Patience, Persistence, and Paperwork: Reflections from my Cities for People internship experience

Cities have become the new black.

All over the world, people are awakening to a sense of global urgency – that the biosphere has had enough of our anthropogenic footprint, and we’re all in this teetering boat together. As urbanists have been voicing loud and clear, what better place to start tackling the beast than in our own homes, streets, and neighborhoods.
But as a technophilic society, we have boiled sustainability down to a science and are used to applying high-tech band-aid solutions to complex and long-term societal issues. In the context of climate change, the term urban resilience has become sadly synonymous with building dams for flood control.
If there’s anything that optimism is good for, it’s seeing climate change as an opportunity – to reshape our communities, one small step at a time. Across the globe, citizens are starting collective gardens, sharing tools, and transforming trash into treasure; people are forming resilient urban communities without the geo-engineering and lofty certifications.
That said, systems change requires systems-level action. The J.W. McConnell Foundation and the small group that formed Cities for People wondered: are these one-off innovations and projects adding up to more than the sum of their parts? Probably not. It was time to strengthen the movement.
For the past nine months, I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with this emergent experiment that aims to break down silos and get people talking: bureaucrats with artists, municipal leaders with waste pickers, thinkers with doers… all in a day’s work of making our cities better.
At the start, I was brand new to the world of social innovation. One of my mentors offered me this analogy: “soap was the invention; the innovation was people seeing their bodies and cleanliness in a completely new way”. In the urban context, we’ve got plenty of inventions – from foldable bikes to earthquake-sensing Apps. We just need to use them wisely, and shake up our institutional systems so that they can better serve the needs of homo sapiens and the planet.
While social innovation and experimentation sound as hip as local organic kale, systems change doesn’t always look as glamorous as it sounds. As a fresh graduate full of ideas for improving Montreal, I wondered for months when the block parties with Mayor Coderre would come in.
What our lovely website doesn’t tell you is, any ambitious endeavour requires patience, persistence, and lots of paperwork. Nine months of email chains, Skype calls, and program reports later, I think I’ve settled down a bit. It’s one thing to take a Sunday afternoon to march the streets for climate justice. It’s another to work all day, every day to catch a glimpse of the real systems change that comes from building lasting relationships and tapping away at reports from the humble office desks of a truly remarkable foundation.