Influencing Nenshi

Wow, I influenced Nenshi’s thinking in a big way. Well, okay it was me and many other voices and cultural assets, but I was a part of it.

While videotaping Nenshi talking at the EPCOR centre about livable cities, I confirmed a rarely acknowledged fact: leadership is not one person; it is an ecology of influences. To hear my mayor talk intelligently about transit oriented land development and community development is a big step up for Calgary and a long time coming.

Ten years ago I was part a non-partisan policy group called Canada25 looking into what made cities great. Naheed was the lead editor and I was part of an urban design research team. You can find the paper (and my name among others) here. Much of the policies you hear from Nenshi today can be traced directly back to some of the research we did.

But of course, it’d be facetious not to recognize where our urban design group drew their thinking from. And that person is none other than Jane Jacobs, the person with no formal training that revolutionized the urban design discipline. It was her keen sense of observation and sensitivity to human relationships that allowed her to figure out how urban spaces affected the health of a community.

It is through her work decades ago that we are now able to find some expression of it through Nenshi as Calgary’s mayor. However, our small urban design group played a critical part in refreshing Jane Jacob’s leading edge work for our context. Ideas do create change; they just take a long time to find good soil to grow in.

There is a significant hazard in all this though. The lessons that gets passed on may be the wrong ones. What made Jane Jacobs’ ideas powerful is not so much the ideas (having pedestrian walking areas or having lots of transit) but the way in which she understood how urban design works. Slavishly copying the specifics of her ideas misses the point of what it takes to build a sustainable community.

Sidebar: This is part of a more general problem of our tendency to see a solution that works in one context, import it without alteration into our context, find that it doesn’t work and then dismissing the person who created the solution.

Nevertheless, I find it tremendously hopeful that good ideals can work. It just takes a long time and takes a lot of people working on it.

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