Depth and Altitude in the Planet of Cities

Turtles Up and Turtles Down

Marilyn Hamilton
August 13th, 2012
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Planet of Cities

More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities. If for no other reason than to contemplate a statistical tipping point of the evolution of the human species shifting from rural-centred to urban-centred, we should consider what an integral perspective can bring to considering some implications of a planet of cities.


The world already has 400 cities with populations greater than one million1. In 2007 already 100 cities produced 38% of the world’s wealth2. I anticipate that in the next 20 years 20% of the world’s cities will produce 80% of its wealth.


So both the relationships of human affairs defined in traditional family-focused, ethno-centric terms (which emerged in the rural environments of human evolution) and the prosperity of the world defined in modernist wealth-producing terms (which emerged with the rise of the urban environment) are impacted by the rise of the city’s role in global affairs.


It is almost certain then that the rise of the importance of the city is not only an indicator of an evolutionary shift of human capacities, but that it is a human system worthy of deep contemplation and serious research. That is the domain of interest for this Integral City by-line (and September 2012 webinar series on the “Future of the Human Hive” 3).


One of the interesting implications of this rising impact of cities on the world is that our planetary wellbeing is emerging from the decisions of city officials and managers who are located in all sizes of cities located on all the continents of the world. Yet many city officials and managers operate with consciousness that is egocentric in relation to their personal and/or political intentions, or ethnocentric in response to their neighbourhood constituencies, without the context of being informed by the larger interests of the city as a whole (i.e. being city-centric), let alone being informed by the needs of the world (i.e. being world-centric).


Turtles Up


As I write I am flying over Houston at 6 miles high. Below I see an expanse of infrastructure that spans the flat plains through the lakes, rivers, canals and waterways to the seashore. All modes of transport connect the artefacts of human systems, fanning outward from the dense core of the city centre to more open, less populated territory and secondary byways that converge on nodes that are suburbs, smaller cities and even smaller towns. Every level of human complexity is visible through these patterns of built city.


And as I travel south along the Caribbean coastline I am mesmerized by the stretch of inland waterways and in the midst of Texan oilfields, I am shocked to see the turbines of windmills revolving in the flat sand washed coastal flats.


From 6 miles over Houston I am reminded that this is the control centre for rocketing humans 239,000 miles4 beyond my earthbound altitude – carrying our species to the moon and back.


Thus the view below me represents the city at its most sophisticated emergence – the manifestation of Turtles Up from the smallest human system of the individual, to all its myriad collectives, all the way to the moon!! (See Figure 1 for the Holarchy of City Holons)

Figure 1: Holarchy of City Holons

Turtles Down

Just last week, I sat in a diner in Victoria, BC talking to a local city councillor. I was seeking her professionally informed (she is a geographer), politically astute (she is a second term elected official), sustainably sensitive (she is champion of a city that is becoming a green, learning, carbon neutral urban leader) and culturally mixed (she is a Canadian citizen transplanted from the UK) advice for the webinar series. I asked her to help form and translate our intention to “Co-Create the Future of the Human Hive”.


Much to my surprise she paused as I explained the design of our prototype for a new operating system for the city. We start with a “motherboard” for our planet of cities: Mother Earth. Then we add Integral Intelligence to understand the city as the most complex system humans have yet created. Next we explore Logic Processors for learning, informing, connecting feedback looping, navigating and decision making. Finally we add an Evolutionary Power Pak to amplify our energy and spiritual source.


The councillor paused with a quizzical silence and then said, “Interesting … it’s not often that I get to think about the city from a higher altitude – or take the time to step out of the day-to-day demands that flood my desk, phone, blackberry, iPad or email.  I think I’d like to participate!”


What better accolade could I receive than an expression of interest from someone who represents the audience Integral City was created to speak to?


And what a gift for the councillor to remind me that “altitude counts”. When we look at the city right in front of our noses, it is too close for comfort to see many patterns outside the interactions we have with our partners and closest friends. Rarely do we have or take the time even to contemplate our inner life or the motivations behind our impulses to act.


When we gain 100 feet of altitude we can see the dignity and disaster patterns of our family and friends, colleagues at work and in the daily retail transactions we undertake. How often do we pause to ask how we make meaning together of these interactions?


When we shift to 1000 feet of altitude we can see the organizations we work in and how the teams form, storm, norm and perform. We notice how psychologies of person and groups interact to perform roles and achieve goals.


At 10,000 feet we can see how sectors coalesce from like-organizations to take on a particular function, often with a shared standard of performance (e.g. food distribution or education).


At 20,000 feet we can see how multiple sectors serve the city as a whole, like the matrix of organs in our bodies serving specialized functions for the survival of life.


At 30,000 feet (almost 6 miles and especially at night) we can see the mobility in transportation, technology and communication arteries that connect the environment, the ecology and living human systems. In daylight, from this altitude we even have a view not only of the present state of the city but with many glimpses of its history as well (as embodied in its historical architecture, street layouts and commercial centres).

Planet of Paradoxes

When thinking about the city councillors and managers I know, I realize that paradoxically they must develop inner personal depth to gain outer city altitude. Without developing their own personal capacities to appreciate all of the city’s capacities that have emerged out of the Traditional, Modern, Post-Modern and now Integral worldviews, city councillors/managers do not have the contexts to lead the city to solutions about its intractable problems.


For along with the era of the “Planet of Cities” we have also entered the era of intractable, interconnected seemingly insoluble paradoxes like: homelessness and urban sprawl; overpopulation and water scarcity; energy demands and carbon footprints; green economies and greenhouse gases; transportation gridlock and food security; healthcare systems and cultural divides; education needs and environmental degradation.


None of these tensions can be solved by a single individual, group, organization, sector or even city (or nation). It is only by working together that we can create the conditions for innovation, emergence and resilience that will lead our individual cities to sustainable wellbeing and our planet of cities to long term planetary evolution.


Thus the capacities of our city councillors/managers need to become minimally city-centric and even more preferably, world-centric.

Turtles Up and Turtles Down

Outer altitude enables us to appreciate the city as a nest of holons interconnected in multiple ways (see Figure 1). The city is the individual human system writ large at many fractals and in all quadrants. It is a social holon where individual “I’s” are members of many “We’s”.


As our species has passed such a critical threshold, to now be living predominantly in cities, it is time to mature another threshold - namely our capacities to function both as individuals and collectives with city-centric views that transcend and embrace our ego-centric and ethno-centric views.


As the integral movement matures, it seems natural for us to create four quadrant, all level (AQAL) support systems for city councillors/managers. Integral City is calling forth a brain trust to that includes expertise from geographers, ecologists, biologists, city operations, information technology, communications, education and adult learning, healthcare, civil society, business/commerce, community engagement, financial capital, environmental resilience, cultural wisdom and global/local economics. Such a brain trust will create habitats for our elected officials (and their government bureaucracies) that enable them to gain altitude in viewing the city by interacting with all parts of it in the context of its eco-region and global connections. We will also catalyze interconnections for city councillors/managers with other cities so that colleagues from different urban developments can gain some distance and integration (literally from the altitude that comes from flying over cities and figuratively by using integral lenses to see the city).


In doing so we will create the life conditions that will empower our councillors to make better informed decisions, create new possibilities for citizen engagement and co-create the life conditions to evolve city-centric governance on our Planet of Cities.






Hamilton, M. (2008). Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive. Gabriola Island BC: New Society Publishers.


Hamilton, M., Beck, C., Fisher, V., & Marx Hubbard, B. (2011). Grok Talk Walk Rock: Choreography for 4 Generations in the Human Hive;


Presentation Slides. World Future Society 2011. Vancouver, Canada: World Future Society.


Integral City Meshworks Website:





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