If you are reading this, it means that you care about Kent, its people, our place and our future. It means that you live or work within the greater Kent area, or at the very least enjoy being here. What matters to you are the special things about our home place, not the lines on the map. In the future, I think we need to make those lines even less important.
As a former at-large Kent City Council person, I could probably come pretty close to drawing the boundary line of the Kent municipal corporation. In some neighborhoods it can be pretty fuzzy and in others it is quite distinct. In many cases however people on both sides of it will still tell you that they live in Kent. So why does it matter? In some instances it matters greatly because having a vote in Kent or the privilege of paying taxes can impact the future of our place in ways that affect everyone that calls Kent home. In other instances, those lines matter not at all.
If you do a web based search for economic statistics about Kent you will find that Kent is defined by our zip code, and indeed demographically many who live in Brimfield, Brady Lake, Franklin, SugarBush and Twin Lakes share the 44240. For those outside the voting line, their mail says they live in Kent, and they, for many of the things that matter, are Kentities. Many of us share a school district, a fire department, sports programs, clubs and associations, businesses, restaurants and churches — the everyday things that bring us together.
Before my dear friends outside of the city "get their undies in a bunch" as my wife likes to say, I understand that political jurisdictions matter. They matter for historic and economic and even philosophical reasons. But the problem is that they also divide. In many ways we really live in different neighborhoods of one dwelling place, as indeed, larger cities are often composed of neighborhoods as large as any of the cities in our county.
I understand, especially having knocked on doors campaigning in most of Portage county, that people have spent a lot of energy, time and money defining and defending the lines on the map. All I am saying is that for our practical living, and indeed through the ways we participate in voluntary associations, service clubs, businesses and the like, the lines are inconsequential, and on some matters, a downright hindrance to the future progress of our region.
In recent years, Kent has come to agreement by creating Joint Economic Development Districts with Franklin and Brimfield townships, realizing that together we can all be better. These partnerships reflect what our safety forces always have known. In some things, and especially matters of life and death, the lines shouldn't matter. In recent years, many of our neighboring communities have been exploring how we can work together to share even more safety forces and services.
While some are concerned with consolidation of government services, and even public bodies, others, especially at the state level, see the need to reduce redundancy and the high costs thereof. Regional cooperation and planning have been important to some for decades, think about PARTA, AMATS, NEFCO and other planning and transportation organizations. Now, the business and citizens sectors are joining into the chorus of those that see regionalism as of critical importance for our global competitiveness and our need to become better global stewards.
As we look to the future, can we imagine a different kind of governance for our villages, townships, cities and counties? The political system we have is a 19th century creation, conceived before the automobile, the bicycle, the telephone and the computer. Our economic, geographic and ecological reality is that the lines that divide cities, towns, counties, states and nations have little to do with the things that matter and may in fact get in the way of the things we must do to create a sustainable future. Nature doesn't draw clean boundary lines, and while in some ways it is necessary and convenient for humanity to do so, the consequences can be troubling and challenging to politics, demographics, economics and ecological stewardship. (Think especially of the impacts of the Mexican US border on all four of these).
So what am I proposing? Can we get rid of some of the lines that divide our communities? Not very easily. In Kent the idea of reducing the size of council was looked at by some as a radical attempt to reduce representation. But for the work we have ahead of us, I believe the case can be made that we really need more representation, not less. To do this, ironically, may mean more lines, more definitions of jurisdiction that better fit the scale of the work that needs to be done. These lines however, can be lines that link and overlap in creative ways, a mosaic instead of a gerrymander. Can we eliminate or merge cities, villages and townships, or replace them with a regional government? Can we reduce the number of school districts in Ohio? Not if it comes down to battles over control or turf.
But what if we did make a serious effort to modify the scales of our government, create a new community out of the many that make up "Kent?" If we were to become a new community, call it 44240 if you will, (to eliminate the historic references, ) we would need to replace the existing mayors, councilors and trustees with many many more representatives, to more accurately reflect the diversity of our community. Even thinking about the potential might spur some creative thinking that is often lacking these days.
A change to a more regional governance structure might begin by first replacing our county government with a larger council that is jurisdictionally based instead of at-large (or some combination thereof). This county council could potentially be the core of a governance approach that can take over services that best work at larger scales and free up resources for smaller communities to do other, more critical things.
For those that think that government is already too big, we can make a case that our leadership is too narrow, and that the divvying up of responsibilities is what is critical. If our citizen and business sectors can do some things better than government, let them do it, so long as the basic democratic principles of government are maintained — that it be big enough to dispel injustice, local enough to matter, and that public monies are used for public purposes.
In the future we need to not think about what government can do, but rather what an empowered citizenry can do in the spirit of the John F. Kennedy exhortation about us doing for our country, except at the local and regional level. We need all sectors of society — public, private and citizen sector — to come to the table, even more than they already are, and bring all of their creativity and energy to the task of envisioning and creating a resilient and sustainable future.
As a designer, I think mostly about scale. We can cut through a lot of the ideological wrangling at the state and federal level if we think more like designers and less like power brokers. Finding the right scale means understanding our place and our people and designing a work plan to help all of us achieve excellence. Once we know what needs to be done, identifying the right people to do it and the resources for success is relatively straight forward. Such an approach only draws lines that connect, rather than lines that divide.