It's tempting, in light of Rob Ford's accession to the Toronto mayor's office, to reduce every facet of urban and civic life to "value for taxpayers" and backlash against "elites." In this view, cities and governments should aspire only to making sure traffic moves and garbage gets picked up. Anything more than that risks playing into the clichés about wasteful spending and gravy trains.
Into this swamp of anger, resentment and diminished expectations comes an important, cogent and hopeful collection of essays that takes a courageous and practical stand against this morally and emotionally stunted approach to civic life. While Local Motion may be pegged to the recent municipal elections in Toronto, its lessons go far beyond the city's boundaries.
Indeed, the book's subtitle - The Art of Civic Engagement - makes it clear that despite the apparent immediacy of its subject matter, what it's really doing is part of a long-overdue pushback against more than three decades of sustained destruction and diminution of the public sphere. Whether we're talking about navigating bureaucracies, community consultation, voting reform, budgetary discussions or reaching out to marginalized communities, there's a common touchstone to all these essays: a reinvigorated notion of citizenship. And the principles inherent in the notion of engaged citizenship are applicable in any context: municipal, provincial, federal.
It's because of this that the publication of Local Motion is so well timed. The thought of ordinary citizens taking action to better their communities may seem quaint, even touchingly naive to some. But that's exactly what's gone wrong with public institutions, and our relationships with them, for at least a generation. That we now talk about "taxpayers" rather than "citizens" is indicative of just how far the political and discursive goalposts have been moved.
Such a framing is based on a very limited and restrictive view of our relationships to our community, to our government and to one another − a view very much at odds with the impetus behind initiatives such as this book. Citizenship, by contrast, has a larger scope - but it also makes greater demands of us. While it carries rights, it also imposes obligations upon us - to ourselves, to our communities, and to our fellow citizens. It's just that sort of engagement that Local Motion celebrates, and none too soon: In return for the rights inherent in citizenship, we assume certain responsibilities: critical thought and active civic engagement most of all.
The essays in Local Motion are predicated on just such an expansive, optimistic and inclusive view. Bert Archer writes about getting a city that seems based on answering every question with a "no" to say "yes." Edward Keenan's discussion of ranked voting takes an unvarnished look at the dysfunctions of a first-past-the-post system, wherein a candidate can win with the support of a small minority of voters. Hamutal Dotan offers a frank discussion of the obstacles to genuine community participation in development proposals. The Globe and Mail's Kelly Grant offers a guide to more substantive grassroots involvement in city budgetary processes. Denise Balkissoon contributes a moving and personal narrative about representation and diversity.
Every one of these essays implicitly assumes an active and engaged body politic, and a civic discourse playing to the better parts of our natures. That's a lesson that can play anywhere. Local Motion is an important and timely contribution to that.
Sol Chrom is an online editor with globeandmail.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @sol_chrom