The Other Columbus: Cities aren’t designed to care

Whatever the answer is to making our city more equitable and humane, it doesn’t start with the systems we have in place

Scott Woods
The Ohio Avenue School is a Columbus City Schools building.

I spoke a few weeks back about social bubbles, and how Columbus is really good at creating them, which isn’t a good thing for the city overall. Bubbles cut us off from one another along often arbitrary lines and generally prevent us from being able to build off of the ideas, experiences and values of our neighbors to our mutual benefit. Note that “neighbors” here isn’t a physical relationship prescribed by lawn markers. I mean the biblical neighbor, or better, the philosophical neighbor, the Greek fellow citizen. I have neighbors that I live near, and then I have neighbors that I engage as a community of thinkers or empaths or artists or folks who share Black experiences. I am several neighbors at once, and live, work and play in several bubbles at once. 

But let me tell you what I don’t mean by neighbors: systems.

If it is possible to boil down whether or not a city can care about its citizens, we must acknowledge how the things that make a city function cannot be agents of care. Systems can’t care, and it is difficult at best to design them in ways that even approximate care. It is far easier to just find another way to address the need outside of the system that hopefully does less harm than doing nothing. 

What I mean by way of example: Theoretically, there are enough people in Columbus who think that public schools should receive as much funding as can be mustered through our tax dollars, corporate support and any other means we can create to fund them. In fact, no one should really be making a case against public schools, which is why even when you encounter someone who does, they couch it in language and behavior that suggests there are better alternatives, but never outright say, “I am against the concept of public schools.” So we use a system to ensure that schools receive funding. We then put people in charge of that system. And we stipulate somewhere that those people have to coordinate with the other people we’ve installed to run the city to make that support happen. 

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In an ideal world, nothing should stop public schools from receiving a level of support that aligns with the amount of people who believe schools are important, which again, is just about everyone. And yet, we have designed a system that is legally and undeniably abused at every turn in such a way that the only part of the phrase “public schools should receive as much funding as can be mustered” that is taken to heart is “can be mustered.” So the people we put in control of the matter use the system to come up with enough support to satisfy the definition of “mustered.” 

And why is that happening? Because the system we installed is connected to — nay, reliant upon — another system with its own agenda that has nothing to do with education or children. It is a bigger, more powerful system made of politicians who like money and developers who like collecting politicians. And when developers need to eat, the special on the menu is frequently tax abatements. And so schools receive as much funding as these interlocking systems say can be mustered. “We tried our best,” the systems say. 

And why is that happening? In part because there is a system embedded in these systems that controls who gets to run for City Council. I know, it looks like a democracy, but at this point Columbus is actually an oligarchy. You aren’t selecting City Council members out of your communities and neighborhoods. They are preselected and installed before each election, and then you are given the opportunity to vote for who you are aware of, which are the candidates the system has backed and supported. And that’s a legal system, too. Amoral, yes, but completely legal.

More:The Other Columbus: Can a city care?

You see, systems like the ones that cities use to function can’t be trusted to do the right thing. It is why even when someone with an ethical center and a communal agenda somehow finds their way into the system, they either have little to no effect or they spend all their time trying to staunch the city’s moral bleeding. City systems chew up their efforts because their efforts are a virus to the order of things. And because these extremely rare unicorn candidates are made ineffective, the public becomes more and more disenfranchised every season. Which is just the way the system that governs such things likes it. 

I started with something that was an indisputable good (school support) and ended up at something completely anti-liberty (City Council “elections”). No surprise there, I suppose. Education is the biggest and best tool when it comes to fixing democracy’s holes. If I were someone who benefits from systems of inequity, I’d diminish the power of education, too. 

So, as I have written previously, while I tire of seeing my city as a barely connected field of self-interested bubbles and I sorely want that to change, I have to acknowledge what parts of the city are incapable of changing that reality. People who care about their neighbors and want more humane cities, who protest for reforms and demand accountability and transparency of their so-called leaders, should not be seen as a virus to the status quo. The status quo should be seen for the disease it is. And you can’t ask a cancer to cure itself.

Whatever the answer is to making our city more equitable and humane, it doesn’t start with the systems we have in place, not as they are. And we need to recognize the intentionality of that reality.