How Big is a Community?

We live in a society obsessed with size.

“There are more people on Facebook than there are people in every country except India and China!” “…and they’re still growing!”

Well, hold on a moment.

Size isn’t everything. In fact, it’s often your enemy.

If you’ve ever travelled in Europe, you’ve seen French villages and towns; German ones, too.

Nice, right? Things in good working order, clean, delightful, even aesthetically pleasing.

Nip across the English Channel to the UK, and there’s an edge to the British town and village.

Not quite as well ordered. Not quite as clean.

Sometimes … often, in fact … not even sure where you are.

When the only shops on the street still open are all chains, you lose sight of what makes this place its own place.

Now, compare how these are governed.

Your typical French commune (as they’re called) has around 1,500 people.

A city like Paris is divided into many, many of these, which assemble into the twenty districts or arrondisements, and finally to the city as a whole.

In Germany the numbers are a little larger. Their communities are just under 5,000 people on average.

In Britain, on the other hand, the national average is well over 100,000. Much as it is, in fact, in North America as well.

In the English-speaking world, we love to moan about “too many politicians”, “too many jurisdictions”. So we merge them, make them bigger, in the attempt to cut down on the amount we pay for government.

In Europe, the game goes the other way. To get things done in a community, it’s got to be kept small.

Small enough that the officials have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no excuse for not seeing you.

Small enough that you and a neighbour can see something that needs doing, and it’s worth the five minutes it’ll take to point it out to someone who has to do something about it.

This doesn’t surprise me. Dunbar’s research on community size reinforces this.

What Dunbar looked into was what goes into stable social relationships. That’s where you know everyone else personally, and how each person relates to everyone else.

We humans have a cognitive limit for this, and Dunbar found that at around 150 people our ability to “keep it all in our head” is overwhelmed. Beyond those numbers, then, we need formal structures, hierarchies of reporting, and the like, to break the bigger setting into ones that are small enough to work with.

Communities of 150 or less are used in the business world: look at W. L. Gore & Associates, which splits a plant as its workforce approaches 150. In violation of all the business theory out there about scale and cost of operation, Gore would rather have strings of plants running down the road, each a self-contained “village”. They’re quite successful, too, despite “breaking all the rules”.

Social organizations also tend to stay small. Your local Knights of Columbus, Lions’ Club, Little League and the like tend to be under 150 members. As they grow beyond that, it’s time for a new club, a new hall, a new league. (The west side of Vancouver has three Little Leagues, each with four teams, rather than one with twelve, for this reason.)

French communes work as well as they do — despite the usual labour relations issues, interference from the national government, etc. — because they’re kept small enough to make a difference.

They become places where citizenship can fluorish. Not the sort that shows up once every few years on voting day and then gets put back in its box. The kind that makes things work every day.

If “Paris” disappeared, life in those villages would carry on quite well. If “London” disappeared, I’m not as sure life in British villages would. If “Washington” or “Ottawa” zapped out of existence, I’m quite sure our small communities would flounder, at least for a while.

Applying this, then, to large urban areas, means that the fundamental unit of organization needs to be quite small. Smaller than the usual real estate agent’s definition of a neighbourhood (30,000+ people), smaller than a ward (here in Toronto, those are about 55,000 people). Something on the order of a few blocks by a few blocks, or not more than about 2,000 people.

Suppose this came with one neighbourhood service centre, and we elected one person to oversee the neighbourhood.

The neighbourhood service centre handled all services. (In an ideal world, they would handle municipal ones, provincial ones and federal ones without a care. They’re just “where you go for something”.)

A city like Toronto is composed of historical communities, so they’re the next level. The neighbourhood political representatives meet in a community council. Maybe 10-15 of them.

That council selects one of their number to go to city council.

City council selects members to sit on the regional one.

Notice what we have here. A local person. They don’t need an army of support staff — we expect that at the scale of “local” their door is open. (Yes, their office is at the neighbourhood service centre.)

We don’t need parties, not at this scale.

Want to bet that sinkhole, that broken fence, that tipping sign, that trash on the dead end street, that broken swing stop being problems?

Sure they do — because the representative isn’t some faceless person.

They live in your community. You can bang on their door. You can see them at the centre.

You know who they are, who they relate to … and who could replace them.

Communities need to be small in order to work well. The bigger they get, the less well they work.

It’s why barrios come into being in less-developed world cities, and why they self-organize.

We know our systems aren’t working. Let’s start exploring alternatives that might.

It doesn’t even matter if anyone else follows. After all, size isn’t everything.


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