The Human Cultural Laboratory
Would the Hartford region be better off with one large core city of, say, 300,000 people than the current municipal structure of a small city surrounded by ten independent towns, each with its own government? And would it be so much better that it would be worth the enormous disruption and expense of making the change?
I think the answer to both questions is “yes,” but I’ll admit it isn’t immediately obvious that those are the correct answers. There are several reasons, including social and economic reasons. I will devote a few essays to these question.
One reason I believe that one large city government would be better than what we have now is derived from my readings, observations and musings about the human experience on the earth. (Apologies to the true social scientists who study these things and understand them better than I. I’m just writing about the way things seem to me, not as the result of years of serious, advanced study of these topics.)
Human creativity makes us unique among all species. We see a problem, or see a need, or see something that simply could be, and we create a solution, an invention or the thing that could be. We’ve done it for millennia.
One of those creations was civilization. That is, we invented ways to organize ourselves to improve the chances that the species will survive. We developed rules by which we expected everyone to live, so that the systems we put in place would survive.
As more and more people began to live close to each other, the need for rules accelerated. Farms might have been self-sufficient, but the towns that began to grow up to serve them required people to be interdependent. To make that work, we needed rules to organize the towns. Along the way, western civilization began introducing democratic principles to preserve some degree of freedom within the necessary rules. As the process of civilization continued, and as the towns grew into small cities, the old systems didn’t work so well and the new systems supplanted them. By the late 20th Century, large urban units had devised sophisticated governance structures.
The entire process is something of a huge, long-term science experiment in which hundreds of generations of humans are both the subjects and the experimenters. Along the way, we devise new concepts, implement them, observe the results, keep what works and throw out what no longer is optimal.
Connecticut’s town governance system was among the best systems ever developed to govern small, relatively isolated agricultural communities that predominated in the United States after the Revolutionary War. They were lean and democratic, and towns thrived within the system. However, as modern industrial cities emerged in the 19th and twentieth centuries, and as the post-industrial cities began emerging in the 21st century, people developed larger, more streamlined systems to organize themselves. Those modern systems helped their cities grow and prosper. How do I know this? Well, because with the possible exception of Providence, mid-sized New England cities that share Hartford’s 18th century town government structure aren’t growing, and many mid-sized cities that have more modern governance systems are thriving.
Hartford and the other Connecticut cities opted out of the human experiment and chose not to recognize and take advantage of the governmental structures that evolved in response to modern urbanization.
No modern communities seek to turn the clock back to 18th century governance structures, because the science experiment has shown that such structures impede growth and are expensive. It’s true, local control suffers when hundreds of thousands of people consent to one government instead of ten, but people throughout the free world have demonstrated a willingness to give up some control in exchange for the benefits of the modern city. The experimental results are clear: Big cities are better. Not perfect, but better.
Simply put, and with a nod to Damian Muller, there’s no future in living in the past. If the people of greater Hartford want a future for our community, we need to reorganize in a way that will work in the future. What we have now has been demonstrated, over and over, to be unworkable for modern American urban life.