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Redraw, Reboot

How could new municipal boundaries better align government with our needs?

Google “upside down maps,” and you will discover an entire industry based on the thrill of messing with our perceptions. Change the premises on which a map is based, and your understanding of the world changes, too. Put South at the top, Asia at the center — well, you can see why management consultants love these things.


Municipalities

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The famous “blue marble” photo of Earth from space, free of any geopolitical boundaries, is credited with promoting the environmental movement. More recently, and far more subtly, Google Maps is continuing to change our perceptions. Zoomed in past state borders, the maps dispense with municipal boundaries; the lines that are important are roadways.

Whatever that might say about our cultural values or Google’s canny understanding of consumer needs, it does suggest a tantalizing prospect: What if those boundaries were actually erased? How would we redraw them? And how could new municipal boundaries better align government with our needs today?

Many of Massachusetts’ town lines were based on geographic features; forgotten disputes among parishes; long-dead landowners’ property lines; and, yes, craven political gamesmanship — this is, after all, the state that invented the gerrymander. Now, as the Commonwealth contends with the politics of congressional redistricting, we realize how arbitrary many of these designations are.

Which is not to say that they don’t have meaning. Towns have developed their own histories, their own personalities, their own customs. Through the accretion of planning and zoning decisions they often develop distinct physical character. Moving across a town line can represent real differences in daily life: access to afterschool activities; the need to buy a filter for your drinking water; weekly trash regulations; the affordability of property taxes in retirement.

Just as important as town identities are the regional affinities that have been established through school sports rivalries, local daily newspapers, regional hospitals, even proximity to grocery stores or shopping malls — the de facto communities that have evolved over the last century. Perhaps similar bonds of community will develop over the coming century with increasing awareness of environmental affinities such as watersheds and wetlands.

However arbitrary they may be, municipal boundaries are unlikely to change. But pondering an alternative map does have value: the very act of weighing the criteria for change — geographical, political, cultural, economic, social, environmental — can change our perception of what government should be.


Interactive: "Redraw, Reboot" + Google Maps

 

 

Town Meetingships: Municipalities reorganized to enable traditional town meeting governance. Each red polygon contains fewer than 6,000 residents: the ideal population for conducting a town meeting form of government.

Housetowns: Municipalities reorganized by Massachusetts state house electoral districts. The population residing within each blue district is approximately 40,000, the number currently represented by one member of the state House of Representatives.

Source: Based on Census 2000 data, Massachusetts House legislative districts, MassGIS.

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