Urban Development as a Mindfulness Practice

This was originally written for and published in City Tank on April 9, 2012. I’ve re-published it here as I’ve found it inspiring to me, again. Enjoy.

Skanska’s Living Building in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood;

Juxtaposing urban development and mindfulness in the same sentence appears akin to throwing a reunion party for the north and south poles: a futile attempt of gathering opposites. However, the practice of mindfulness is limitless, accepting and able to party with anyone.

I am a real estate developer educated in urban planning and embedded with a civic decoder, loving to hack the physical and social patterns present around me. This is the awareness innate to passionate place makers, where I seek to belong.

I began studying awareness after several experiences pushed me to feel, and use my right brain. This level of awareness is intuitive, creative, natural and effortless. It’s void of thinking or creating logic, and it is immediately present. Neuroscientists view thinking as mental activity focused on past events or future projections (left brain). Sit still and observe over 5 minutes where your mind goes, and 99.9% of it has nothing to do with you just sitting there, feeling the moment (being in the right brain).

Clinical psychology defines mindfulness as a self-regulation of attention maintained on the immediate experience (i.e. not past or future). This attention increases recognition of the present moment and involves adopting an orientation characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance. This is a mental state or knowing that is beyond what can be thought. Fun, eh?

A mindful awareness is the very real and present space where urban development, or place making, has authentic voice and power for me. The most valued community development is present and connected to human feeling and experience. Highly valued urban spaces are rarely a construct of past experiences or future projections (e.g. the urban simulacra of Las Vegas); rather real urban spaces are organic forms created by people working together to push aside fears, embrace uncertainty and rest in the knowing of not knowing.

Louis Sullivan’s famous aesthetic credo of form and function affirms that it is not just our heads that go to create functional urban places. He states…

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,

Of all things physical and metaphysical,

Of all things human and all things super-human,

Of all true manifestations of the head, Of the heart, of the soul,

That the life is recognizable in its expression, That form ever follows function.”

Therefore, when cities (form) result from unawareness or as places shaped by what we fear, our landscapes are molded into places that only breed more fear.

Seth Godin calls this fearful paradigm the “No Coalition,” where the No Coalition only requires just one objection, one defensible reason to avoid change. And the No Coalition has many allies — anyone who fears the future or stands to benefit from the status quo (e.g. a view from a living room, availability of parking, time it takes to drive to work, etc.). Further, “No” is easy to say, because people don’t actually need a reason to say no. No instantly grabs power and slows things down because with yes comes responsibility.

Godin says, “No comes from fear and greed and, most of all, a shortage of openness and attention. You don’t have to pay attention or do the math or role play the outcomes in order to join the coalition that would rather things stay as they are (because they’ve chosen not to do the hard work of imagining how they might be).”

Like Godin, I live in a world of yes, where possibility and innovation and the willingness to care seek to triumph over the coalition that would rather it all just quieted down and went back to normal.

How do we stop this vicious cycle of fear leading to bad form leading to more fear? Having a new civic awareness that is not based on what we fear but having responsibility for change.

To be an effective and mindful developer, my challenge is to realize that communities and stakeholders probably know something I don’t, or more likely do not see what I see. My job is to figure out what are their fears, biases and perspectives, then help them understand what I know. Ultimately we are at our best when we mutually cultivate a collective awareness together to bring about urban places that foster the health of our communities for generations to come.

Join me.

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Curator of urban experiences, proponent of mindful leadership AND President, CEO of EQ Office

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