Cities in Imagination

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This article by David Maddox originally appeared on The Nature of Cities as part of their Just City Essays. It is been re-posted with the author's permission.

Resilience is the word of the decade, as sustainability was in previous decades. No doubt, our view of the kind and quality of cities we as societies want to build will continue to evolve and inspire new descriptive goals. Surely we have not lost our desire for sustainable cities, with ecological footprints we can afford, even though our focus has been on resilience, after what seems like a relentless drum beat of natural disasters around the world. The search for terms begs the question: what are the cities we want to create in the future? What is their nature? What are the cities in which we want to live? Certainly these cities are sustainable, since we want our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. Certainly they are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm, now due every few years. And yet…as we build this vision we know that cities must also be livable. Indeed, we must view livability as a third indispensible leg supporting the cities of our dreams: resilient + sustainable + livable.

A key problem for the idea of a “just city” is that it works so well in metaphor. Making a reality of justice is harder.

But we have to hope that justicehasn’t gone out of style. Because while resilience is the word of the decade, we’ve struggled with just cities for a much longer time. Largely we have come up short.

So this imagining needs a fourth leg. These are the cities of our dreams: resilient, sustainable, livable, just.

Let’s imagine.

We can imagine sustainable cities—ones that can persist in energy, food and ecological balance—that are nevertheless brittle, socially or infrastructurally, to shocks and major perturbations. That is, they are not resilient. Such cities are not truly sustainable, of course—because they will be crushed by major perturbations they’re not in it for the long term—but their lack of sustainability is for reasons beyond the usually definitions of energy and food systems. We can imagine resilient cities—especially cities that are made so through extraordinary and expensive works of grey infrastructure—that are not sustainable from the point of view of energy consumption, food security, economy, or other resources.

We can imagine livable cities that are neither resilient nor sustainable.

And, it is easy to imagine resilient and sustainable cities that are not livable — and so are not truly sustainable.

Easiest of all is to imagine cities of injustice, because they exist all around us. The nature of their injustice may be difficult to solve or even comprehend within our systems of economy and government, but it’s easy to see.

The point is that we must conceive and build our urban areas based on a vision of the future that creates cities that are resilient + sustainable + livable + just. Noone of these is sufficient for our dream cities of the future. Yet we often pursue these four elements on independent tracks, with separate government agencies pursuing one or another and NGOs and community organizations devoted to a single track. Of course, many cities around the world don’t really have the resources to make progress in any of the four.


A key problem for us, in all of these concepts, is that they exist so beautifully in the realm of metaphor. They work in metaphor. Everyone can agree that “resilience” is a good thing. Who wouldn’t want that? Raise your hand.

I thought so.

But an operational definition is really about difficult choices. Bringing a word like resilience—or sustainability, or livability, or justice—down from the realm of metaphor is hard because it quickly becomes clear that it is about nothing else but difficult choices. Choices that often produce winners and losers. We have to be specific about the choices involved in resilience or sustainability or livability or justice, and the trade-offs they imply. As societies we have to be explicit about these trade-offs—about their consequences. I think often we don’t have open and fair conversations about these issues because we don’t want to know about these trade offs, maybe not so much because we care about the losers, but because the winners of the world have so much to lose. Think developers who consume green space—often with the government’s blessing—without concern for sustainability issues or accommodations for the less wealthy. Or the growth- and consumption-obsessed nations driving the climate change that may destroy communities around the world, communities that have little responsibility that climate change.


Most people in my circles make strong claims about the critical value of nature and ecosystems. Nature is thought to provide key benefits for resilience, such as technical aid to storm water management. Nature—and we way we use it—is the key foundation to sustainability. Nature cleans the air and water. It provides food. Nature provides beauty and serenity for people. This is all to say that nature and “green” provide immense and diverse benefits to societies, cities, and their people.

Do we believe these benefits are real? Are true? I do. If we believe in these benefits, then who should have access to them? Everyone. Does everyone have access to these benefits? No. That’s as true in Cape Town as it is in Los Angeles or Manchester.

If the benefits of green are true—in the broad sense of nature and in our approach to the built environment—then it is clear that issues of green and nature are also questions of justice, and that there is a key and essential role for nature to play in the notion of just cities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long had a definition of environmental justice. It intends to specifically address the fact that environmental “bads”—dumps, incinerators, legacies of industrial pollution, and so on—are disproportionally placed in poorer neighborhoods. That’s a fact that results from a host of reasons: inadvertent, economic, political and sometimes more cynical. Here is the EPA’s definition. Environmental justice will achieved:

…when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

Many have written about the limits of this definition, although to me it is pretty strong and progressive, especially the part about decision-making. But it lacks the idea that everyone also deserves equal and fair access to environmental “goods” and the services they provide: healthy food, resilience to storms, clean air and water, parks, beauty. So an improvement to the definition, a more complete manifesto of belief, would be that environmental justice is achieved:

…when everyone enjoys the same degree of strong protection from environmental and health hazards, the same high level access to all the various services and benefits that nature can provide, and equal access to the decision-making processes for both to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, work, and prosper.

Although some of the world’s cities are better than others in fulfilling this dream, probably none fully achieve it, although more embrace the idea of it. Most don’t even come close.

For example, there is a crisis of open space in many of the world’s cities. My city, New York, offers about 4m2 of open space per capita in the form of parks and plazas. Although the distribution of this open space is not entirely equitable (and some of the parks in poorer neighborhoods are of less quality) New York is to be commended for an explicit PlaNYC (New York’s long term sustainability plan) goal that says every New Yorker should live within a ten-minute walk of a park. We’re about 85 percent of the way to achieving this goal. This is the kind of specificity that can take green’s contribution to livability down from the level of metaphor and into on-the-ground evaluation and action.

Many of the world’s cities don’t fare so well. Although New York is a fairly dense city, Mumbai has 1 percent of the open space per person that New York has, its public commons gobbled up by cozy and opaque relationships between government and developers.

Not that the United States has so much to brag about. The Washington Postreported that in Washington DC there is a strong correlation between tree canopy and average income — the richer people get the benefit of trees. In Los Angeles, areas dominated by Latinos or African Americans have dramatically lower access to parks (as measured by park acres per 1,000 children) than areas dominated by whites. Countywide only 36 percent of Los Angelenos have close access to a park.

These are patterns the world over: when there open spaces and ecosystem services at all, they tend to be for the benefit of richer or more connected people. This has to change in any city we would call just.


“It is difficult to take in all the glory of the Dandelion, as it is to take in a mountain, or a thunderstorm.”

Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) is legendary for his watercolor landscapes, painted near his Buffalo, NY, home. He was also a great journalist and over his lifetime wrote over 10,000 pages in various handmade volumes. It was there, on 5 May 1963, that he wrote the quote above.

DandilionSeedHeadAndTheMoonBirchfield2And so they are difficult to take in, both for their beauty and their complexity. How can you describe and assess them? Convey them to one who hasn’t seen? You finally stumble, awestruck, into saying that they are “beautiful,” or “majestic,” or just “amazing.” But all of us—as scientists, decision-makers, participating citizens—typically have to comprehend, describe and quantify such entities and then communicate the results in ways that aren’t hopelessly obscure—that are somehow specific and not just metaphorical. That is, we need to communicate a very complicated thing in a simple, essential and, above all, useful way.

We need to communicate what we value and build our cities accordingly.

Words like improvisation and imagination and intuition can sound awkward in the context of city-building and policy. Yet these are the very abilities that we require to be able to see past and beyond the details—this object is here, that process is there—to create and understand how a vast and majestic thing works and how it might change.

Perspective is another important word—a sense of what you value in the vision you are creating. The Dandelion seeds are close up in Burchfield’s picture. He values them. The sky is there too. You need to see the patterns and perspective and not only the details—the beating of the heart and not just the heart’s location in the chest.

How do you “take in” a complicated multidimensional thing like a mountain? Or a park? Or a community garden? Or a city? Or justice? It starts with an act of imagination.

It is this act that requires of us that we imagine, in specific terms, what the just city would look like. I think it would look something like the modified EPA definition I presented above. We already know what this just city doesn’t look like. You probably just have to drive around your own city. (My apologies if your city has solved this. Shout your solution from all the rooftops and soapboxes. The world needs to know.)

We need the imagination to dream about what this just city looks like, the nature of it, if you will. And then we need the courage to make it happen on the ground, by creating actual urban plans that address justice explicitly, that put justice into literal practice, in law and regulation and real action, the imagining of, say, the EPA definition, in detail, in all cities around the world.

To say this requires a sense of hope. Given the distance we have to travel to achieve just cities, in greenness or most any other sense, we have to hope.

A closing idea from Buzz Holling

One key [to resilience] is maybe best captured by the word “hope.”

Although Buzz Holling was an original elucidator of the ecological resilience concept, here he used a word that is fundamentally a human concept. What does it mean to hope? At its most basic, it is a desire for and the belief in the possibility of a certain good outcome.

So, here’s my vision of the just city. It’s green. It’s full of nature’s benefits, accessible to all. It is resilient, and sustainable, and livable, and just. It is a city that has a clear and grounded vision of what these words mean. It acts on justice and the place of nature in the city. It has the hope to believe that these things can can be achieved, and the courage and faith to bring them to life.

David Maddox
New York

The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.

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:

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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)

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. (

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.