As the year 1994 began I was prepared to translate the lessons I had learned from depth psychology into my work as a city planner in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Perhaps the single most important lesson I had learned was to reframe the question that city planners first ask when embarking on a project. That question had already evolved during the course of my lifetime in a positive way. (Warning: Huge generalization coming.) In my youth the question typically had been "What do experts think is the most efficient way to create systems to employ people, house people, move people and dispose of their waste?" After the mid-1960s the question became "What do people want their community to be?"
Although the second question was a big improvement over the first, it still fell short of honoring sufficiently the depth psychology insight that the world is suffused with soul. By asking simply what people want their community to be, there is an implicit assumption that while people may have soul, the spaces they inhabit are merely locations that function more like a stage than a character in a play.
Inspired by my depth psychology mentors, I asked a different question: "What does the place want to be?" with the "place" in question varying according to the relevant scope of the project. Sometimes it was "What does the city want to be?" Sometimes it was "What does the neighborhood want to be?" etc.
In 1994 my primary question for my community and my work was "What does the city want to be?" My challenge was to find ways of pursuing answers to that question that would be embraced by the entire community rather than seen as the imposition of a set of values shared only by some ruling elite. In a sense, I was looking for a test case that would demonstrate the value of a depth psychology perspective as applied to city planning.
I began to approach this task by looking for clues in three related ways. First, I asked what was the founding myth (deeply true story) of the city. A preliminary answer to that question was easy to find, and already well-known throughout the community. Saint Paul was born as a prominent river town - as the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. (10 miles northwest of Saint Paul was a large waterfall that could not be navigated in the days before locks and dams. Minneapolis was to grow up as a mill town around this, the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River.) But although Saint Paul owed its existence to the river, it had quickly despoiled the source of its life with high levels of pollution and heavy industrial development that caused the residents of the city to avoid the river rather than embrace it. But by 1994 massive improvements in wastewater treatment systems had resulted in a remarkable recovery of the river's ecological health, and were fueling a community-wide desire to return to the river as a source of life and health. So there was an easy answer to the question: "What does the city want to be?" Answer: "To be a river town again."
Gail Thomas of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture taught me a second way of looking for clues to what my city wanted to be. In her work in Dallas, Gail challenged people to look for symbolic patterns in the built environment that manifest the city's personality. In particular, she pointed to the neon sign on the historic skyscraper in town as a symbol that synchronistically incarnates the personality of Dallas in a remarkable way. Dallas' historic skyscraper was the former headquarters of the Mobil Oil Company, and therefore was surmounted by an image of Pegasus that seemed to hover over the city itself. For Gail and the Dallas Institute, this symbol provided fertile ground for reflecting on Dallas wanting to be what Pegasus wants to be. The synchronicity of such a symbol held true in Saint Paul as well - our historic skyscraper was surmounted by a giant neon sign that read "1st." And indeed, Saint Paul was the first of the Twin Cities, and has always been troubled that it was eventually superseded by Minneapolis, the second-born city in the region. But the "1st" symbol also alludes powerfully to another dimension of the city's founding myth - Saint Paul was first and foremost a river city.
My third set of clues came from a source that deserves a longer explanation, so will be the subject of my next blog post. Sneak preview: it involves a mandalic image that seemed to arise from the landscape of the Upper Midwest, and frequently entered my imagination during times of meditation. And indeed, it powerfully revealed a deeper insight into how the city could return to the river once again, and fueled a transformative project that exceeded all of my community's hopes and dreams.