I WAS IN THE PUBLIC GALLERY WELL IN ADVANCE OF THE London’s Planning Division’s unveiling of their landmark work, titled “The London Plan”. As the gallery filled up to capacity, as did the adjoining overflow room, it became readily apparent to me that I was witnessing the preliminary machinations of democratic war. Not the one party versus the other party kind that has no deadened the political space in our world, but the variety that pitted a remarkably dedicated citizen movement against their elected representatives in what has become a very high stakes game – the future of London, Ontario.
There’s no requirement to go into the details here; they are remarkably well laid out on ReThink’s website. Details are important, vital even, but in this particular instance the very definition of what a city is hangs in the balance. Half of the city councillors didn’t even show up to what is the ultimate unveiling of the largest citizen engagement exercise in Canadian history. They felt they needn’t have shown up because they were foolish enough to believe that they had the power anyway and all that citizens had were – ideas. For a city up against the ropes, it’s fair to say that ideas and innovation are all that we have left.
As more people come to live in cities it becomes essential that they be designed as incubators where the entire community thrives. Aristotle used to claim that, “The polis exists by nature and is more important than the individual.” The old philosopher’s concept of the polis was how we acted and decided together. For far too long our municipalities have developed in such a way that pits urban against rural, rich against the poor, the old against the young, the public space against the private enterprises, and, ultimately, the citizen against their own representatives.
ReThink London and its new “London Plan” are designed to spend the next three decades bringing these diverse aspects together in a way that brings us as citizens together as well. It was a sad testament that our councillors couldn’t even join with their presence for the sake of their community’s future, but citizens did and that will make all the difference. They have already reached agreement with Aristotle when he concluded that those who wish to remain apart are either “a beast or a god.” The good people of London have already made the decision on that one.
Not that Aristotle or his contemporaries had all the answers, but much of what they claimed is making more sense now that even a century ago. Many of his virtues of the polis – temperance, mildness, friendliness, wit and a sense of justice – are amazingly absent from the modern political spectrum. Moreover, anyone possessing such abilities is often deemed unsuitable to the arena – “not tough enough,” as they would say. And yet it is what citizens are increasingly craving for. What’s the point of tribal battles when an entire community has lost its way?
By implication, the London Plan isn’t so much about a future as it is about how people have chosen those values by which they choose to live together, even in the present. If ReThink showed us anything, it was that we wish to be mobile together, to live in closer neighbourhoods together, to raise our children together, and to build prosperity and public spaces together. That whole “together” thing has never before been as clear and compelling as it is right now. The fact that half of our politicians failed to have enough respect for their citizens to show up gives clear indication that a fight is coming.
This isn’t just about a plan, or even a coming election. It’s about a community that has spoken its mind and requires politicians that are greater than politics. We look for community builders who seek to lead from within the emerging ranks of those who now see their city as worthy of collaborative effort. The new London Plan reflects exactly what author Dee Hock defines as community:
“The essence of community, its heart and soul, is the non-monetary exchange of value; things we do and share because we care for others, and for the good of the place.”
This “place” is London, and if our politicians won’t champion it in accordance with what ReThink London has discovered, then I, too, am willing to engage in the upcoming conflict, on the side of my fellow citizens who responded when asked by the city to contribute and will not walk away quietly now that they have been empowered. What did they expect? They inquired. We have been awakened. We won’t just leave the field.