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Engineering Civility: A Lesson in Civics

Dan Hoornweg's picture

London Riots, CroydonCivil Engineering students graduate knowing at least three things: you can’t push a rope, gravity never takes a day off, and a three-legged table won’t wobble. They are now learning a fourth: You can’t build a city without civility.

Civil engineers are largely responsible for our built environment. Generally they’re a studious and busy lot; and they are about to get a lot busier – in the next twenty years they have to help build cityscapes for about 2 billion new urban residents. But today what’s needed even more than civil engineers is more civility. A few recent examples, big and small, come to mind.

The US Government’s protracted debate over the debt ceiling highlighted the weaknesses and acrimony within the current structure of House – Senate – Administration 'brinkmanship' negotiations. Five hundred miles to the north, the City of Toronto Council resolution to remove bike lanes from Jarvis Street, despite a professional staff report saying it would cost at least $400,000; will not improve traffic flow; and will endanger cyclists, is another example of political entrenchment. And the recent senseless riots on the streets of London are one more example of a good city being torn apart by uncivil behavior with its roots in polarization of people who share geographic space but seem to inhabit different worlds.

Civility in national capitals and parliaments can be difficult. We want our leaders to be strong, decisive, and victorious; a “take no prisoners” approach. Much of national, and even more so, international politics, is a blood sport, with clear winners and losers. But there is an important nuance to this in local government. By their nature, national politicians are transient in national capitals while being distant from the people they represent. This affects the discourse. You argue differently with a neighbor that you know you’re likely see day-in-day-out for years to come, or whose kids go to the same school as yours.

A national politician goes to the capital, wages a bit of war on behalf of his constituents and then goes home after the fight. But the local politician is already home, and the person he’s fighting with lives in that same home. Civility in politics must be nurtured from within our cities. First and foremost you have to get along with your neighbors.

“There is no Democrat or Republican way to pick up the garbage,” former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City wisely noted. Of course cities aren’t perfect and we can never get along with everyone, but the proximity and permanence of all those people forces us to behave better if we want any chance of a good quality of life. Political discourse in a city can often be likened to those holiday dinners where insufferable Uncle Buck shows up and gets on everyone’s nerves. But you’re family, you suck it up, you’re civil to each other, you temper your criticisms, you tell mom again how good the food is, and you make it through dinner, genuinely thankful.

A lack of grounding and rootedness erodes civility. How a city accommodates guests and new residents is important. City officials may want to temper the pursuit of the creative class – those professional vagabonds – and ensure that they feel at home. If we are not careful when the going gets tough – and it always will – the well-paid ‘creatives’, with their rented houses, may just leave, and the less well-paid creatives, with nothing to lose, might riot. This isn’t to say the creatives don’t add value, only that how they are pursued, assimilated, accommodated and integrated with the ‘locals’, is critical to ensuring urban success.

Without sufficient civility the whole concept of a city falls apart. And without well functioning cities, there is absolutely no chance for a quality lifestyle that meets our needs and aspirations.

Anyone who’s sat through a city council meeting has often grimaced at the third reading of a by-law for acceptable house colors, or what pets can be kept where, street parking, food stall location and signage, or petitions for an upcoming week to be designated the ‘week of acknowledgement for people of mixed eye color’. These seemingly arcane minutiae of personal pursuits can be easily dismissed, but they are the foundation of civility and cities.

Maybe it’s time we all took another civics lesson; without civility our cities will wobble and fall, leaving a huge a mess for us all.

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