Pamela Robinson on ‘Governing and planning districts’ – Thinking local, acting city-wide

This chapter of Death and Life, like the others, is rich on ideas backed up with concrete suggestions for change. Some 50 years later, much of it still resonates.

From the outset, Jacobs quickly sets the scene for why we still find ourselves in 2012 with a need to talk about governing cities and their planning districts:

“Even more discouraging […] is the sense one soon gets of problems which are out of control of everyone. Their ramifications are too complex; too many different kinds of trouble, need and services are interlocked in a given place – too many to be understood, let alone helped or handled when they are attacked, one-sidedly and remotely, by the sprawling municipal governments separate administrative empires each by each (p. 529)”

Homelessness, poverty, transit planning and crumbling infrastructure are among the myriad complex challenges Toronto and other great cities struggle with. Our persistent inability to find workable solutions reminds us that the frustration Jane Jacobs diagnosed in 1961 continues some 50 years later.

Jacobs’ discussion about a city’s scale, size, and structure and the organization of urban governments are connected.

She argues that great cities must be divided into administrative geographic districts with diversely skilled staff tasked to effectively respond to the urban issues that these districts face.

Jacobs felt that if we scaled down our governance structure, then city staff would have a more intimate connection with the people and their neighbourhoods that form the pieces of our cities. She felt that when cities are too big the staff lose perspective and are less effective.

What is an appropriate size for a government district?

Similar to her approach in Chapter 11 on density, Jacobs takes a Goldilocks Principle approach: Government districts should be small enough to connect with local issues, and large enough to connect with city-wide issues.

Governments: “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” Or the other way around? (Photo by Matt Becker)

She ascribes an optimal size and scale of urban government based on the logic that in smaller cities staff can know the people and the place better than in a bigger city. She specifically prescribes that big cities should break down their management into smaller administrative units with 1.5 square mile geographies. This would allow the staff, with their horizontal management structures, to know the people, places and intricacies well and thus manage their affairs effectively.

This argument is a familiar one in Toronto. In the late ‘90s the Harris government amalgamated the City of Toronto with its metropolitan structure (Metro Toronto) and the surrounding four local governments (East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York). One of the many significant concerns at the time was that a new amalgamated Toronto would be too big and impersonal to govern. But what might these specifics mean for Toronto in 2012?

If we take Jacobs’ geographic recipe and apply it to Toronto our city would require 162 administrative units. Interestingly, the City of Toronto has 140 official neighbourhoods. Is it possible to imagine governing the City of Toronto by neighbourhood administrative units?

Toronto’s 140 Neighbourhoods, City of Toronto website
Toronto’s 44 Electoral Wards, City of Toronto website

In our current climate of ‘less government is better,’ it is hard to imagine Council moving toward a neighbourhood-based type of administrative model. Setting all current political preoccupations aside, is there merit in a smaller administrative unit approach?

Local place-based knowledge and city-wide knowledge

Jacobs argued that:

“It is not enough for administrators in most fields to understand specific services and techniques. They must understand, and understand thoroughly, specific places.”

From Spacing Magazine to the Centre for City Ecology to Jane’s Walk, Toronto’s civic culture has benefitted from the breadth and depth of urbanists working toward to more place-based city-building. But do we also need to align the City’s bureaucratic structure to match these place-based efforts?

In the most recent Toronto transit debacle, many argued against the ward-based electoral system in which councilors represent specific districts. This alignment of political decision-making with smaller “units” of the city is being weighed against other political models (like Vancouver’s) where the councilors are elected to represent the city as a whole, rather than one section of it.

When responding to changes that are proposed for our local neighbourhoods that may surprise or alarm us, it is tempting to respond from a purely local perspective without considering the needs of the city as a whole. One of the challenges is that if the proposed development doesn’t go in our neighbourhood then it will end up in someone else’s. How can we balance the neighbourhood concerns with city-wide concerns? How do we balance the importance of local knowledge with a city-wide discussion about what Toronto needs a whole?

Local knowledge is valuable and necessary, but local knowledge alone isn’t sufficient in a complex city like Toronto.

We need place-based commitment joined up to big picture thinking and action.

Jacobs had it right when she said “no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning, whether planning is creative, coordinating or predictive”. When Jacobs first shared this idea 50 years ago she recognized cities were complex ecosystems. But now in Toronto in 2012 we have an even fuller understanding of just how complex urban issues really are.

So, should we, as Jacobs suggests, move to Toronto with 140 neighbourhood offices? I think the answer is ‘no’, that’s too literal a reading of her work. Toronto is more than the sum of its neighbourhoods.

The governance challenge we continue to face is this: How can we find new ways to capture and mobilize that local knowledge and scale it up for city-building action that serves Toronto as a whole?

One Comment Add yours

  1. I don’t think Jacobs was writing about such small units of government as neighbourhoods. She was referring to the kind of decentralization London in the UK implemented: districts of 2-400,000 with local councils and responsibility for most municipal services. Coordination of transit etc. is performed by the Greater London Council. So the Megacity could be easily decentralized that way, although the old boundaries of the constituent municipalities of Metro Toronto would need to be drawn more realistically.

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