Explaining the name @CityThink

Having taken a hiatus from all things political for a couple of years while I refreshed myself after dealing with a divorce, a lay-off, a frustrating job search at the height of the 08/09 recession and the slow recovery that followed, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the name CityThink and the lucky stroke that made it my Twitter handle. I haven’t been around Twitter much – I sold cars and really didn’t want to clutter the webesphere with too many pictures and tweets about the vehicles I was selling, unless they might be of a certain appeal to urbanists. Hence, you’ll still see a few odd pictures of Hybrid and Electric Fords.

Now that I decided to stop hiding myself away from the world, to take a leap of faith, to place my trust in the wonderful ways of the universe and to take action, rather than reacting, I moved to Ottawa with the help of a friend who lives here and offered me half her tiny apartment and bed. Ahem.

I’ve started tweeting more and while the first couple of months back in action have seen some vitriolic battles of words, a few falling-outs and a ton of new and influential friends, followers and retweets, I’m really excited about being back and sharing my views. Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to be critiqued on my Tweeting style, to step back, re-examine, delete tweets, block negative trolls and cynics and generally re-learned to be more positive and realize that I do not hold a monopoly on good ideas. But perhaps people are wondering where I’ve popped-up from.

In 2006, after 7 years at Toronto City Hall, I decided to enter the world of government relations, also known to some as lobbying. It took a long period of interviewing before I was able to completely decompress from my tenure in politics – all jobs require a cooling-off period. However, I was soon in the midst of what would turn out to be a 6 month hiring process that ultimately led to the firm I’d been interviewing with to fold their municipal practice on the basis of one of my answers. Within that time though, I’d already established a g-mail account under the name citythink@gmail.com , which remains my address to this day (of course.) I started working on a few writing and policy-advisory projects for a couple of clients and perhaps mistakenly in retrospect, worked for the ill-conceived Mayoral campaign of my friend and former constituent Stephen LeDrew. We had no chance against Mayor Miller who was heading into his second term after a very well run first term.

After that, I was able to secure a major client. Skymeter was so impressed by the work I’d done for them, they asked if I’d become their 4th team member, Business Development Manager for North America and represent them at the January 2007 meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington DC. Citythink would be put to bed for a while. Twitter was still in its infancy, and I certainly wasn’t using it for Business Development as much in those first days. But at some point I decided to create a Twitter account and the natural choice of course, was @Citythink, which had not yet been taken. Seeing all the urban-based Tweets, quite a stroke of luck.

Beyond wanting to create a name that represented the business I wanted to offer – City Hall government relations, it represented my fierce dedication to Urbanism and to what I then already knew would become what Brent Toderian has called ‘the Urban Century” or the “Century of Cities.” After having worked with both residents and developers, homeowners in dense neighbourhoods surrounded by vibrant commercial activity and ongoing redevelopment (at one point, I had 37 active development files to monitor in just one ward) and the neighbours of businesses abutting residential neighbourhoods who often wanted things like patios or easier access ways. I’d grown tired of the objections that many call “Nimby” but I prefer to call, being an active and engaged citizen. While I had always agreed with homeowners needs and rights to adequate public consultation, my concern about the environment, and the need to reduce our impacts and make better use of existing infrastructure, meant that I was destined to work on reducing the conflict between homeowners and their neighbours who were often companies and/or small businesses looking to do exactly what business does in a capitlist democracy. CityThink was to be the name of my business as a subtle way to remind people that they lived in a large City and that the main objective of their thinking should be to be part of a City that is growing and thriving. Having read OMB decisions and numerous Council discussion papers, I felt there was a need to bridge the gap between applicants, homeowners and tenants, and the professionals at City Hall, all of whom required some amount of cover from politicians wary of supporting difficult or unpopular actions.

I wanted to send a message about the need to consider the needs of a City of 1.5-2 Million people living on the edge of a climate crisis. We could no longer sit still, sprawl to the ends of the earth and expect to maintain our lifestyle much longer. We’d either choke to death from sprawl, strangle ourselves to economic death in traffic gridlock, or starve ourselves to death by paving over arable farmland, forcing production further and further away from markets, requiring even more carbon to be burned to feed the Big City markets. Sadly, we’re not quite there yet and many people still can’t see beyond their own self-interest.

Tonight though, I’m happy to report that I have just been reminded by former US President Bill Clinton that “Selflessness is really about selfishness if you understand how the world works.” This is exactly the point I make or try, less poetically to make every single day. This world is bigger than our self interest, its bigger than individuals and we are so interconnected that we all do better when all of us do better collectively. You’ll see more about this in recent posts.

So that’s it. It’s 2013. The Century of Cities. The continued sustenance of the human race and of the very sources of food that enable it, requires us to think about Cities and to all be CityThinkers. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about the people that might try to live where we do, 100 years from now. We’re currently not doing very well with it. So when you think of the building on the corner of your street and how tall or dense it might be, consider what stood where your house was 100 years ago, or 200 if you live in an old City. Think about how long the buildings of today will stand. Think about our growth over the past 50 years as well as the acceleration of the damage caused by the outputs of our lifestyles. And join me in CityThinking. I’ll do my best to listen.


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