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Bins 246Let's continue to build community - when 'helping' hurts

From an article by Strong Towns

When is an issue really for neighbours to sort out and when does it need Council rules?

In an eagerness to help, do Councils tend to bring neighbourhood issues to the Council, debate the issue, form a committee, develop policies and eventually either do nothing or impose their wisdom? Thus a not-insignificant amount of staff time and resources is spent on something that is really a neighbourhood-level issue. This of course diverts from spending time on more strategic-level, town/city-wide issues.

Here's an excerpt from the book, Strong Towns:

I was at a town/city council meeting where a resident showed up to complain about a neighbour who wasn’t bringing their garbage bin in quickly enough after pickup day. The guy making the complaint demanded that the town/city council enact an ordinance, with fines, for anyone who leaves their bin out more than 24 hours. Sympathetic council members quickly reached consensus on an entire set of regulations, fines, and routine inspections and then turned to me to see if I could put that package together for them to adopt.

Before responding to the town/city council, I listed a bunch of reasonable explanations for why someone might not collect their garbage bin right away. Then I asked the man making the complaint whether he had spoken with his neighbour about the situation. He hadn’t, of course, even though that would have taken far less time and energy—and likely been more helpful—than coming to the council meeting. He wanted the elected officials to address this discomfort for him. They were eager to be helpful.

I think “eager to be helpful” is a positive description of those in public service—both in a representative capacity and as support staff—but that willingness to help has to be tempered by a sense of subsidiarity. Why are neighbours not addressing issues among themselves?

I can feel the discomfort with the suggestion. Talk to our neighbours? Ask them to bring their garbage bin in? In an age where we converse with people around the world in real time, it’s astounding how difficult having a real conversation with a neighbour can be. Easier to just call and complain, especially if the town/city is willing to receive that complaint and act on it.

When did we, as citizens of a community living together in a neighbourhood, abdicate not only our responsibility but our agency?

Most town/city codes, policies, and practices are a reaction to a complaint, discomfort, or irregular situation. They are enacted in all earnestness by people doing their best to safeguard the community. Many were enacted so long ago, and for such obscure reasons, that nobody recalls precisely why. The only consensus today is that bad things will happen if they are repealed, and—more importantly—the people who repealed it will be held to account.

If towns/cities are going to build complex human habitat, the kind where individuals responding to feedback work collaboratively to make their place more prosperous, then local leaders need to resist the temptation to address every discomfort.

This is the way bad government is built, with accretions of helpful problem solving where what is really needed is capacity building.

Stop spending staff time and stop asking committee volunteers to work on a problem whose roots are really a breakdown of neighbourliness. Instead, have the staff meet with residents in the neighbourhood—go out there at the end of the day, perhaps with the council member who received the complaints, and talk it through. Tell them that this is a neighbourhood issue, that they need to work together to resolve it. We can’t fix this for them. Stop enabling neighbourhood dysfunction.

If we want to be really proactive, put into the town/city’s plan assistance with the formation of neighbourhood groups. They will be helpful with problems like this, not only being able to resolve them in a more neighbourly way, but allowing the town/city to focus on the many urgent issues already on their plate.

The practice of subsidiarity would call on the town/city to, at most, assist these quarreling neighbours with reaching a decision. They have the capacity to decide and so they must decide; that decision can’t be made for them. Maybe a town/city staff member goes out and talks to everyone, or maybe the town/city convenes a meeting with a third-party. It might be easier and more expedient for the town/city to rule but taking from these neighbours the responsibility to make the decision robs them not only of their agency, but their capacity to be a collaborator in the project of building a successful town/city.

To build a strong town/city, we need everyone to be a collaborator in the project.

Read the full article here.

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From an article by Strong Towns, 10/11/2020

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