Drawing Council Lines Is An Exercise In Disrespect

(August 2011)

No matter how you slice it, redistricting -- drawing new political boundaries -- is about dividing, not uniting. It is an exercise in disrespect. City Council is currently working to redraw political maps to set Council districts that will determine Philadelphia's political representation for the next ten years. One has to draw the lines somewhere, so, inevitably, one must choose to split some neighborhood, fragment some population, or carve up some community. Our only hope is that Council respects us in the process (even if they must ultimately disrespect some of us in the end).

By law, City Council must redraw and reestablish districts after the US Census completes its work counting the nation every ten years. In Philadelphia, Council actually has a reason to do its work by its legal deadline, which is fast approaching in September. If they do not, they don't get paid. Thus, the final, redrawn districts are not only products of everything bad about back-room political dealing, but are also compounded by a rushed effort to avoid missing paychecks.

Currently, Council districts are messy, with some of the nation's worst examples of gerrymandering. One can spit across some Council districts in a few places. This not only creates ugly maps, it creates disconnects between residents and their political representatives, dilutes neighborhood political cohesiveness, and diffuses community ties.

Thanks to the phenomenal work of a local software company, Azavea, and its partners WHYY, the Daily News, and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, one can visit the website www.fixphillydistricts.com and use a tool to draw new districts and see how the process can work.

For the past few weeks, I have tried my darndest to make wonderfully elegant and compact districts with equal populations while respecting geographically meaningful boundaries and generally accepted neighborhood borders. I have started from the city limits and worked in and I have started from the center and worked out. I have started from existing district boundaries and I have started from scratch.

I have learned how to make the computer software very happy -- I have made maps of ten districts that are all darn close to 152,601 residents each and I have made make compact shapes that keep the districts neat and orderly. But, no matter how hard I try, I finish each map with a measure of dissatisfaction.

I find that if I "play by the rules" and maintain a total of ten contiguous and relatively equally populous districts, my map drawing begins with the best of intentions, but ends with me having to disrespect something.

To make ten districts with equal populations, I might have to have one have one district hop over a river, jump to the other side of the tracks, or bridge a major highway. I might have to run a dividing line through an established community or divide historically linked neighborhoods. To make ten compact districts, I might have to ignore the borders of ward Philadelphia, or disregard historical power centers. I might create a single district that contains the homes of several sitting council members.

The constraints of the process are, well, constraining. Dividing a city of so many neighborhoods into only ten districts means that a lot of neighborhoods have to fit into each district. But, some must be split in order to equally divide the city by population. Building districts with blocks of wards and divisions is a challenge because some do funny things like straddle highways or railroad tracks, which confound efforts to draw neat, straight lines.

Now, make no mistake, I would submit that any of the plans that I have drafted make more sense for Philadelphia than the current set of malformed and perverted districts -- bastard children of a flawed marriage between the worst of the political process and petty personal squabbling. I could almost certainly superimpose my five-year old's scribbles over a map of Philadelphia and do a better job than the current districts.

You can, too.

I encourage you to visit www.fixphillydistricts.com to try your hand. Then, armed with an appreciation for the difficulty of dividing the city sensibly, let's collectively demand that City Council approaches its work at least as diligently -- and with as much integrity and transparency as we have.

As I have learned, in the end, even in an effort to unite us all, drawing dividing lines is an exercise in disrespect. If we do not get involved, draw our own maps, and call on Council to have an inclusive process to draw sensible districts, it is clear that what will be disrespected will be our input.