Seventeen Theses for a Mindful City


9. Listening Deeply to Mother Nature
Our success in creating a more ecological city hinges in part on our ability to discover the true abundance of our landscape and creatively design around it. Instead of iterating cookie-cutter urban development schemes throughout the world, urban planners need to learn to listen deeply and mindfully to the landscape and build settlements in full awareness and respect of the ecological context. How can mindfulness help? According to former U.C. Berkeley landscape architect and sociologist Randy Hester, “patterns of use that lead to resiliency are often discovered through a kind of meditative process whereby the landscape reveals its secrets to the observer… Is such time-consuming site meditation necessary? Plain and simple, yes.” (1)

10. Making the Strange Familiar
Sustainable urban design requires us to close material cycles, eliminate waste and make waste our treasure. Again, Randy Hester challenges us to depart from conventional thinking in a big way and teaches us to “consider the absurd” and “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” (1) Mindfulness practice supports the emergence of our “beginner’s mind,” by asking us to be present with all that is while suspending judgment. It is a powerful practice in support of the creative process leading to sustainability.

11. Seeing Relationships
Usually rooted in reductionist thinking, common “technological fixes” to problems like traffic congestion, urban sprawl or police brutality will rarely produce sustainable solutions. Complex systems like cities are more than the sum of their parts and have significant emergent properties based on the multitude of relationships they contain. Mindfulness practice helps us maintain an elevated vista from which these relationships and their interactions become visible.

12. Shifting from Having to Being
Modern cities are reflections of our intense materialism. Skyscrapers, shopping malls, luxury hotels, entertainment districts, large suburban lots, freeways and car culture all tell the story of a people who spend a majority of their lives in what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm has called “having mode.” (2) Yet, making cities ecologically sustainable will likely require that all of us spend much more time in “being mode,” a state of mindful alertness to the present moment where our true needs become apparent to us and our appetite to possess and consume gradually subsides.

13. Going Deeper: The Problem of Thought
David Bohm, physicist and creator of the “Bohm Dialogue” (a forum designed to help groups of people reach a deeper mutual understanding and then act coherently using their newly-found co-intelligence), reminds us that we need to address the role thought plays in the sustainability problem. According to Bohm, our thought is fragmented and lacks coherence, chopping up reality into bits. “The ecological problem is due to thought,” says Bohm, “thought is doing all the activities which make the problem and then [thought] does another set of activities to try to overcome [the problem].” (3) Mindfulness practice helps quiet the thought-filled mind and creates space for a more intuitive, holistic knowing to arise. It is, therefore, a promising practice to address the problem of fragmented thought as outlined by Bohm.

(1) Design for Ecological Democracy. MIT Press. 2006.

(2) To Have or To Be. Harper Row. 1976.

(3) Wholeness and Fragmentation. 1990.