As I listened in on yesterday’s budget meeting at city council, where more than 100 people signed up to advocate for Edmonton to continue to spend on an amenity they care for, I couldn’t help but think about individuals and collectives.
Using a hypothetical person and their car, let me explain. To this pretend person, their personal car is great. It gets them places, keeps them warm, makes them feel connected. But to a collective, like a city, this car and a person using it is less great. It creates congestion, a need for vibrancy-killing storage and all sorts of support services. And if we scale it up to where many people are doing the same thing as our hypothetical friend, we see many negative outcomes, from pollution to pedestrian deaths to social isolation to infrastructure that creates winners and losers.
Edmonton is a collective. But at council, during budget time, most feedback that decision-makers will receive will come from the individual perspective. If you cut this proposed rec centre, individuals will tell council, this will be the outcome for my family. If we don’t have this program in this preferred spot, we will have to drive this much farther to take our daughter or our son to this or that lesson or activity.
It’s all fair. Faced with losing something we value or that enriches our lives, we naturally try to protect it. I would do the same thing. In fact I have. I advocate for things that I feel would make Edmonton better, but also make my individual life better.
Trouble is, Edmonton is a collective that can struggle to think of itself as one (I thank the city’s settler, individualistic roots for that). Budget time is a great example of this tension. To assuage individual concerns, council must always take from the collective. Build or cut a recreation facility here or there, for example, and you benefit or harm certain corners of the city yet, on the whole, not all of it. But do this balancing act enough times, mollify the loudest voices while ignoring the ones that can’t spare the time to speak up, and you start to chip away at the overall benefit for the collective.
When looking where to shave spending, as Edmonton definitely is, what is the best for this collective? What decision will positively affect the most or negatively affect the least? These should be the central questions we’re asking in the age of purported austerity. Thankfully, we created some guidelines to answer these questions. They’re our ‘The Ways’ documents and other city plans that spell out our vision and goals. They tell us that we aim to be a compact city. A vibrant city. A connected city. A walkable city. A safe city. An affordable city.
As I listened in yesterday, as individuals talked of how they needed investment to remain in their corner of the city, I couldn’t help but thinking: Okay, but how will this benefit the entire city?
Our council has a challenge before it. They have a road map that has a route on it to our collective goals. With fewer dollars to spend, council will be forced to decide if some of us get more and others get less, or most of us get what’s best for the whole. Thankfully, they have that road map. Let’s hope they use it.