The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: If I Ruled The Metro — Suburban Mergers

Note: So what would you prefer?  Poorly thought out original content, or Pete-approved blasts from the past?  I think you’d prefer the latter.  Here’s something from last October, with some new content added. -Pete

Several years ago I had my one and only (so far) opportunity to visit Phoenix.  Around the same time I visited Las Vegas for the first time.  Both cities are well known among urbanists as being perhaps the leading poster children for suburban sprawl, and the truth is I saw nothing there that would dissuade me of that notion.  Not trying to be judgmental at all, but both cities seemed to have miles and miles of endless subdivisions sprinkled with shopping centers, indistinguishable from one another.  The styles change slightly but the overall pattern is unrelenting.  OK, I guess that is a little judgmental; it’s not my preference, but I understand it is the preferred development pattern for perhaps the majority of people in this country.

But that was not the thing that struck me most while I was there.  Both cities are surrounded by gigantic suburbs, many nearly equal in size to the presumptive core city.  Phoenix is surrounded by no fewer than eight municipalities with more than 100,000 residents: Chandler (240,000), Gilbert (208,000), Glendale (227,000), Mesa (439,000), Peoria (154,000), Scottsdale (217,000), Surprise (118,000), and Tempe (162,000).  The smaller metro of Las Vegas has two similarly sized suburbs in Henderson (258,000) and North Las Vegas (229,000) but has large unincorporated areas that function like the mega-suburbs — Paradise, the actual home of the Las Vegas Strip, has about 230,000 residents, and Spring Valley, just to Paradise’s west, has 178,000.

Contrast that with suburbs surrounding Rust Belt cities.  The two largest metros in the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit, have maybe a half dozen suburbs with more than 100,000 residents between them, and none with more than 200,000.  In fact, Rust Belt metros are far better known for their local government fragmentation — scores, if not hundreds, of small, independent suburbs that scarcely register as neighborhood size entities.

There’s a lot that I can disagree with about Sun Belt metros, but on the surface this seems to be one thing they got right.  On balance Sun Belt metros more equitably balance the positive externalities (generous property and sales tax revenues, for example) with the negative externalities (concentrated low-income areas and undesirable adjacent land uses like manufacturing sites) that naturally come with a life in a metropolitan area.  The net result?  Sun Belt metros may be less prone to the socio-economic disparities you typically find in Rust Belt metros.  Reducing the number of mini-suburbs may potentially be a cost saver for local government, and put them in a better position to deal with problems that require a cooperative approach to resolve.

Not that that would be easy.  Many mini-suburbs were established with the express intention of exerting control over a small area, in response to the lack of control the former city residents had in cities.  Mini-suburbs weren’t interested in dealing with larger traffic concerns, or the impact of their shopping center on another suburb’s town center.  In my opinion they were developed so they would not have to take on — or even think about — negative externalities.  Whatever.  In many ways, the benefits that would come from lowered costs related to school district consolidations, shared police and fire service, and other services would outweigh the social cost, or loss of prestige with the loss of some communities.

I can dream, can’t I?  If I ruled the metro, I’d merge suburbs.

Postscript: There are a few things I wanted to add to this.  First, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about city/suburban consolidation, a la Indianapolis, Louisville or Toronto.  I believe that inflates the political power of suburban areas at the expense of the core city.  When that happens, you can have an Indianapolis, which maintains a sort of benign neglect of many of its inner-city communities while keeping a very suburban public profile, or you can have a Toronto, with a mayor like Rob Ford.  What I’m advocating is for suburbs organized generally around the commercial and residential real estate markets that exist in each metro area, reducing competition.

But there’s another reason I prefer this.  In my experience in working with local government, the knowledge, skill set and capacity of suburban municipalities is highly variable, and that means many suburbs stand to become calcified communities in an environment of constant change.  I wrote about this before, producing a sexy table and saying that probably only one out of every six suburban municipalities is fully equipped to deal with the ever-changing environment.  Reducing the variability can lead to better suburban communities.

Just a thought.

4 Responses to “Repost: If I Ruled The Metro — Suburban Mergers”

  1. Pete Saunders

    Funny thing. It may have been you who suggested that Pittsburgh's economic renaissance has been just in the city and not the burbs. This would be partly why.


  2. Anonymous

    That was Aaron Renn, and he's half-right. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are doing all the heavy lifting in the metropolitan area these days while the six outlying counties continue to stagnate. Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette and Westmoreland Counties continue to lose population, and the only reason Butler and Washington Counties have grown is because you have townships like Peters and Cranberry that border Allegheny County where some people move to \”flee\” Allegheny County taxes. Never mind that Allegheny County is the biggest donor county in Pennsylvania.Allegheny County contains 52.1% of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area population, but 60.0% of all college degrees, and 78.5% of the non-white population. There's almost no action in the outlying counties these days; the only exceptions are areas near Allegheny County that have proximity to the Interstates. Economic isolation sets in pretty quickly the farther you go into the outlying counties, and so does a rather hick vibe, honestly. The only reason Armstrong and Fayette Counties are part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is because their economies are so weak that people there have to commute to jobs in Westmoreland County. They have virtually nothing to do with Allegheny County, let alone the city of Pittsburgh. And considering that Fayette County has arguably the worst quality of life in Pennsylvania, it ends up being a demographic albatross around Pittsburgh's neck.In short, the city of Pittsburgh is doing fine, and so is Allegheny County despite the hyprefragmentation of local government. It's the outlying metropolitan counties that aren't pulling their weight.


  3. Anonymous

    Lo and behold, the 2013 Census estimates were released, and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area lost 122 people. Allegheny County gained population, and five of the six outlying counties lost population. (The only exception was Butler County.) This dovetails very neatly with what I've said. Allegheny County is doing virtually all the heavy lifting in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.



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