I appreciate Judith Brown’s posts about the idea of a district representative-council. Last night, while reading a town planning book on patterns found all over the world, I came across this research of how large a body of people can be represented most fairly. I found it inspiring. It was almost as though it were written expressly for us. I post it here as something to consider as we continue the discussion on how best to represent ourselves here and also think about future development in Middletown.
PATTERN #12: COMMUNITY OF 7000
Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5000-10,000 persons.
People can only have a genuine effect on local government when the units of local government are autonomous … small enough to create the possibility of a link between the man in the street and his local officials and elected representatives.
This is an old idea. It was the model for Athenian democracy in the third and fourth centuries, B.C.; it was Jefferson’s plan for American democracy; it was the tack Confucius took in his book on government, The Great Digest.
For these people, the practice of exercising power over local matters was in itself an experience of intrinsic satisfaction. Sophocles wrote that life would be unbearable were it not for the freedom to initiate action in a small community. And it was considered that this experience was not only good in itself, but was the only way of governing that would not lead to corruption. Jefferson wanted to spread out the power not because “the people” were so bright and clever, but precisely because they were prone to error, and therefore it was dangerous to vest power in the hands of a few who would inevitably make big mistakes. “Break the country into wards” was his campaign slogan, so that mistakes will be manageable and people will get practice and improve.
Today the distance between people and the centers of power that govern them is vast – both psychologically and geographically. Milton Kotler, a Jeffersonian, has described the experience (1967):
The process of city administration is invisible to the citizen who sees little evidence of its human components but feels the sharp pain of taxation. With increasingly poor public service, his desires and needs are more insistently expressed. Yet his expressions of need seem to issue into thin air, for government does not appear attentive to his demands. This disjunction between citizens and government is the major political problem of city government, because it embodies the dynamics of civil disorder.
There are two ways in which the physical environment, as it is now ordered, promotes and sustains the separation between citizens and their government. First, the size of the political community is so large that its members are separated from its leaders simply by their number. Second, government is invisible, physically located out of the realm of most citizens’ daily lives. Unless these two conditions are altered, political alienation is not likely to be overcome.
1. The size of the political community…. Paul Goldman has proposed a rule of thumb that no citizen should be more than two friends away from the highest member of the local unit. Assume everyone knows about 12 people in his local community. Using this notion and Goodman’s rule, we can see that an optimum size for a political community would be 12 x 12 x 12 or about … 5500 persons.
2. The visible location for local government. Even when local branches of government are decentralized in function, they are often still centralized in space, hidden in vast municipal city-county buildings out of the realm of everyday life. These places are intimidating and alienating. What is needed is for every person to feel at home in the place of his local government with his ideas and complaints. A person must feel that it is a forum, that it is his indirectly, that he can call and talk to a person in charge of such and such, and see him personally in a day or two.
For this purpose, forums must be situated in highly visible and accessible places. They could, for instance, be located in the most active marketplace of each community of 5000 to 7000.
Decentralize city governments in a way that gives local control to communities of 5000 to 10,000 persons. As nearly as possible, use natural and geographic and historical boundaries to mark these communities. Give each community the power to initiate, decide, and execute the affairs that concern it closely: land use, housing, maintenance, streets, parks, police, schooling, welfare, neighborhood services.
Excerpted from A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al., 1977, pages 71-74.