Public Comment

On Councilor Droste’s Proposal on Re-Districting

Phil Allen, District One resident
Saturday August 01, 2020 - 01:09:00 PM

During a discussion over a November ballot measure about promoting our elected deciders to full-time status conducted at the 4pm meeting of the City Council of Tuesday July 21, D-8 councilmember Lori Droste mused about reducing the number of city commissions, then went further by suggesting fewer council districts as well. (These moves would cut costs, the savings then presumably applied to the councilors’ ‘raises’.) While both notions are bound to generate loud opinions, the second struck me as both timely and prescient. Whether or not she was expecting a constructive reaction from her out-of-the-whirlwind inspiration, she has one. My idea may put Berkeley on the map—a new map. 

Our eight districts’ boundaries are about to be adjusted, as happens decennially upon the taking of the census, to assure equal populations. The City Clerk will open the process by September 1, with nominations to the 13-member Citizens Redistricting Commission commencing by February 1. Their findings will be placed before the voters in November 2022. 

District-based representation took hold in 1986 to redress what was seen as inequitable at-large councilships. Given the town’s particular geography, the familiar block-like shapes that characterize so much of America’s political land division are taken by some of the eight districts. The others, sitting on rising land and the hills, are more organically outlined. As such, each has acquired characteristics particular to its social and economic characteristics, from wealthy to as poor as one can be and still live here, from essentially residential to mixed uses and zonings. 

As long as numbers are equalized, why not consider a conceptual redesign? I propose the creation of new districts—of whatever even number—in sympathy with our unique geography, by which I mean our creekbeds. Six creeks run to the Bay by meandering routes, fed by numerous springs. By standing on several north/south streets in west Berkeley, one can see the undulations they created before being culverted and paved or built over. How many cities can claim to lay upon such natural a wonder, beyond the Bay Area that is? They provide the re-design basis, and are not necessarily meant to be taken as strict boundaries.  

Creekbeds and their flanks—riparian environments—are about the smallest fry of watersheds, those grand unique domains of biota and climate formed by mountainous heights and the river systems descending from them. While some speculative geographers and the bioregional movement fancy them as primary subdivisions (which New Zealand did some 30 years ago), the native waviness of our flatlands is too slight to generate such noticeable differences. However, many municipalities—particularly in waterlogged areas like the Pacific Northwest or the floating sponge that is upper Minnesota—sit amidst and manage watershed ‘districts’ which are often protected natural reservations. 

As I see it, parts of the entire city would be contained in each of these new ribbon districts, running from our eastern esplanade to the bay shore, and would include the range of incomes, elevations, biota, land-use zones and types, businesses and recreation. 

What are some disadvantages? A return to an at-large council run by well-funded individuals or factions. (I know, where’s the difference?) There might not be focused areas of representation, such as the campus area or the historically beset southwest. The waterfront might be Balkanized. 

And then there is the problem our Founders should have taken care of but didn’t: Landlocked Districts Five and Six issues well north of the rest of town. The City of Albany stands in its way to the sea. Should Albany be conquered, its land annexed to a greater Berkeley, and perhaps more districts? After all, it too has creekbeds. 

Remember, that Commission has about eight months to be picked and seated. Let’s help make their tenure memorable!