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18/1 What is the right size for a district?

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What is the right size for a district?

18 January 2009 – A ‘robust’ district should have a population of at least 80,000, the Mertens Committee states. This assumption leads to a proposal to halve the number of districts. But why not draw the line at 50,000?

Critics say that the committee fails to substantiate the 80,000 population limit. This is sort of acknowledged by the committee. Amsterdam is unique, it argues, therefore one cannot derive norms from other municipalities. “A specific reasoning for Amsterdam is required”.

The committee says that districts should grow in size because otherwise they will not be able to fulfil their tasks. The same claim is often made to argue for municipal mergers. In 2006, then Minister Johan Remkes published a study which found that a municipality should have a population of 20,000 or preferably 50,000 in order to operate effectively.

Most municipalities are smaller: 85% contain fewer than 50,000 residents and half of these contain fewer than 20,000 residents. Remkes argued that municipalities with a population under 20,000 should merge, but his successor Guusje ter Horst dropped this idea.

Anyway, when it regards the ‘administrative capability’ of municipalities, lower norms apply than the 80,000 people of the Mertens Committee. In addition, districts have fewer tasks than municipalities. Therefore, one could argue that they could be even smaller.

On the other hand, districts like Bos en Lommer and Geuzenveld already jointly carry out some of their tasks. This has the disadvantage of making it more difficult for the district council to exercise democratic control. If there is a lot of collaboration, then this would argue in favour of larger districts.

The Mertens Committee further argues that enlarging districts will lead to fewer politicians (currently, the districts have 322 council members and 49 administrators) and less ‘administrative fuss’. By the latter term, it means that too much time is spent on meetings.

One can hardly dispute that reducing the number of districts will lead to fewer politicians and fewer meetings, but this could of course also be achieved by reducing the number of politicians per district.

A different approach to the issue of district size can be found in the work of the famous urban sociologist Jane Jacobs, known for her plea for lively neighbourhoods in which residential and economic functions are combined.

According to Jacobs, citizens are often powerless vis-a-vis the city administration, which has little idea of what goes on in the neighbourhoods. Therefore, districts should mediate between the city and the street. A condition is that they have the right size: large enough to take on the city administration, but small enough to be accountable to citizens.

As a general rule, districts should have a population of at least 50,000, but the ideal size also depends on the size of the city. In a city like New York (ten times as large as Amsterdam) a district might need as many as 200,000 people in order to be effective, but in cities like Boston and Pittsburgh (at the time, both cities were slightly smaller than Amsterdam is now), 30,000 might suffice, Jacobs argued.

Incidentally, it is quite conceivable that the Mertens Committee itself would not mind having districts that contain fewer than 80,000 residents. In addition to its proposal for seven districts, it also developed a version with ten districts, the smallest (Zuideramstel) having a population of almost 50,000.

Officially, this version has been included in the report to accommodate committee member Arco Verburg, who did not agree with a minimum of 80,000. But it might just as well be a negotiating strategy: demand a little more than what you really want, and have a compromise proposal ready, so as to prevent having to start all over again if the seven-district variant is rejected.

Image: Residents urge the Oud-Zuid district to maintain the Ostade 233 Collective. Photo from website


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