IT HAS BECOME A PERSISTENT NARRATIVE, especially during the American primary season south of the border – politics is broken. There will be those who argue the opposite, but in the minds of most citizens north or south of the 49th parallel something has gone wrong in our politics and we feel it for a certainty. Yes, a cruel partisanship has gripped the political class for years. Yes, our deeper problems remain insufficiently addressed as an uncertain future moves into our collective life. But perhaps the greatest cause of the present disillusionment has been the growing distance citizens have experienced from the kind of society they would seek for themselves and their children.
Maybe that’s changing. While America fights through its own political wars for change, the feeling for many in Canada is that change has begun with the last election and we now have to see if it’s all just rhetoric or if it will stick.
Yet for cities in both countries, change and innovation have been part of the political dynamic for a number of years. In the process, people are regaining a certain level of trust in government again, but primarily at the local level, where they live and where they can more easily spot the progress. Citizens and politicians are discovering together that renewal is more easily generated the closer it comes to cities themselves.
The desire for progress following twenty years of austerity didn’t emerge out of some mere whim but from municipal streets and houses, businesses and non-profits, the arts and the poorer districts – anywhere where years of failure to invest have left obvious effects in the economies and hopes of people.
It was previously believed that cities were more or less outside of those larger economic and structural arenas where the feds and the provinces played. Often content to get the scraps from the table following any budget season, cities had to cobble together what they could while waiting for the larger players to pay attention.
Times have changed, and communities are fed up with waiting or merely being carriers of water. They wish to lead and to get the senior jurisdictions to pay more attention. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” said Helen Keller. The same can be said for cities. Yet there is a stirring in communities around the world that links hope with vision, and not with mere pragmatic decisions of management or budgets. People want to actually live politics in its true democratic sense instead of just talking about it or fighting over it. They choose not to play at it or get partisan over it; they just want to practice it.
This goes even deeper. Citizens are coming to the realization that the modern pressures they face actually come from a lack of community, not just from the shortcomings of Ottawa or a provincial capital. And so they look for solutions locally – an extremely practical response. They see planning as an extension of vision and not the other way around. Citizens are putting everything on table: taxes, expensive infrastructure investments, joining the Smart City movement, and demanding collaboration from their politicians.
This is about government and our belief in its potential, not merely its pragmatism. Mere rhetoric just won’t cut it. Citizens are now seeking the tools that can assist them to build their collective dreams instead of leaving it to others to maybe get around to it at some future time. Cities are their “dream places” not someone else’s, and they are just at the beginning of a renewed citizen dynamic. They desire to be engaged in the spirit of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Politics is now in the process of getting real.