Polycentric community adds up

With the release of Subway Visions, I’ve been returning to considerations of urban affairs. It’s not all New York City, either, even though the novel takes place there.

For me, the big city these days is Boston. I live an hour to the north – or northeast, more technically. I can even take the train in, as well as the hourly bus, which is quite comfortable and also links us to the airport. (You’d be surprised at the number of pilots and other airline personnel who are boarding from here.)

So we can go in for concerts or museums or dim sum on weekday mornings. We’re not exactly stuck in the sticks.

On the other hand, I live in a city of nearly 30,000 – the largest of a cluster of small cities that together form a larger population base to sustain our varied interests.

Portsmouth, 15 minutes to our south, is wealthier and more fashionable. It has probably as many restaurants per capita as Manhattan as well as several theater companies, the Music Hall, and art galleries.

The state university is ten minutes to our west, and about a third of its students rent apartments in our city. The school runs its own buses to serve them and anyone else who wants to pay to ride. Its library, of course, is a marvelous resource for independent writers and scholars.

In other words, I have no reason to feel deprived. Well, sometimes I wish the Harvard Book Store were closer or Symphony Hall. But I still have my choir in Watertown.

Looking at this has me recalling my mentor in political science, Vincent Ostrom, who coined the concept of “polycentric” to describe the overlapping jurisdictions that govern American polity. A city typically falls within a county, for instance, as well as a state and then the nation. Nowadays there may also be special districts to address things like water, pollution, or transportation needs.

As mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer took the concept in another direction by enhancing neighborhood identity and decision-making to revitalize a big city. Adjustments could be made in neighborhood settings even while having a central tax base, police and fire services, water and sewer system, and so on.

So my city has a much different identity and feel from Portsmouth or Durham or Rochester or Somersworth or the Berwicks over the state line in Maine. And yet we’re all conscious, even proud, of our identity as the Seacoast Region.

Do you see how these many circles begin to overlap, each adding to the richness we enjoy?

As the hippie phrase used to go, “Small is beautiful.” But, in this universe I’m describing, it doesn’t have to be confining or impoverishing, either.

For now, I do feel I have the best of both worlds.

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