American politics have become abstract. Politicians still press flesh and speechify on soapboxes, but often today there is a distracted sense of distance from grasping the character of places and their people from close contact and conversations. Connecticut has a chance to diminish that abstraction. The state's redistricting commission has until Wednesday to revise the current comically gerrymandered outlines of the state's five congressional districts. If the commission fails, the matter goes to court.
One way of making things less abstract would be simply to base politics on the actual shape of the places people live in. Here is a modest proposal for doing that.
We have five congressional seats in Connecticut. The state also has five major river drainage basins, and a couple of minor ones. (West to east they are the Southwest Coast Basin, the Housatonic Basin, the South Central Coast, the Connecticut River and, taken together, the Thames, two small Southeast Coast Basins, and a bit of the Pawtucket Basin in the southeast corner.) Why not take advantage of that coincidence of fives and make the drainage basin boundaries also be the congressional district lines? Silly as that may sound at first, it would literally ground things in a way the current malformed district shapes do not.
A regional drainage basin is concretely definable. You can't argue too much about which general direction a given drop of rain goes after it hits ground. In other words, it is tough to gerrymander a drainage basin. It is a definite shape on a two-dimensional map, and even more important it is at bottom just an irregular, tilted bowl, an instinctively understandable physical form. For starters, then, putting that sort of system in place, at least in a first cut at things, would save a lot of argument.
Now, of course there is a constitutional requirement that each district contain the same number of citizens. With Connecticut's 2010 census count at 3,574,097, that works out to a few more than 714,800 people for each of the five. A quick first pass at the census, town by town in each river basin, shows that three of the five basins actually come close to the proper population number; the three southwestern ones all clock in at the mid-600,000 range. As might be expected, the Connecticut River Basin, having the largest area, has more than 1 million people, well above the right number, while the more thinly populated Thames Basin to the east is well below the requisite 714,800 people. There is not space here to describe in detail how to adjust allocations, only to say that it seems doable, and doable on the basis of unabstracted physical facts.
If a town straddles two basins, for example, allocate it to the side needing population. Or look at the way the upper Farmington River heads down for the South Central Coast before bouncing off Rattlesnake Mountain in Farmington and reeling back dazedly northward, eventually joining the Connecticut. The population of the upper Farmington could be allocated away from the Connecticut Basin, in favor of either the South Central Coast or the Housatonic. Those kinds of apportioning decisions make at least as much sense as the current back-room sausage-making.
If this system were adopted, it automatically would do several useful things besides breaking the universally frustrating gerrymandering stalemate. People would know better who their real neighbors are. Being uphill and downhill, upstream and downstream, have historically had definite consequences, and could again. Connecticut's citizens would also be reminded that relative to much of the rest of the country we are rich in water resources, and it is to our advantage to remember and strategically use that fact in encouraging business, jobs and the economy. Not least, it would help better entwine political consciousness with the natural and built environments, something that could only be healthier all around. All told, then, why not go with the flow? Follow the water.
Patrick Pinnell is a planner and architect in Haddam. He is a member of the Place board of contributors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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