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With municipal elections coming on 25 October 2010 here in Toronto, I’m starting to get — over coffee, in corridors — questions about my views of the various declared candidates.

No, I won’t bore you with that. Having only moved to Toronto near the end of last year, I can’t honestly say that I know anything useful about any of them, yet! Instead, I’d like today to talk about why municipal issues matter — goodness knows, with an average turnout on election days of around 30% there’s no shortage of evidence that municipal issues don’t matter to the majority! — and what kind of questions we might want to ask the candidates, and ourselves, before making choices.

Municipal Funding

Most of us hear the annual whinge from the Mayors of the country’s various cities about funding issues. Whereas provinces are their own masters when it comes to raising funds, just as is the Federal Government, Canadian municipalities are creations of the provinces. Their ability to raise funds is limited, and rather than being a part of the constitutional structure of the country can be granted and removed by Order in Council alone at the provincial legislature.

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of mandates imposed with minimal or missing funding, and no shortage of investments that may be required for which funds are an issue.

Let’s be clear: our cities, towns and villages all need to take the steps that they need, in their situation, to deal with their challenges. There are also no shortage of studies, proposals and promises out there.

The key question, then, is: how will this be paid for?

As an example, Toronto has put forward a transit plan — Transit City — which will require billions to be achieved. (There are many with specific criticisms of elements of this plan. I cite it instead to use it as an example: the “greening” of cities, the reduction in automobile congestion, etc. often cites extensive rapid transit development as a necessary step.)

How will this be paid for? (We needn’t ask a stupid question such as “who will pay?”, for whether it’s “federal money”, “provincial money”, “regional agency money” or “municipal money” that’s involved it’s all “taxpayer money” — and there is only one taxpayer. Those who answer “how it will be paid” with “the province will…” or “the feds will…” are not answering the question and should be discarded from consideration.)

“How” involves three different factors:

  • Capital costs, plus the operating expenses to handle all the mandates of planning, assessment, etc. — and as those of us who lived through the chaos unleashed in Vancouver through the Public-Private Partnership that built the Canada Line (with the private partner’s changes from original specification in the RFP) know, it’s both the money sources and the means we’ll have to ensure our objectives are met.
  • Operating costs once this is built. The TTC, for instance, has been crippled ever since the Sheppard Subway was opened for business: as underground heavy rail, it is a line to nowhere in terms of the cost to run it annually. An honest assessment here talks about the impact on operating costs, shifts in the percentage to be handled through the fare box, and what might be done if these estimates, or estimates for growth, are wrong.
  • Dependency costs. Every new line that is built — from busway, through light rail (preserved right of way trams/streetcars or like Calgary’s system), through medium rail (RT technology like SkyTrain in Vancouver or the Scarborough RT), to heavy rail technology like the existing subways all change patterns which, in turn, lead to demand changes. Extending lines may, on a fiscal basis, make more sense with a lower level of technology, yet the dependency costs of forcing change of vehicles into the network can affect ridership.

These aren’t sound-bite answers, but neither are they answers from studies, or professionals at the transit system. Anyone seeking political office — and the person who seeks to be Mayor of Toronto is the individual in this country who is directly elected by the greatest number of people — ought to be prepared to say “I stand here” on these three questions.

Now, if one expresses a preference for public-private partnerships, while another says “we only move forward when the province and feds step up”, while a third says “we’ll just finance it and get it started”, the voter can start to sort out who they think has the issue right. The one who goes on and deals with the cost of having the solution offered is adding important reasons to vote for/against them.

This sort of dialogue with voters is what is needed, not the tactics of spinmeisters. Voters are not stupid: the candidate that levels with them may not sound attractive, but they will have a mandate to proceed if elected.

Fixing Emergent Problems

The other main issue in municipal affairs is how existing issues are to be fixed. Prior labour negotiations, for instance, may have too much of the current spending tied up in salaries and benefits to make a portfolio of new actions possible. (This is certainly an outcome in BC municipalities of the “regional negotiation model” favoured by the province, and underlies the immobilization of its school boards, health authorities and cities.) Prior planning approvals may have destroyed the fabric of neighbourhoods by virtue of what is being built there. Business may be moving out due to special charges, or the city may have become unaffordable, or shifts in immigration may have created broken civic services based on a different model, serving a different number or types of communities.

Every candidate ought to be prepared to disclose what they think the problems of the day actually are, and to prioritize them. It is this second point that is key: political capital is not unlimited, and in office it can be expended quickly. Focus, and public reasons for that focus, will be required to wield that power (City Councils are far more like the “what’s in it for me and mine” of the US Congress, where party loyalty must often be purchased, than like Canadian Legislatures or Parliament, where party discipline rules the day).

At the same time, certain issues are so large, so difficult to tackle, that they can only be taken on periodically. A candidate might truly believe that outsourcing is the answer and that the municipal workers’ unions must be broken. If this battle last occurred only a few years earlier, the timing — despite any justifications to be found — may not be right. Again, citizens may not agree, but there is respect for a candidate who levels and treats them as responsible.

Also, again, this is not sound-bite country. I can recall, in 1971 in Québec City, seeing a public debate between Québec politicians not unlike our all-candidates meetings. (This was a simple debate: it was not an election period.) Long chains of logic and example, designed to persuade the thinking listener, may well have stretched my command of French, but I appreciated the intention to treat the listeners as responsible and capable. Political consultants, managers, operatives and advisors have counselled against this in today’s media climate. No wonder politics has become about pretty faces, fast quips and shouting!

Why Municipal Affairs Matter

What lies ahead for us is the Great Unravelling of large scale structures. As it does, life will become more local, and the locus of government that matters will be the municipality first, with declining relevance to upper levels. The “centre will not hold”, despite the many attempts that will be made to hold onto it: peak energy, fiscal collapse and other factors like this are the reason for us to see localization coming, whether by design or as an outcome of the attempt to resist it.

Yet our municipalities are poorly equipped to carry this load. Nor are they prepared for even deeper localization, a real restructuring to be living communities (neighbourhoods) that make a municipality into a regional service set.

Those who would seek office should be expected to have some vision of the future, and of the challenge of transition involved. Again, the candidate may not agree with my view of where we’re going, but I expect him or her to have a well-developed sense of the whole and an ability to relate their promises and plans to it. In other words, their agenda is (a) out in the open, (b) thought through and (c) integrated to a vision of the future.

We are highly unlikely to see this sort of honesty at provincial or federal levels: provinces and countries are too big, with too few electeds, to risk the truth in dealing with citizens. Municipalities, on the other hand, are of a mostly manageable size — and can be known well enough by those who run, and those who vote.

The reform of our politics to make “the system work” will begin close to home. That, at the end of the day, is why municipal matters matter.

Let’s see who — if anyone — steps up to the challenge.

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The New York Times offered up a very interesting article, “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?”, in its 31/01/2010 edition. This led me to an afternoon of reflection on what I have seen on the streets of the cities I have lived in within the last decade (Vancouver and Toronto), and, from it, I’d say that there is certainly a growing dis-ease with “things as they are developing” taking root (although an environmentalist or ecologist might not see it as any sort of “ecological unconscious” coming to the fore).

Our Heredity Does Play a Role

Modern man — homo sapiens sapiens — is a species that came to be in grasslands, with trees “in the picture”, but not a forested land. We retain, to this day, a general species preference (obviously individuals can and do “buck” this, and populations that grow up in other settings — the treeless tundra, on mountainsides, in bayous, etc. — do take these as “normal” and “preferred”). Even within these other settings, there are preferences shown for alpine meadows (surrounded by the mountains), small clearings (surrounded by the swamps), and the like, and this is common even when the meadows and clearings would be locales where it would be likely to pasture animals or grow crops for food — Wyoming, for instance, has often seen the animals on a ranch quartered at over 100 miles from the ranch itself, and it takes years to be an outsider and see the subtle differences between “good pastureland” and “a good place to live”. We do, as Joel Garreau noted in passing in his The Nine Nations of North America, find a part of this vast continent as “home” even decades after moving from it (the sky is the right colour, the air has the right humidity, the horizon is the right distance away, etc.) and so the “desired amount” of open space varies. (A friend of mine, born in North Dakota but assigned to a parish in an Adirondack valley since the early 1970s, still finds his region “confining”, where I, who grew up in ravine-cut Toronto, don’t notice anything “wrong” with the number of trees and the shape of the horizon at all — likewise, I find the generally treeless prairies somewhat disconcerting, whereas a twenty mile horizon with just a tree or grain elevator punctuating the horizon is comforting to him. Both of us, in turn, appreciate the beauty of the mountains reaching the sea, but find it uncomfortable as a place to live, no matter how widely the river’s flood plain stretches between the ranges. Perhaps a native of his current home in upstate New York would find the lower Fraser Valley to their liking, too…)

In any event, as Evan Eisenberg noted in The Ecology of Eden, our yards and gardens in our little private residences are often attempts to recreate the savannah, with sweeping lawns of green replacing the tall grasses, and with trees at the property’s edge to frame it. From the tiny gardens of homes in “0207” London (the inner urban area) to the two acre zoning of Fairfield County, CT, this motif is replicated. It is even found in desert climes (e.g. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Alice Springs), until, at least, water restrictions start to create some desire for xerography.

So, if we are so able to recreate our own little patches of comforting savannah, why would there be dis-ease?

Climbing a Wall of Worry

Part, too, of modern life is its very urbanism: we are at the cross over where more of humanity lives in large urban areas than in villages and on the land. Then, too, the sprawl of cities has its effect not only on the land around them, but on patterns that emerge within the towns and villages that fall into their orbit.

Consider, for instance, what a small town or village traditionally was. It was a community. Its inhabitants lived there, worked there, bought and sold to each other. It had a variety of community organizations to provide for activities and entertainment. As the railways started to spread outward in the 1830s and after, more of these locations started to “have a way” for people to go elsewhere — but it was not until just short of the twentieth century (as noted by James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere) that the notion of the “commuter” community first started to spread.

Not for nothing is Philadelphia’s “Main Line” known by that name: along the four track main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad commuter stations creating “commuting communities” in and amongst the older villages and towns. Half a mile from each station, though, rural and contained village life continued. Similar structures ringed most cities: the great exception being Los Angeles, where the Pacific Electric and its predecessors built a network of lines that promoted what we recognize today as suburban living well in advance of the automobile’s prevalence on the streets.

There is a qualitative difference between a place which is a dormitory community and one which has a beating, local heart — just as there is between a community that manufactures for its local needs vs one that imports its needs from elsewhere (or one that exports to others what it builds vs one that only handles its own requirements: see Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations). One sign of a place that has a beating, local heart, is found in the shops on its main (high) street: is it filled with local business or chains, and is it filled with businesses for the local population (cleaners, barber, vegetables, etc.) or items for travellers (tourist items, soaps, etc.)? Are these shops, if local, well maintained, or do they appear drab and dying? Have the buildings kept their façades, or have they been forced into a curtainwall and plate-glass regularity required by corporate branding?

Whether you live in a small town or village, or whether you live in a great urban area and call a neighbourhood home, it is this sense of locality, of “being somewhere specific and known”, that is a connection through you to the community’s past and future. Corporate mergers wiping out the local bank or shop, a lease being acquired by a chain “with outlets from coast to coast”, buildings being torn down (the sort that were 2-3 storeys high, with offices or apartments (flats) above a small retailer or light manufacturer) and being replaced by a parking lot with a “corporate box” in its centre (e.g. a McDonald’s) are signs that the community is losing its heart and soul.

Lose enough — enough of the local sports fields and teams, of the community theatre, of the neighbours who are also merchants, the local banker and the like — and the heart of the community slows and stops. Repairs aren’t made as frequently and a run-down demeanour presents itself to the street. Residents start to look for work elsewhere, and their primary loyalty shifts from where they live to where they work. The “working class” locales see a closing of facilities (e.g. Bridgeport, CT) and as many leave as are able to do so; or the street changes character to a mix of barely-surviving shops and “community service” storefronts funded by taxpayers (Schuylerville, NY, or along Danforth Avenue in Toronto between Donlands and Victoria Park Avenues). The loss of “permanence” weighs on the soul. Others — say Vancouver’s West Fourth Avenue through Kitsilano or Toronto’s Yonge St. north from Eglinton Avenue — see an increasing number of international chains displace local merchants, until the street could be anywhere, and the true community assets aren’t worth maintaining (as, for instance, Duthie Books is closed in Kitsilano, as the family simply “gave up” operating a very good independent bookstore in the face of a neighbourhood changed too far and [I suspect] whose chains raised local rents to the point where their vision of the store could not be maintained profitably).

It is these changes, and the suburban ones: the endless widening of the arterial roads that never relieves the traffic, the ripping out of what undeveloped land exists to put up yet another condo complex, townhouse development or community of homes named for the trees, creeks or vistas no longer there (and that were the attraction to earlier newcomers to the community), and the inability to find anything for daily needs on the village high street (such as in Windsor, Berkshire, in the UK) thanks to tourism taking over, that sparks a subtle and pervasive dread. This is a psychological disorder, whether DSM-IV (the index of “approved” mental illnesses) yet recognizes it or not. Add to it the doubling of time it takes to reach open country now that perhaps it did thirty years ago — the Boston commuter-shed now reaches halfway across Massachusetts, and into New Hampshire, southwestern Maine and into Rhode Island, or Toronto sees regular commuters now from the 519, 705 and (just beginning) 613 area codes, well outside the 905/289 considered to be the “Greater Toronto Area”, or the 416/647 that is “the city” (2/3 of which was considered “suburban” only twelve years ago).

Now Add General Uneasiness

All of this is bad enough, but there is also a present sense that things are going wrong generally. More people than ever have résumés filled with company names that no longer exist, whether through merger or bankruptcy. The notion of “finding a good company and working there to get your pension” is lost to almost everyone except the broader public sector workers. More people than ever cannot and do not live close to their children: their children cannot afford their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the passion for scale in our economy has concentrated opportunity in fewer locales: there are very few companies, for instance, that see the point of the German Mittelständ these days, where global markets do not mean outsourcing or concentrating plants and the primary moral duty is to the health of the community that hosts the firm in its midst.

So, yes, the people you meet feel this. Some of that shows up as a passion for ecological redemption. Some of that also shows up as a sense that “society must be changed”. Others take it as a need for resistance, both as “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone” or “not in my backyard” and as a “turn the clock back” type of pseudo-conservativism that is fundamentally radical at its core.

Until we again return our lives and places in which we live them to a scale that we as humans can take comfort in, this dis-ease will continue to spread and likely turn sociopathic toward the end. Fortunately, doing so is also ecological, and sustainable.

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In a number of comments attached to the various posts thus far on this blog, issues of designing for a sustainable, or green, future have been raised. Today I shall try and dissect what this might mean if we were to start and apply this, not in “new towns” or “new neighbourhoods”, but in the fabric that already exists on the ground.

Principle #1: Deal in Health

A sustainable community begins life by being one that is built around the prospects for health for its residents. This begins, as far as I’m concerned, by removing the emphasis on the automobile. Walking is the foundation of good health.

10,000 steps/day is a maintenance level required, generally, to avoid many of the degenerative diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, High “bad” Cholesterol, etc. Such is quite within reach when we remember that movement around the office or school, walking to and from lunch, etc. is part of this base.

Steps add up, however, when one walks to/from transit, or around one’s neighbourhood. A standard Manhattan city block, for instance, represents roughly 180 steps (with a step based on “from one foot, to the other foot, back to the first foot (L-R-L or R-L-R)” at around 1.5 m/5 ft each) in the long direction, and 52 steps in the shorter direction (blocks traditionally are rectangles). For a person living four “long” blocks from effective transit service — less than 10 minutes between pickups in either direction, and with an average speed of 25 km/h or better between stops including time spent at the stops — and two “long” blocks to a place of work/schooling at the other end of a daily journey, this basic commute introduces over 2,150 steps/day. Add another 2,000-3,000/day in movement around the office and/or to/from lunch. In other words, neighbourhood amenities need only create rational behaviour leading to another 5,000-6,000 steps to be designed for healthy living.

What, in this term, is “rational”? Consider the length of time it takes to get in a car, move it from its parking space, move it to the destination, find and secure parking at that end: a distance of 400 m, somewhere between three and four blocks, represents 12±2 minutes on foot. Oddly enough, this also represents a typical time of 12±2 minutes behind the wheel, in a neighbourhood with a high street for shopping. Beyond this time frame, the car begins to be “competitive” with the foot traveller, at least on paper.

(I picked these as this represents a pair of journeys I know well, from living in Vancouver: one block off Dunbar St. on W. 27th Ave., to a parking lot stretching back one “short” block at Dunbar St. and W. 30th Ave., also known as “from (then) home to Stong’s Market”. At my stride, this was typically only 10 minutes, including “red light” delays to cross Dunbar St., so 12±2 minutes is certainly favourable to people less mobile than a mid-fifties me. At the same time, traffic levels on the side streets made the delays in coming out of an on-street parking space roughly equivalent to having left a laneway garage.)

That 400 m each way represents another 560±30 steps, depending on my efficiency in the store.

We lived in a neighbourhood in The Hague (The Netherlands) where every 4 blocks or so there was a short shopping strip: a small grocery plus one or two specialty stores (e.g. bakery, deli, barber, dry cleaner, etc.). These neighbourhoods were built on the principles outlined here. 90% of all errands could be handled with a trip to no more than two of these strips. As this pattern was repeated regularly, a round trip of 800-1,000 m was sufficient to meet — on foot — almost all needs. Manhattan is laid out similarly. By regular personal experience, I can also say that in The Hague, Manhattan and in Vancouver, making two or three such trips a day (to handle all packages by hand while not overloading myself as a walker) fit comfortably within the same “time window” used for these errands while living in suburbs (Trumbull, CT and Coquitlam, BC), where using a car to handle the distances involved thanks to the zoning policies barring the mixing of retail and residences was required.

(Living now in Toronto, I live in a similar pattern: 700 m to the subway on foot, 350 m from the subway to the office, with a “90% of needs” shopping district accessible in an 1,000 m trip from a different subway station to home. In other words, in terms of paces and timing (even the shopping return after work fits into 15 mins.) I effectively live in a walking-scale community.)

Neighbourhoods can be constructed around these principles, using the existing street grid and fabric, simply by allowing mixed-use zoning. The construction of 3-4 storey blocks of flats with street-level retail along transit corridors provided needed density to promote frequent service; the retail, in turn, turns at least three long blocks on each side of the transit/retail street into “walking zone” residences. Ensuring the side streets are kept narrow helps hold down auto speeds, making the neighbourhood favourable to walking. On-street (not store lots!: storefronts should be built out to the sidewalks) parking insulates walkers from the cars on the street. (Merchants detest this at first, until they discover that their neighbours are their customers, and still coming: this is the Manhattan experience, where most stores also pickup if appropriate, and generally deliver to make walking and shopping a pleasant experience.)

What about bicycles, you might say? Keep them on the road. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge.

Service vehicles and delivery vans should be relegated to the service lanes, or to the early morning hours if store front loading zones are to be in use.

Finally, the use of through street blocks — one way streets are not advised, as making a street one way encourages speeding! — periodically converts a neighbourhood full of cross streets into a neighbourhood full of “T”-junctions. These promote slower speeds.

Such simple techniques take us a long way to a more sustainable neighbourhood and to healthier people, at low cost. As you’ve seen, we haven’t yet reached (in this thought experiment) a 10,000 pace/day society. One would hope such a rich set of neighbourhoods would provide further reasons to walk: trips to small theatres, restaurants and the like, trips to the library or community centre, trips to walk the dog in the park. (This, too, is the experience of Manhattan, parts of Toronto and Vancouver, The Hague and other European centres.) It is generally not necessary to actually bar cars: simply making it more sensible to not use the car is enough. The important three points, though are:

  • Stop engineering streets for speedy auto traffic, and instead engineer them for walkers, bicycles and transit, with the residual space “left” for cars and trucks. Walkable streets are treed (for shade), have room for outdoor tables (for the pleasure of being there), interesting shops (a function of the density of stores), reasons to go to the neighbourhood (the special amenities that require “larger catchment areas” to make them viable) and have enough people living in them to make transit facilities financially viable on an operating basis.
  • Mixed-use zoning is essential: the more opportunities to walk (or cycle a short distance) to work, to shop, etc. the better. This implies the need to insert such facilities, as current single-use zoning systems create long “dead zones” where cars are essential (consider any typical suburb of your choice).
  • While focal points (e.g. “T”-junctions) are pleasing places to be and slow traffic, they are not currently “engineered in”. These must be created out of the existing fabric. Keep traffic two-way, but limit the number of lanes (e.g. today’s “six lane” road [four for traffic, two of parking] becomes a pair of parking lanes, a pair of bicycle/transit lanes and a pair of lanes for cars and trucks).

Rather than dream of carbon taxes, tax credits, incentives and regulations, or of massive urban re-engineering schemes, this is a model we know works, know how to move to, and can do inexpensively. What, pray tell, is holding us back?

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Three recent posts on the subject of community —John Michael Greer’s “The Costs of Community”, Sharon Astyk’s “On the Problem of Community”, and Rob Hopkins’ “Why ‘Community’ Might Not Need ‘Organising'” — coupled with an exchange of comments in recent days on this blog and on Facebook over applying the principle of subsidiarity and moving much decision-making lower down the governmental/organizational food chain have got me reflecting today on what kind of action, if any, we should be working to make happen in our communities.

Actually, to be completely fair, the “we” in that sentence means “each of us as individuals” and, yes, each of us belongs to multiple communities.

Our Multiple, Fractal Identities

For Dominion Day, 2008, I wrote a short essay on the multiple identities each of we Canadians find within ourselves. Recalling David Hume (who held that our notion of “being” a persistent person [or ‘identity’] through time was an illusion of memories alone), the notion that you, yourself and I, myself, are a collection of identities is not completely strange. On the one hand, I am myself; I perceive myself as persisting through change; I see myself as the same person no matter in what setting I find myself, nor what role I play (parent, manager, coach of the ball team, amateur philosopher, you name it). Yet, at the same time, we recognize (ask anyone interviewing a short list of candidates to join their organization!) that the pattern of experiences a person has lived through — a combination of where they’ve been and what roles they were asked to play — makes for differences between one person and another that matter to the decision no less so than their “personality” or credentials. The person, for instance, who has been an entrepreneur and returns to take up a profit-and-loss managerial role brings a quite different “identity” to the game than the one who has climbed the managerial food chain in a number of very large organizations.

So if we (to use Dave Snowden‘s well-known coinage) are fundamentally Cynefin, then it is a reasonable inference that not only will we bring different fragments of our “selfs” to different communities (work, sport, volunteer, protest, etc.) we affiliate to, but we will, in turn, find that our “selfs” begin to shift in response to the role we play in each community, and the impact of that community in support of, or as a distraction from, other roles we play in other communities. (The “involved person”, for instance, must take time from her or his family or relationship, just as any “political family” adjusts and subordinates its members’ behaviours in support of the politician-family member.) What’s equally important to remember in this is that some of those fragments are no longer roles being played in communities — they are inherited from natural faith (see Thomas Langan, Being and Truth), from upbringing, from systems of thought adopted by the individual (whether integrated with other facets of the individual or not), and from prior roles played but no longer in “force” (e.g. playful child, student, previous careers, etc.).

Why “Municipality” Isn’t Enough

Much of the thinking on subsidiarity, moving power closer to the people by rendering decisions at the “lowest” effective level, has focused on moving power down to municipal levels where, it is generally asserted, people stand the best chance of coming together as a community and having real influence on the decisions that affect their community’s future. I don’t want, for a moment, to suggest that municipalities offer no hope. But think for a moment: the municipality I live in — Toronto, Canada — has more seats in the Canadian House of Commons than seven of the ten provinces do (one of those anomalies that emerge with concentrated populations in urban areas and a lower chamber based on representation by population). That base population in excess of 2,500,000 exceeds the population size of 83 countries (out of 223). Yet many of the issues in creating a viable, sustainable community require a larger structure — to integrate transportation, for instance — not a smaller one.

You may say that communities the size of Toronto aren’t what’s meant by “community”, and I imagine that each of Toronto’s 22 wards are bigger (at an average size of 113,600 people each, or 93% of the estimated 2009 population of the province of Prince Edward Island) than you mean, too. Most people who write on community at a municipal level — a “living place” level — tend to focus on village-sized units, and thus on neighbourhoods when the municipality itself exceeds village size. Indeed, in cities, we see “residents’ associations” and “business improvement associations” sized precisely thus, to walking distances and populations of 1,000-5,000 depending on density. Yet these — when the village is not a “true” village habitation — tend not to have a political structure.

Subsidiarity matters, and moving decisions down from central and remote governments is worth striving for. But most municipalities people live in — and with roughly 50% of world population now urbanized there are many countries where urban dwellers exceed 75% of the total national population — are larger than “communities”. (I note in passing that the United States and Canada are shown to have roughly similar urbanization rates at around 80%, although anyone familiar with both countries knows that on both coasts of the USA the spaces between cities and their suburbs — the “statistical metropolitan areas” — tends to be filled with “exurbs”, whereas in Canada the similar space is filled with open farms and forests, coupled with true villages and small towns that are not part of the commuter shed. Statistics alone — as always — don’t tell the whole story!)

Communities of Ideas, of Practice, of Intention and of Action

Many claims have been made as well for the creation of other kinds of communities, and, indeed, as social media tools have spread, so, too, the ability to create facet- or fractal-based communities has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between municipal size and decision effectiveness. (Indeed, long before the tools came along, communities were built by round-robin letters or scheduled meetings — think of how science was done in the seventeenth century, both by letter between practitioners and with the formation of entities such as the Royal Society. Then, too, many have noted that our primary interests today are seldom as strong with those who happen to inhabit the same block of flats, or streets, and more often with those who are part of our profession, or work at our firm, or via the activities we take part in. (There was nothing as rewarding as a Little League baseball season, to watch lawyers, management consultants, air conditioning installers and salespeople for radio advertising come together and simply be ball fans, coaches and scorekeepers, as they sped up their adjustment from “work” persona to “parent” or “fan” persona. Fragment-shifting is not automatic! — something every employer decries when “family matters” get in the way of “work”.)

There have been many successes, but no group has as of yet solved the most important problem: is this organization capable of achieving its goals without “going political”?

Let me define that: “going political” means overcoming the fact that we play multiple roles, live as fragments, have fractal identities, etc. and therefore may not be involved, or, if involved, be passionate enough to contribute much, to the community — and so our participation is legislated, through required actions and/or fees. (Note that communities that act to lobby for, or agitate for, established political authorities to provide said “legislation” on their behalf, must be judged appropriately. When Gandhi put pressure on the British to leave India, he required nothing of them than that they stop legislating and administering Indian life. He asked for no favours, no special treatment, no “positive” actions. This is quite different from the community that “demands”, that “requires”, that requires mandated support (e.g. KAIROS and its government subsidy, now cut), and the like.)

Those that don’t require this certainly are true communities, although they may struggle in the face of the many to succeed. Some will make some real progress (e.g. the Bowen Island, BC, citizen eGovernment movement) and then fade into the background or die out as initial objectives are met or the process goes longer than intended. Others will continue years of operation (most community activities and community-led social services, such as Crisis Centres), with or without subsidies, but with no strategic change from one year to the next. (This is not necessarily a bad thing — one does want certain things to be continuously delivered! — but it can make renewing leadership and participation a challenge at times, and, if subsidized, the avoidance of demanding legislation to enforce the subsidy is a constant challenge.)

The technology has allowed for non-geographic communities to operate at least as fast — and often faster — than “ground”-based communities, especially in growing! But numbers — as the various Facebook pages and Twitter hashtag communities have shown — are minimal levels of involvement, and seldom if ever lead to the achievement of anything other than “we hit our number”. As the work world has shown, social networks in professions and organizations that already exist can be valuable sources of action — consider crowd-sourcing a technology strategy at the UK Department of Work and Pensions as an example — but many relationships between these people in some of their roles and facets were “mined” to help this along. In other words, the technology can amplify the community, but it far less often does much of meaning without either a leadership cadre setting the terms for the “members” — or human relationships within it and the time to discuss action.

Community, then, is truly a double-edged sword, ready to cut into the principle of community on the one side by forgoing subsidiarity to the personal member in favour of power relationships and the exercise of higher authority to achieve ends, and on the other by falling afoul of Dunbar’s Number if true human relationships are to be depended upon. (Technology might make for a doubling of the mild acquaintance category … but I don’t think “much more” is currently possible.)

This does not mean “ignore the whole thing”. Those who call for community to deal with the transition of our society, who worry about health and welfare, who are concerned about energy, our economy or our ecology, have not invented their concerns, no matter how much the “true believers” for resonant and grating causes alike one to believe that! (Nor, too, are their opponents to be so easily dismissed — few matters are as “settled” as their proponents or opponents claim. To take but one example, those who promote dense public transport systems claim “the future of the suburbs is to die”. The availability of affordable energy may well tend in that direction, and building the transportation system takes sufficient time that a decision to proceed must be made years ahead of a crisis. Yet we, as a society, have invested much of our capital in the suburbs, and should be trying to put as much of it to work as we can, which may well lead to ways to maintain the “suburban way of living”.)

As always, finding a middle route between force and despair, and coming closer to who we are (human nature), offers us the most opportunity to succeed.

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