I work with people who want to live in a place tended by many hands, figuratively and literally. You know that homegrown feeling. Whether you find it in buildings, businesses, or a garden, it's like care and soul embodied and it just feels right. To some, longing for care and soul in the places we live is considered naive and inefficient, a luxury in today's economy. My people don't see it that way. They see a "many hands," grounded approach to city-building as the most sensible and satisfying way to inhabit this earth. Still, it's a hard thing to program. Kind of antithetical, actually. How do you even top-down something that's bottom-up by nature?
You don't. You're going to need to build some momentum and capacity at the level of neighbours. That's what I like to do. I create educational tools and experiences that help people build livelihoods in and of the places they love. For the past ten years, I've been helping small businesses and small developers get started. We learn together by doing and then we pay it forward when we discover something that works.
And when you love something, you try to take care of it. To me, retrofitting cities and creating options for people to live a more local existence felt like the most practical way I could play my part. A mentor once told me that even the best policy isn't worth much if people can't enact it in their lives. Our lives unfold in our neighbourhoods, so that's where I planted myself.
Urban development has a long history of grand ideas and unintended consequences. I did not want to be blinded by my own good intentions into the same approach so I took two big steps to hedge against hubris. First, I burst a few of my intellectual bubbles while walking and reading my way through an MPhil in "Planning, Growth, and Regeneration." Then, I moved to a small city (Fredericton, NB) where trust is earned more through being a good neighbour than flashing credentials. Observing, getting involved, and truly loving that place gave me some of my best friends and lessons.
Writing about my experiences introduced me to city builders across North America who became friends and colleagues. I was impressed by the power of small - small business, small buildings, and small interventions to improve the city. To me, small could break through the impasse and engage people who are otherwise locked out of urban development decisions. Sometimes, I'll admit, it feels wholly inadequate to the challenges at hand. But then, I've seen time and again that this small stuff done with integrity and an ounce of playfulness is what makes big change possible. So I try to keep close to the ground.