Cities for People: An education in collaboration without proximity

Sarah_Blog Author_EN
While I became an intern for Cites for People last winter as a recent urban planning graduate, I had been so immersed in concrete, place-specific issues that I lacked the kind of broader-picture thinking necessary to tackle the sort of multi-dimensional problems that this initiative aimed to reconceptualize. I think that coming from an urban planning background can put one at a disadvantage for being able to grasp the roots of problems common to Canadian cities: thorny matters with convoluted histories, like affordable housing, public transit, and urban ecological systems. The tendency is to want to problem-solve through policy change or some sort of place-based intervention – both of which have limited impacts if they fail to apply pressure to a lever of change at the systemic level.


One important series of lessons I learned was about the power and challenges of collaboration.

I have realized that collaboration does not have to mean working in close quarters.There are so many ways to work at a distance, especially with online platforms and conferencing technologies like WebEx, Skype, and Google Drive. However, there are also frustrations that arise when the time commitments expected to maintain a platform like Cities for People become a strain on organizations. Tasks like participating in weekly calls, contributing to our internal bulletin, and updating our global work plan can seem minimal from a time perspective, but actually require that at least one staff member have the capacity to contribute outside of their busy jobs.

The first lesson I learned about collaboration is the importance of flexible coordination. Establishing a body responsible for developing structures that support joint work without asking that all participate to the same extent and in the same way is crucial.

Cities for People experimented with a new mode of project delivery that integrated learning and evaluation, both within individual networks and across the Cities for People network. Curation was a way for the McConnell Foundation to test an alternative grantor-grantee method by funding four thematic curators, as well as a national curator playing a coordination role, who then allocated “demonstration project” funds to organizations in their respective networks (for more on the Cities for People network and curators, please click here). The tension between each organization stretching themselves to work in new ways while continuing to do work within their respective mandates was something the Cities for People collaborators recognized, but we struggled to come up with a viable way to balance working together and apart.

So, my second lesson was that it’s important to give organizations time to figure out in what ways they can contribute to a learning network, and that a collaborative platform like Cities for People must make room for differing interests and capacities.

One curation-related question I am left with is: would it have been better to focus on scaling efforts either up, out, or deep, rather than each curator doing a bit of everything (as identified by our Developmental Evaluators)? My initial thoughts were that curators could work more effectively towards the larger changes we’re yearning for in cities if they scaled up by focussing on collaborative projects that harnessed many small energies. Campaigns like We Are Cities (stewarded by Evergreen CityWorks and the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre) and Transforme ta ville (a micro-grant program to encourage active citizenship at the neighbourhood level by supporting a network of projects across Montreal) resonated with me, and evidently, a lot of other engaged urbanists, in their ability to connect and support projects and ideas for a greater impact. However, these unifying campaigns are not the be-all, end-all. It is unrealistic to expect curators to all work in this vein given the differences in each domain and its maturity.

Leading from this, the third lesson is that learnings and collaborations can also surface from seemingly divergent work. Given the complex challenges that cities are facing, there is immense value of connecting thematic areas, often in unlikely ways. As individuals and organizations working towards change in cities, it is valuable to both build on natural connections and contribute to field building by re-situating one’s work within broader process and narratives that contribute to societal change.

From One Earth’s Urban Sustainability Directors Network to Musagetes’ place-based collaboration with artist collectives, many new ways of working both within and across domains were tested, and continue to evolve. This dance between looking inward and reaching out, I think, is field-building work that has the potential to shift cities’ approaches to problem-solving.
There is much more I could share about collaboration as an integral part of the Cities for People experiment, from how to combine multiple narratives into a Joint Report, to maintaining public-facing communications, to negotiating power structures in a decentralized network. However, for now I’ll leave those stories for another collaborator to tell.
Click here to learn more about the Cities for People initiative.