustainable levels while creating the conditions necessary for greater personal development and improved quality of life. Society needs to get better, not bigger.

3. How does this relate to cities?

Urban designers and planners should begin now to rethink cities—or rather urban regions—so they function as complete quasi-independent human ecosystems. The least vulnerable and most resilient urban system might be a new form of urban-centered bioregion, or eco-city state, in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by essential supportive ecosystems. The goal is to consolidate as much as possible of the human community’s productive hinterland in close proximity to its consumptive centre. Organic “wastes” and nutrients could then be economically recycled back to farms and forests. Such a bioregionalized city would reconnect its human population to “the land.” Citizens would see themselves to be directly dependent on local ecosystems and thus have a strong incentive to manage them sustainably. Ideally, regional eco-cities would develop economic and social planning policies to maintain sustainable populations and to facilitate reducing their residents’ ecological footprints to a globally equitable 1.8 gha per capita.

4. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is the contentment that comes from a sense of self-worth and belonging. Real wealth derives more from intangibles than from material goods. It is rooted in community, rich personal relationships, success in the achievement of one’s potential and the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of one’s society. It is dependent on the security of person that can come only from supportive family and friendships and a society characterized by well-developed social infrastructure (e.g., public education, health care) and governed for economic and ecological stability.

*Mostly adapted from “Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy”


William Rees is an ecological economist Professor Emeritus and former director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. The originator of eco-footprint analysis, he has an extensive opus of peer-reviewed articles on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability in an era of accelerating ecological change. Dr. Rees was a founding director and past-president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, a founding director of the One Earth Initiative and, a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and the winner of several major international awards.

Finding our Sorcerer: An Interview with Ken Lyotier

Posted on:

This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By Jane ZhangKen's face (1)

  1. In your view, what are the key elements of "new economies"?

 I really wonder if there is truly such a thing as “new economies”, or maybe just variations on old ones. New wealth is only created where there is additional human input, hopefully some of it genuinely innovative that produces some new value.   We happen to live in a material world where we spend a lot of time and energy converting some forms of material into other forms of material that we hope will be more useful to us, and have more value than what they were in their previous state.   Unfortunately, this process frequently ends up causing pollution.   Frequently the way we use materials is actually quite primitive.

For example, like some species of birds which are heavily invested biologically in dramatic colourful plumage used to attract mates, we humans do a lot of that kind of showing off too. We display our material possessions in ways that attempt to relate them to our value as individuals. I drive a big flashy car therefore I must be important. I own a mansion therefore I must be of worth as a human being. This kind of behaviour is a misuse of material.   It attempts to make material be and do something that it will never be able to be or do… Material possessions can never give us an accurate measure of a person’s character nor, apart from satisfying essential needs, or when used in creative expression to satisfy aesthetic senses, can they complete the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of being human. Perhaps some human qualities can be commodified and measured, like attaching a commonly agreed upon value to the worth of certain work, but I’m not so sure that things like human imagination can be so easily measured. In addition, time, space, and repetition of certain actions create structural boundaries that tend to limit abstract conceptions including our ability to even imagine genuinely different ways of creating value. Basically because we have a material aspect to us that is supported and sustained by material, we tend to get bound up in the material world.

  1. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is what is seen as having value because it is usable by humans. Real wealth needs to be used in ways that recognize its impact on the real world and protects us from potential dangers caused by its use in the physical and social environment.

There are costs attached to everything we do, whether it is as a result of the plants we eat or the soil we tread upon. In addition to existing in a material world, we exist in a functional reality, and I believe we need to become more sensitive to the impact we have on our surroundings.

It might be useful to contrast real wealth with “not real” wealth. I think we sometimes confuse what are actually the tools, such as money, used in the creation of real wealth.

  1. How have your life experiences shaped the way you view economies?

I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life, and in making my way have come to live in Vancouver’s the Downtown Eastside for many years. There are many reasons why people live on the streets here. While living on and close to the street, I picked cans and bottles, and things that I thought might have value out of the garbage. In this process of hunting and gathering, I learned something about the amount of effort it took to collect material and convert it into currency, in this case nickels and dimes. While the compensation for this work may not have always equated to my sense of what would have constituted a fair value, it did at least equate to something inasmuch as I was able to exchange the currency I gained in this effort for goods to be had for a price in the broader economy.

For us in the West, there are other supports available that help compensate for the extremely limited returns that can be realized through activities like binning. Here in Vancouver, I think of us as living in the later days of the welfare state. We still have health care, homeless shelters, public income assistance, bread lines, and drop-in centres. During the years I was binning more seriously, all of these kinds of services were available to me. Such benefits are often not available in other parts of the world. While probably no one can ever truly have a life experience that equates exactly with someone else’s experience, I think that through my time on the streets and binning in Vancouver, I did gain some degree of empathy for people in other parts of the world whose standard of living is somehow managed on a very few dollars a day.

  1. What do you think we need to prioritize as a society and as individuals? 

We need to look at the broad sweep of human history, rather than this narrow perspective represented by the short few decades punctuated by our own births and deaths.

Human neediness, especially European neediness of recent centuries initially responded to actual material needs, but our economy has moved systematically over time from efforts to meet basic needs to attempting, as mentioned earlier, to fill our spiritual and intellectual needs with material. We’ve veered dramatically off on a tangent, which has done some serious damage to our own psyches, to other critters in the neighbourhood, and to the planet as a whole. It reminds me of the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – we are still that apprentice though we don’t like to acknowledge it, we have created a flood of junk, and we desperately need the sorcerer back.

In our discovery of each other and our multitudes of various cultures, we’ve come face to face with the fact that on the surface anyway, the cultural values and beliefs of the diverse groups that go to make up the 8 billion of us who populate planet Earth, do not always seem to match. But hopefully we will be able to discover that there is a deeper unifying shared humanity slightly hidden underneath these apparent cultural divides. To make these discoveries about our common humanity requires some humility

As societies, we tend to want to find that one perfect solution, put it in a box, put our stamp of approval on it, and say, now we finally know the truth. It is all so self-contained. This tendency often gets us “stuck” and into a great deal of trouble. This life is not about packaging our solutions after all. It’s not about forcing our solutions on each other to prove how powerful and clever we are; it’s about what it means to care for one another and about the spirit that is generated in the process of this caring. I believe it will be crucial to our future, to learn to create safe places for ourselves and each other, where we can share our unique experiences of the truth together.

I’m an optimist. We humans have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to cooperate in times of need, and this encourages me. Of course, we do have many counterexamples where civilizations have gone seriously off the rails. But we really need to get it right this time because the work we need to be doing is global in scale and if we get it wrong, we don’t have another planet where we can hide. To our advantage, we do have about 5000 years of written records and millions of years of archeological evidence from which to glean and learn.

We also need to change and adapt in an equitable way, and this likely means sharing power and wealth. It also means realizing that not everyone needs the same things at the same times. Adults have different needs than children, the sick, than the healthy… we need measures that respect these kinds of variables.

There is tremendous energy in the free market economy, with its ability to generate a pace of change that far exceeds the pace at which we are willing and able to address social inequities. If we could harness that energy and put it in the service of generating progressive social change, for example, we may be able to create the change we need. To succeed, this would take an unusual amount of humility willingness, hope, commitment, moral courage, and ultimately, action that is not only predicated on a guaranteed positive outcome but is also based on principles that allow us to distinguish right from wrong.


Ken Lyotier was born in North Vancouver in 1947. He has lived and worked in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a socially and economically depressed area of the City, for the past 30 years. In 1990, along with other members of his community, Ken began work to improve beverage container recycling services in Vancouver. He participated in discussions, which guided the drafting of regulations to expand industry stewardship of beverage container recycling in British Columbia.

He was also the founder and Executive Director of United We Can, a non-profit bottle depot, which has operated in downtown Vancouver since 1995. Ken’s work has been well recognized and he has received numerous awards and commendations including Meritorious Service and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medals from the Governor General of Canada and an honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of British Columbia.


Freeing Ourselves from the ‘Free’ Market: An Interview with Nabeel Ahmed

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By: Jane Zhang

Nabeel Ahmed

In your view, what are three (or key) elements of "new economies"?

  1. At the core, new economies have to be focused around people and protecting public interests, not falling prey to short-term, profit-driven private interests. They are designed with the real experiences of people in mind and both accessible and accountable to those people – not just the relative minority that most of the market caters to.
  1. We are often told that the current mainstream economic system is theoretically focused on the most efficient allocation of resources, which is pitched as the equivalent of maximizing returns to the greatest number of people. But we also know that structural failures, varying political interests and simple lapses and incompetence lead to massive inequity. So the second element is that new economies understand and take into account questions of power and privilege. They are grounded in an understanding that the economy and power are intimately linked and changes in one have powerful implications for the other.
  1. New Economies are normative, based on a set of values that center around questions of fairness, such as preventing oppression. Too often we hide behind shaky claims of objectivity and shake our heads sadly at the outcomes that follow. An approach that claims to be objective often fails to protect the basic values and rights that should be at the foundation of our society.

How does this relate to cities?

As sites of concentrating both people and ideas, cities are ideal grounds for piloting new economies that are connected and accountable to communities. Those who are supporting the development or adoption of these new economies can garner feedback from communities even in the process of trying out new ideas. It can be easier to track and measure the progress of a system in a dense area - and easier for people to hold others accountable.

And of course, cities are where most people already live and where power relations are most clearly visible - this supports the development of the new economies I began to describe above.

How have your personal experiences shaped the way you view economies?

Living in the big, city of Karachi, Pakistan is what drove me to think about and understand political economy. It's where I first understood how alternative models could flourish, when I learned about social enterprises and when I first began to poke holes in the mainstream economic system we live within. Since then my work has focused around helping great non-profits and social enterprises flourish, and in this I have been reminded over and over again of how pervasive economic and political structures are.

Even when initiatives think they are somehow free of , even when entrepreneurs resolve to stick to their values and never compromise on their beliefs, they eventually succumb and either submit or fail. The most stable, well-funded and well-respected organizations are and don't ruffle too many feathers. Large multinational non-profits know that it is risky to be too outspoken, to be too honest. This is deeply frustrating to me because it means that markers have been laid down about what constitutes acceptable speech or not, and clearly shows how economic dependence stifles freedom.

What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is knowing that you and your loved ones are safe and comfortable. That's a peace of mind that I think really gives people the freedom to pursue their dreams and passions (beyond having the means necessary, of course - but safety and comfort are based on material well-being). Most people in this world struggle for basic security (broadly defined) and a minimum level of comfort, so can never be the best versions of themselves because they may never have the opportunity to explore what that means, let alone meaningfully pursue it. That's a huge loss and I think a feeling of safety, broadly defined, is something that all truly wealthy people enjoy.

Real wealth leads to real freedom.


Nabeel Ahmed helps non-profit social enterprises launch target-based sustainability programs in Ontario as Member Experience Manager at Sustainability CoLab. Nabeel worked at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing as the Managing Editor of SocialFinance.ca before a fellowship with Aga Khan Foundation Canada in Kyrgyzstan. He is currently a Guest Editor on the New Economies theme with Cities for People and volunteers for a number of local and international non-profits. Nabeel studied public policy and administration at the University of Toronto after business school in Karachi. He enjoys cricket, culture (especially from the subcontinent) and good arguments.

More Precisely

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by cheyanne turions

Born in Harlem, James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died in 1987, his life bearing witness to significant social upheavals including the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, the gay liberation movement, and the emergence of AIDS. Just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed Baldwin as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. A novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, Baldwin is perhaps best known for his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and his essay collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In London for a remounting of his play The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin joined Nicholson amongst a set of empty theatre seats. The footage is raw: a time code ticks the seconds away, noting that the edit begins eight minutes into recording. The conversation shows Baldwin ruminating on shifting distributions of social power and those that remain entrenched. He is irreverent, refusing to be sated by the revolutions he has witnessed for the deliverance he imagines. I cannot be sure why this interview, nearly 30 years old, re-entered circulation in November 2014, but with the title “Civil Rights” it is easy to register its resonance with contemporary events in the United States such as waves of protest against a racist, and specifically anti-Black, police state or the then-anticipated release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014). It seems that Baldwin’s ideas again aggravate, push, and prod: this is not yet the world we dream of.

Nicholson is a provocative if somewhat naïve interlocutor, asking frank questions about racialization, religion, and sexuality, and Baldwin is an affable subject. And yet, the interview comes to be characterized by his consistent reframing of the assumptions embedded in her prompts. For instance, when Nicholson suggests that the terror Baldwin felt as a young man was because he is Black, he resists: it was because he was despised. The fear he felt was not properly related to the colour of his skin, but to the base reactions it elicited from peers who did not look like him. Baldwin’s point is that the pathology of racism belongs to the inner life of each of us, not to the observable facts of the world. And, while he never says this explicitly, it’s not a generalized racism but white supremacy in particular that allows for the social legibility of such hate, then and now.

This point is taken further when Nicholson tells a story about watching Baldwin’s play the week before the interview was taped and witnessing an interaction between two families. The patriarch of one family she describes as looking “intelligent…well-off…liberal” and the other family she describes as having a crying child and being Black. Nicholson suggests that the inherited history of “racial prejudice” prohibits the man whom she implies is white from telling off the Black family for bringing their child to the theatre. But again Baldwin stops her: “Why don’t you examine what does the word ‘racial’ mean. After all, everybody is a race of one kind or another. We’re not talking about racial prejudice; we talking about the structure of power. The structure of power that has the right and the duty to tell other people who they are for very dubious reasons. After all, one of the reasons I am Black is because I had to be Black in order to justify my slavery. That’s a part of my heritage and a part of yours too. It has nothing to do with race; it’s a way of avoiding history.” Against Nicholson’s proposal that this nearly missed confrontation between families is a moment of post-racial neutering, Baldwin insists that the white man will simply find another way to punish the Black family, a worse way. Perhaps Baldwin meant to imply a direct reaction—an admonishment of parenting capability or a slashed tire—though more likely he was invoking systemic distributions of power—higher rates of incarceration, widespread poverty, obstructed access to education. Seeming to function without leadership, these ongoing phenomena are actually the perfect manifestation of a white supremacist fear of difference. Baldwin knows he is being provocative when he says that “the hardest thing for any human being to do is to forgive someone they know they’ve wronged… [and so] white people live with the nightmare of the nigger they’ve invented.” Patterns of racial discrimination are not ever the proper consequences of whiteness or blackness, but rather a product of social conditioning, where white people are unjustifiably understood as superior to others, and where this unfounded belief then maintains systems of inequality that effect the social, economic, and political lives of all other people.

Baldwin refuses what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice.” On his terms, racial prejudice is nothing more than “the most abject cowardice” of those who occupy positions of power—politicians, citizens, the bourgeoisie—to self-reflexively understand their standing as historically informed and arising through subjugation. To the extent that material and political equality is possible, it will involve a recognition of how fear shapes every member of a society, and to address shifting political subjectivities through some kind of embodied relationship to this complex truth. Race is absolutely a lived reality despite the fact that it is not real, at least not biologically as is now generally accepted in scientific fields. And yet, there are countless social consequences tied to our differing historical, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Racism has become shorthand for acts of fear or hate that unfairly cast their provocation upon the body of the person who must bear their cruelty. Baldwin’s tactic refocuses agency upon the perpetrator. He doesn’t say it, but in his persistent refusal of Nicholson’s terms I read a refusal of racism. Racism is a way of describing structures of power, but it is not a thing unto itself, not the way the word is commonly used. More precisely, it is a system predicated upon an insidious kind of make-believe.

In this precision, the complexities between the “you” of Mavis Nicholson and the “I” of James Baldwin (and vice versa) are drawn out, placing the capacity for great social change upon them both as social actors capable of responses based in sentiments other than abject cowardice. However, that this nearly 30-year-old interview still so urgently resonates points to the fact that any real confrontation of racism will require systemic dismantling of white supremacist power structures. We can begin (one place amongst so many) by following Baldwin’s lead and engaging with the repercussions of language. We can consider, at the urging of poet and scholar Jackie Wang in her text Against Innocence, that “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary.” We can refuse a rhetoric of innocence that serves to distance the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Pearlie Golden and Kathryn Johnston and Aiyanna Jones and Trayvon Martin and Nizah Morris from the murders of hundreds and hundreds of Black people each year by police officers in the USA. We can map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power. We can use language more precisely, in order to reveal. And dismantle.

1] I am unable to find a more complete version of the interview.
2] From what I can tell, the footage was not available online until 01 November 2014, published on Youtube by ThamesTv and then circulated amongst aggregation sites. However, the footage remains relatively unseen, registering just over 4500 views as of 24 February 2015.
3] For discussions on the persistent myth of biological race see Merlin Chowkwanyun’s 2013 article “Race Is Not Biology,” published by The Atlantic here; Agustin Fuentes’s 2012 article “Race Is Real, but not the way Many People Think,” published by Psychology Today here; or UNESCO’s 1950 document “Statement by Experts on Race Problems,” found here.
4] Jackie Wang, Against Innocence (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 7-8. The text is also available online here.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the video Civil Rights—James Baldwin—Interview—Mavis on Four (1987), found here.

Thanks to Gina Badger and Pip Day for editorial support.


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cheyanne turions

Paradigm shift is not the evacuation of power, but rather its redistribution. Speaking at the University of Toronto in early February, feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti speculated on the impotence of the classical humanities to explain the entwined nature of contemporary life, offering instead the post-humanities as an intellectual paradigm worthy of the times. She calls the method cartographic, implying an immediate use-value to the practice (imagine the post-humanities as a kind of intellectual Google Maps) in order to counter the retrospective theorization associated with classical modes of humanities scholarship (like a map to a city that no longer stands). Braidotti’s philosophy is new to me and my understanding provisional, but I’m taking her up on an offer to think with her, to investigate the points of rupture she provoked in me: can we ever be post-human?

As a type of academic discipline, the humanities are concerned with “the study of human culture,” or how it is that we are social beings—through language, music, religion, philosophy, literature et cetera [1]. Here, the individual (constituted through various social systems) is understood as fundamental, and the humanities a practice of mapping explanatory paradigms back onto phenomena that is both produced by and produces specific forms of collectivity. But, as technology advances and as ecosystems collapse, the conceit at the heart of the humanities—the human as a suitable unit of measure to register the complexity of social co-existence—crumbles. In response, the burgeoning field of post-humanities examines culture in its embedded becoming alongside other agencies and orders, such as technology, the non-human animal, and the environment. In doing so, the post-humanities displaces anthropocentric arrogance as the gravitational force around which understandings are constructed. Key early texts in the field include Michele Serres’s The Parasite (1980) and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), though the field of posthumanities did not congeal until much later, in the latter half of the Aughts. Cary Wolfe, the editor of the University of Minnesota Press’s Posthumanities series defines the whole endeavour as such: “When we talk about posthumanism, we are not just talking about a thematics of the decentering of the human in relation to either evolutionary, ecological, or technological coordinates (though that is where the conversation usually begins and, all too often, ends); rather…we are also talking about how thinking confronts that thematics, what thought has to become in the face of those challenges.” In practice, the posthumanities takes seriously the ethical consequences of how we humans think our relationship to non-humans, especially other animals and the environment; it considers how the field of disability studies forcefully challenges normative relationships between language and thought and identity; it explores the way the human experience is currently entwined in a mutual becoming with computer technologies.

Despite the critical self-reflection post-anthropocentrism generates (the human animal is greedy and violent, technologically mediated, and morally obligated to consider sustainability beyond our own species perpetuation), it does not offer an alternative orientation to knowledge production. At its best, post-anthropocentrism is a conceit. We do not suddenly become fluent in non-human ways of knowing by virtue of thinking it would be cool to do so. Even the gesture of prioritizing paradigms of understanding that diminish our self-importance still rely upon judgments made from the human perspective. At base, in a quest to position ourselves post-anthropocentrically, we must be suspicious of our capacity to think outside of our social conditioning and intellectual biases while simultaneously encouraging an awareness of what we may be otherwise be blinded to because of the nature of the self. Productively, this is to embody an interstitial space between anthropocentrism and its undoing: what is possible from this position of thwarted desire?

The limitations of cultural homogeneity were implicitly acknowledged in Braidotti’s lecture when she repeatedly pointed to non-western humanisms as “where it’s at.” This makes sense to me: I can trouble my western, euro-centric ways of knowing by inhabiting what Braidotti called trading zones: places where ideas are exchanged and disagreements occur. I can situate my intellectual activity as listening and I can attempt to increase the interdependencies between my patterns of knowing and other ways of making sense. But I’m really not sure how this resists becoming just another example of colonization, of seeking out the resources of other cultures and appropriating them for my own gain? There’s all of history to tell me that the human is a colonial machine, and to think that non-western humanisms can be utilized to recuperate the use-value of the humanities in the west is, once again, to use the resources of others cultures to rescue my own.

Listening to Braidotti’s lecture, I was was reminded of other instances where the demand for social change requires that I account for my own position within a shifting terrain in order to assume an appropriate and transformative responsibility. As protests swept across the US this winter to express outrage at the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, white people were asked to protest from their subject position: do not carry signs proclaiming that “I am Mike Brown,” but rather, carry signs that challenge white supremacy. As Braidotti encouraged me to recognize the value of destabilizing my own subject position in ways of knowing and relating, I kept asking myself: how to be post-human from the position I occupy as already always human? How to engage otherness in the key of anti-oppression? How can we translate what we already know about how we are human, in order to be post-human with a touch of grace?

[1] Carey Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), page xvi.

Image Credit: Shifty Packets by Colleen Wolstenholme

Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities, Part 2: Can ‘Nested’ Neighborhood Planning Lead to Urban Ecological Democracy?

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Jayne Engle, Montreal.  Nik Luka, Montreal.

This is the second blog post in a series on Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities. See here for Part 1. Originally written for The Nature of Cities on March 18, 2015, this is a condensed version by Sarah Bradley.

When we talk about citizen engagement and planning grounded in local communities, the question of the feasibility and value of neighbourhood planning often arises. This blog post centres on that very question: Is neighbourhood planning worth doing? Relatedly, does planning at the neighbourhood scale have the potential to improve community resilience? How can it be inclusive when by its very nature both its terrain and population are defined by physical boundaries?

Based on concerns about exclusionary aspects of working within neighbourhoods, the authors propose that neighborhood planning is worth doing if it can transcend boundaries to result in better outcomes for the city as a whole. This ‘nested’ neighborhood planning has four components: (1) social innovation, (2) community-development practice integrated with theory, often termed ‘praxis’, (3) neighborhoods without borders, and (4) a vision of ecological democracy. This normative framework is meant to outline what ought to be done, based on both academic literature and practical experience with neighbourhood-level activity. This framework is based on multiple modes of integration: across scales, domains, and value systems.

The four elements of ‘nested’ neighbourhood planning:

1. Social innovation

In the context of planning, social innovation generally refers to (i) action: connecting bottom-up planning initiatives to effect changes in governance and (ii) ideas: providing new meanings, so that it can play an active role in debates of politics and social science. A useful text to help us understand the dynamics of social innovation at the neighbourhood scale is a collection edited by Moulaert et al. (2010) titled Can Neighbourhoods Save the City? Community development and social innovation. By reviewing case studies from 10 European cities, the editors find that ‘socially innovative neighbourhood initiatives’ share three objectives:

  • to satisfy human needs which are unmet by the state and markets;
  • to provide access rights which enhance human capabilities and are empowering to people and social processes; and
  • to change social relations and power structures in order to make governance inclusive.

Across these examples, civil-society organisations (CSOs) that work both within and between neighbourhoods act as catalysts of socially innovative neighbourhood initiatives . In other words, they both strengthen neighbourhoods’ capacity to effect change and connect this locally-grounded work to the political realm in which larger decisions are made. This ‘glocal’ perspective may be the key to negotiating solutions across different spatial scales, which itself is a key to building resilient and livable cities.

In our own work, we have found another reason why socially innovative organizations are poised to contribute to resilient and livable cities through neighborhood-based planning: the expectations-motivation differentialThis refers to a dichotomy: it is often in the (rational) interest of City governments to keep the expectations of city residents low, whereas progressive civil-society organizations who carry out urban planning seek to ‘raise the bar’ by inspiring people to have higher expectations for their cities and bring about change at the local scale. When city residents feel empowered to plan for change and understand that ‘a different city is possible’, they are more likely to take part in collective action for social change, thereby contributing to creating a more resilient and livable city.

Photo1_city_mined (1)

City Mine(d) and its urban pop-up projects in Brussels, London, and Barcelona provide an example of ‘glocal’ action, as an international network of individuals and collectives involved with city and local action. (citymined.org)

2. The praxis of community development

The word praxis refers to the practical application of theory or knowledge. In the case of community development, praxis can be defined as thoughtfully designing, continually learning from, and creatively acting on processes of collective engagement associated with neighborhood planning. Related to the above notion of the expectations-motivation differential, engagement processes must be designed to foster continuous social leaning so that both government and citizens are implicated in an ongoing, cyclical practice. We draw on several bodies of literature including collaborative and participatory planning, community development, education and social science, particularly in the idea of ‘phronesis’ or ‘practice-based wisdom’, which informs the collective endeavor of making sense of the world and our own actions in order to transform it. When people are encouraged to use both broader theory and their own knowledge and lived experienced to mobilize their skills and work cooperatively to use community assets in new ways, they can not only act more effectively, but also contribute to theories of collaboration:

Those who engage in collaboration build their capacity and intuition about how to proceed, while at the same time building theory about when and how collaboration can work. (Innes & Booher, 2010, 89)

Thus, they can collectively work to shift balances in relationships of power in order to work toward social justice, empowerment, and liberation.


Playscapes are ‘natural playgrounds’ designed by kids and landscape architects at Groundwork UK. They provide great neighborhood spaces for creative urban explorations. (Groundwork UK Playscape project)

3. Neighbourhoods without borders

Neighbourhood planning has traditionally involved defining boundaries within which to work, using geographic features, human-made elements, or a combination of both. This definition has been used by planners to make neighborhoods ‘legible’ and to provide distinct, easily-recognized character – Clarence Perry’s classic (and infamous) ‘neighbourhood unit’ being an example. However, like any attempt to conceptualize space as disconnected from its surroundings, there are problems with assigning borders to space that is fluid by nature: what happens when we ignore the adjacencies and in-between spaces? Our proposition of ‘neighborhoods without borders’ challenges the conventional wisdom of neighborhood planning in North America and instead we argue that neighborhoods should be defined to encompass not only a range of activities, including housing, businesses, and community services, but also the public spaces of arterial and commercial streets often relegated to the margins. By conceiving of neighbourhoods as nested or overlapping, we can integrate planning for edge or liminal spaces that traverse neighbourhoods without being conceptualized as part of them, such as arterial roads.


The conventional 20th-century ‘superblock’ configuration should give way to a more integrated pattern of neighborhoods without boundaries. (Nik Luka)

We need to better understand how ‘in-between zones’ like arterials interact with more commonly understood parts of a neighbourhood, like dwellings and parks. Given that that the largest share of public space in cities is occupied by streets, and that as urban dwellers our daily movements often centre in these places, there is transformative potential in streets – showcased by recent efforts by cities across the world to activate streets through pop-up business, public art, ciclovías, and other tactical urbanism projects.


Streets in Letchworth Garden City have extra wide sidewalks and shared space for community events. (Jayne Engle)

4. A vision of holistic ecological democracy

Planning for resilient and livable cities must go beyond physical attributes: without mechanisms for the democratic engagement of citizens at the neighborhood scale to create better cities, no combination of good policies and planning will make a difference. For this reason, neighborhood plans should contain a practical utopian vision – with ambitious solutions to practical problems, such as traffic congestion and the lack of affordable housing - for the neighborhood that is rooted in the larger city. This vision is then translated into medium-term policies and programs but also actions that can be taken on a short-term time frame.

A holistic vision for a resilient and livable city is one of integral neighborhoods – neighbourhoods that represent microcosms of the city – within an ecological democracy (urban ecology that is integrated with participatory democracy). This combination of (i) building an understanding of natural processes and social relationships into decision-making about the urban environment and (ii) creating pathways for hands-on involvement in the democratic process enables an adaptive, flexible form of planning that allows for continuous reassessment of assets, values, and needs in a particular community.

“Ecological democracy can change the form that our cities take, creating a new urban ecology. In turn, the form of our cities, from the shape of regional watersheds to a bench at a post office, can help build ecological democracy.” (Hester, 2006, pp?)


Rather than being a traffic sewer, a major street can act as a seam with stacked functions and a mix of activities suitable for the neighborhoods through which it passes. (Nik Luka)

Going back to the matter of scale, how does neighbourhood planning facilitate this ecological democracy? It is in our micro-scale, everyday interactions – with people, places, and processes – that we become implicated in social change. Drawing on the work of Erik Olin Wright, who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias in 2010, we find that generally change starts with small transformations that contribute cumulatively to a shift in the logic and dynamics of larger social systems that transcend place boundaries. In the case of neighbourhood planning, these shifts occur in the space where civil society and the state intersect – where grassroots (bottom-up) and grasstops (top-down) actors have the opportunity to find common understandings and goals (or not!). The way in which this space can facilitate social transformation depends on context. However, establishing this engagement at the neighbourhood level is a starting point from which to co-define and therefore co-design the physical and social spaces that make the overlapping building blocks of cities.


Stay tuned for Part 3 of Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities on The Nature of Cities, in which the authors will explore the success of a Montréal civil-society organization that undertook neighborhood planning and what we can learn from this experience for making better cities around the world.

New Economies and Community Economic Development: For People, Place and Planet – An interview with Mike Toye

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks. 

The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network

This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By Jane Zhang Mike Toye

  1. In your view, what are some key elements of "new economies"?
  • Holistic measures of progress: There are many new measures bubbling up (eg. Gross National Happiness), but they need to take a more central place in decision-making, and they need to be refined and expanded in what they measure and how well they measure.
  • Respect natural limits: I see this as one of the central flaws of our current economic system. Environmental goods and their externalized costs are a major blind spot; we need to internalize those costs and respect natural limits, especially in the context of climate change. We have to work with nature, not against it.
  • (Eco)systems thinking: the recognition of the influence of relationships, and that human beings are not only part of the world, but connected to the world. This includes relationships between people and nature, but also between people, including the new connections that technology is facilitating. Taking a systems lens to thinking about economy and society is a foundation for understanding the impacts of decisions and actions.
  • Democratizing the economy & localizing control: New technologies can facilitate crowdsourced investment, connections and participation, but in-person communities, human and social capital are crucial. We are experimenting with the new ways technology allows us to connect, and re-discovering some older wisdom about organizing. The bottom line is that there’s an essential role for human connections in democratizing the economy.
  1. Why is neighbourhood-level development important? 

I think “communities” is the term most often used in CCEDNet, in part because it’s widely applicable, from geographic neighborhoods to communities of identity or interest. A community is a venue for people to get organized, connect and learn about each other, identify shared interests, challenges, opportunities to cooperate, and to change. For example, an immigrant community has specific needs – developing language skills, getting help to reach out to employers or starting businesses – and the foundation is that a community acts as an organizing vehicle to address those needs and create change.

  1. How do these relate to cities? 

Since cities have the highest concentrations of people, they are among the most dynamic places for connections, opportunities, and possibilities to be created. But the way they’ve been built has disconnected us from nature and each other. Cities need to be understood as part of broader regions. We need to recognize urban-rural relationships and the flows of goods and services, including ecological services, that a broader region provides. On the human side, there are many ways that cities can be better designed to deliberately create opportunities for relationships and cooperation, and connect the different spheres of our lives. Much of today's built environment was created when zoning and building practices reflected an older mentality of separation. Integrating systems thinking into the design of cities can create opportunities for people to relate and care for each other better.

  1. What are some major challenges to enhancing sustainable local economies?

In the New Economies world, there is a significant focus on business & finance, with valuable attention paid on growing more blended business models (social enterprises, BCorps, co-ops) and new finance models (impact investing, new types of investment capital, crowdfunding). These are creating lots of local opportunities for transition, which is exciting. However, I'd say there is less attention on places and people, from our angle of community economic development. Ideally, we should be connecting the dots between all four pillars: business, finance, places and people.

Another one of our biggest challenges is communicating these opportunities to a wider audience, both professionals in various sectors and the general public, in a way that is meaningful and engaging.

A good example of a places- and people-centered project is the Quint Development Corporation in Saskatoon, which has a mandate for the city's core neighborhoods. Among the local residents, there is a large Aboriginal population that has particular needs, so the employment and housing opportunities are combined with outreach that is tailored to their needs.

  1. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth means freedom, well-being, and happiness, for current and future generations, and fairly distributed for as many people as possible.


Michael Toye became Executive Director of CCEDNet in August of 2008, bringing a deep background in community economic development (CED) to the Director's chair. Upon earning his Master of Social Work at McGill, Michael helped set up two worker co-operatives that provide research, consulting and training services related to CED and the social economy. Michael's involvement with CCEDNet dates back to 2000 when he helped organize CCEDNet's National Policy Forum while serving as a coordinator with the Coopérative de consultation en développement La Clé.

More recently Michael has deepened his knowledge of Canadian social policy and parliamentary process serving as a policy analyst at the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, while teaching courses on CED and social enterprise at Concordia University. Michael has written a number of articles and other publications on CED and the social economy, including co-editing the book, Community Economic Development: Building for Social Change.