Where We Live Now…Leadership in a Self-Organizing World

Where We live Now… has several layers.

Where We Live Now is a story of how self-organizing has led to a new pattern of human settlement—one that defies our cultural, social and legal assumptions about urban and rural life, and resists our attempts to corral the messiness by applying the old rules.

Where We Live Now is also a self-organized world-wide conversation sparked by the work of Thomas Sieverts and conducted in events that are linked digitally in a website: http://www.suddenly.org, and a book, Where We Live Now, an annotated reader.

Where We Live Now, is a public inquiry, self-organized by a circle of folks in Portland, Oregon, USA. It is one engagement with Thomas Sieverts’ insights that included publication of the book, a keynote presentation, three panel conversations; a film and discussion; an art exhibit and discussion, and a delicious dinner in a vacant parking lot followed by formal conversation.

Matthew Stadler explained the collective challenge: How can I find common meaning, and common space with the people who are in this inquiry? We are enacting the creation of a new form, created by a strategy of dispersal and gathering, in an unfolding series of dispersal and physical and digital gatherings. Our focus is the creation of a common ground of cultural meaning that meets in a single narrative.

Layer 1: Where We Live Now, the content and the challenge: As Thomas Sieverts points out in the first chapter of the annotated reader: Where We Live Now,

“Decisions by individuals acting independently are resulting in complex interpenetrating systems that include the built environment, nature, town and country.

“The landscape where we live now, which is neither city nor country but has characteristics of both, has no suitable name nor is it visually remarkable …

“The urban periphery, the urbanized countryside—or as I call it—where we live now-- is generally seen as a cultural void. The cultural content of this landscape cannot be held up against any existing measures of high culture or popular culture of landscape or natural beauty. Nor can its visual or formal possibilities be grasped in this way.

“The city is transforming itself into something new.”

Sieverts demonstrates that across the planet, human settlement is occurring in an in-between landscape mingling nature, town, country, and in many cases settling more densely than in the central urban “core”.

After analyzing the current situation and showing that our old assumptions and models do not apply to the way we are settling our environment now, Sieverts identifies the challenge we face:

“Conceptual models and planning concepts are necessary, but the decisive elements for a more human development of the landscape where we live are the relationships people have with one another, with the cultural quality of their city, and with nature and the environment.

“Unless we socially, culturally and economically cultivate the landscape where we live, all technical and economic efforts==I am convinced of this—will remain fruitless. Indispensible for such cultivation is a new political and administrative understanding of the landscape where we live.”

And, as Thomas Sieverts points out, each area of settlement is a fractal of the larger systems, reflecting the patterns and pressures of the whole system.

Reading his analysis, you become aware that you are observing the characteristic behavior of a complex self-organizing system of settlement, as well as participating in it as an individual self-organizing entity!

Layer 2: Where We Live Now: http://www.suddenly.org, a self-organized global inquiry:

http://www.Suddenly.org is a web-site location for a global inquiry, with events manifesting in Portland Oregon, Los Angeles, New York City, Tokyo, Berlin, and Spain, thus far.

Matthew Stadler and his organizing circle of colleagues are conducting their work as a gift exchange, with each person taking responsibility for his/her part of the overall experience. The exchange has included both money and work as appropriate and agreed in individual transactions. The form of the work in each location varies, depending on the constellation of people convening it. Matthew Stadler and the book Where We Live Now are the constants. The website functions as a virtual space, containing an archive, blogs, and a calendar.

Stadler’s acknowledgment at the beginning of the book describes the essence of the collaboration:

“The entire project called Suddenly, has depended on the generous hard work of talented people who, if they are paid at all, are never paid enough, Our reward is the work we do together…I feel lucky to have found such talented people. The time and effort they gave to this project may not bring them the money they deserve, but it will enrich the public of which they are a part. I’m convinced it will prove worthwhile. Thank you.”

Layer 3: Where We Live Now, Portland: September, 2009.

Each day, for five days, Thomas Sieverts engaged with a different group of colleagues in an inquiry moderated by Matthew Stadler.

Partners included institutions such as the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts, the University of Oregon Department of Architecture in Portland, Reed College Art Gallery, a parking lot owned by Goodwill in Beaverton, and many individuals.

They looked at histories of settlement and migration in North Pacific America, predating the arrival of European immigrants. They asked how art and writing provide meaning for the city? What is the relation of art to urban policy? How do artists locate and work with the “edge” condition that is the place for meaning making? How can public policy liberate urban and architectural design? How does an architect’s relationship with clients inform what could happen in public policy?

On several occasions, they modeled a way of being in relationship that forced people to integrate an activity with their inquiry about that activity. For instance, they had a fancy dinner with delicious food, cloth tablecloths and napkins, china and silverware, outdoors, in an run-down parking lot in a Beaverton Oregon mall, next to a creek running through and under the parking lot. As a misty rain began, they improvised a temporary shelter and shielded several open fires to provide comfort and cooking. A nearby Thai family restaurant catered the dinner. There was music. In the conversation that followed, the questions were: How do we take the urban landscape seriously as part of our culture and our built environments? What shall we do-- how shall we act-- in order to cultivate this new urban habitat for all to occupy in common for a long time?

On another occasion, people attended an Art exhibit of photographs, sculptures and paintings that was followed by a conversation between the curator, the sculptor, a writer, Sieverts, and Stadler. The conversation began with: How do art and writing provide meaning for the city? What’s the optimal relationship of artists to an urban project?

Lessons in self-organizing leadership:

A small circle of key collaborators is at the heart of the project. When necessary, they recruit and attract additional people to support the project. A couple of non-profit organizations house contributions that came in to defray expenses. When the activity is over, the voluntary organizational structure dissolves. The relationships formed provide fertile ground for future practical activities to emerge.

Appropriate tools are available for all to use: the book focuses and amplifies the inquiry, the narrative and its meaning. The digital environment expands the capacity and reach of the face to face relationships and the evolving common ground of cultural meaning.

Matt and his comrades:

A gift exchange. A provocation (from the Introduction to Where We Live Now):

”History and art and literature matter. They are essential instruments for making a better future, a landscape where we can live, eyes wide open, without tragedy and regret.”

Building a temporary dwelling for the supper, just as people have done here for many centuries. Calling for a deeper history of the region, before Europeans. Bringing it Home: What new patterns are revealed when we look to the deeper history of the place where we live?