The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY At Forbes: Consolidation May Help Solve Problems Facing Inner-Ring Suburbs

Homes in Harper Woods, MI, just northeast of Detroit.  The community looks very much like the neighboring big city, and may be starting to mimic its demographic characteristics, too.  Source:
(Note: I published this last week at Forbes (check it out there; it could use the pageviews!) in response to Aaron Renn’s proposal to advocate for mergers between large central cities and declining inner-ring suburbs.  I’m quite familiar with the independence that inner-ring suburbs enjoy, despite their economic condition, and in particular in relation to neighboring big cities.  They feel distinct from them even when they look quite similar.  That’s why I thought another solution could be considered.  -Pete)

It was easy to create the kind of small, hyper-local suburbs that flourished for the last hundred years, when the winds of change blew in their direction. Today, as the economic and social winds have shifted to advantage cities, their small size may play a role in accelerating their demise. Inner-ring suburbs in many metro areas have taken a considerable economic hit in recent years, and most lack the expertise and resources to address their challenges. They would benefit from new thinking and policies that would offer them a path to renewed prosperity.

The ideas are coming. Last month, urban analyst Aaron Renn, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to the Institute’s quarterly City Journal, released a paper suggesting that a possible solution for aiding declining inner-ring suburbs is merging with adjacent central cities. Citing low-income communities like East Cleveland, OH and Wilkinsburg, PA, adjacent to Cleveland and Pittsburgh, respectively, Renn finds them to be communities caught in a spiral of decline whose roots are bigger than their ability to resolve them. Renn proposes that, where feasible, such communities should merge with larger central cities. From the abstract for his paper:

As these municipalities become progressively poorer, they are less able to finance public services without tax increases, which drives away people and business, which further reduces the tax base. If these fiscal conditions are paired with poor governance and corruption, a turnaround can be especially difficult.

Virtually all options for addressing inner-ring-suburb challenges—neglect, state subsidies, state intervention—come with major drawbacks. However, one option has not received the attention it deserves: a merger with the adjacent central city. Local and state leaders should not wait until an inner-ring suburb’s financial situation reaches a crisis state before pursuing this option.

Renn says merger offers benefits to the larger central city as well as the troubled inner-ring suburb. The city adds territory and residents, and with it, additional tax base. For the northeastern and Midwestern cities that were the focus of his analysis, this is crucial; unlike cities in other parts of the nation, they have continued to lose people and tax revenue, and such a move would reverse those trends. The suburb gains the opportunity to provide better public services to its residents (police and fire protection, infrastructure improvements, etc.), provided to it by a far-better-funded central city — having the ability to do so without negatively impacting service provision to its existing residents. Renn suggests that legislation at the state level would be necessary to incentivize central cities and inner-ring suburbs to consider possible mergers.

In theory, the idea has merit. In practice, the idea would face steep demographic, cultural and legislative hurdles. Any city-suburb merger would be complex and messy, in part because inner-ring suburb identity rests on being the antithesis of the central city, real or perceived. Inner-ring suburb residents and their elected officials moved there to escape the conditions in cities, and still maintain their challenges are quite distinct from those of the central city.

Perhaps a better solution would be suburban consolidation, because the actual problem is one of fragmentation.

Here’s what I mean. I gathered data on the central cities and selected inner-ring suburban counties for the 33 largest metro areas in the U.S., corresponding to the metro areas with 2 million or more residents. I wanted to quantify suburban fragmentation, using one measure — the number of persons living in all jurisdictions, incorporated and unincorporated, within the inner-ring suburban county selected. The research is difficult — there are wide differences between states on municipal definitions. Townships, boroughs, villages, towns and cities, and even what is or isn’t unincorporated, all have different meanings by state. However, the premise is simple — the smaller the number of persons per jurisdiction means greater fragmentation, or smaller communities; a larger number means less fragmentation, or larger communities.

Here’s a table of residents per jurisdiction for inner-ring suburban counties:

And here’s a chart organizing them from most to least fragmented by this definition:

Based on the above data, here’s what I concluded:

  • The average inner-ring suburban county has 18,670 residents per jurisdiction, with the suburban parts of Cincinnati’s Hamilton County having the lowest figure (5,036 per jurisdiction) and suburban Maricopa County surrounding Phoenix having the highest figure (43,225 per jurisdiction).
  • There is considerable regional variation in suburban fragmentation. Northeastern and Midwestern metro areas generally have the highest levels of fragmentation, and Southern and Western metro areas generally have the lowest levels of fragmentation.
  • Five of the ten most fragmented suburban areas are in the Midwestern “Rust Belt” (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Columbus, St. Louis and Detroit). In fact, all nine Rust Belt metro areas have higher fragmentation levels (i.e., lower numbers of residents per jurisdiction) than the average for all 33 metros surveyed.
  • Southern and Western metros, particularly those in California, have some of the lowest fragmentation levels (or higher numbers of residents per jurisdiction). On the strength of municipalities like North Las Vegas, NV, Long Beach, CA, Tempe, AZ and Irving, TX, each with more than 200,000 residents, Southern and Western metros have suburbs that are considerable cities in their own right.
  • Portland, San Antonio and Charlotte are notable exceptions to the Southern/Western less-fragmentation rule. This may be the case in Portland because of regional land use policy that has directed more growth within the central cities’ borders, and in San Antonio and Charlotte because of aggressive city annexation policy.

Why does any of this matter? Well, it appears size matters. As inner-ring suburbs enter into a phase in their life cycle where they may approach obsolescence, as split-level ranches fail to compete with exurban McMansions and urban mixed-use developments, local governments will be challenged to find the expertise and resources to deal with a rapidly changing environment. It appears that many metros with larger, more consolidated suburban municipalities may have greater access to the public administration talent and funding to make the necessary policy shifts. Smaller municipalities simply may not. Suburban municipalities, even the most impoverished ones, would be hard-pressed to merge with larger central cities. However, combining forces with adjacent suburbs to address shared concerns might be a more palatable option.

To put a regional spin on things, it appears that as city and suburban economies continue to shift, perhaps Southern and Western suburbs may currently have a leg up on their Northeastern and Midwestern brethren when it comes to adaptability. Take the Los Angeles region, for example. L.A. is often derided as a soul-taking expanse of suburban sprawl, which may or may not be true, given one’s predisposition (I don’t know, I’ve never been there). However, by the suburban fragmentation measure outlined here, there are about 37,800 residents per suburban jurisdiction in Los Angeles County, placing it 32nd out of the 33 counties evaluated. In all, outside of Los Angeles itself L.A. County has 14 cities with populations above 100,000 and another 22 with populations above 50,000. On the surface this may seem insignificant. However, the number of larger municipalities may actually increase the region’s ability to address regional issues. Larger suburban municipalities may in fact see themselves more linked to the region’s core city, making regional cooperation possible. One example might be the Los Angeles Metro Rail system, which has enjoyed broad regional support that often isn’t present in other regions.

Consider these scenarios. Cook County, Illinois, the county that contains Chicago, has about 5.2 million residents in total — 2.7 million in Chicago and 2.5 million in another 141 incorporated and unincorporated communities. Together, the communities straddle all parts of the economic spectrum, from wealthy to impoverished. But with only 17,800 residents per suburban jurisdiction on average, the voices of local leaders become necessarily muted in comparison to Chicago as they competes for state and federal money, and try to push forward state and federal legislation that would benefit their growth. Would suburban Cook County benefit from having ten large suburban municipalities with 250,000 residents each, and the requisite local government sizes to match? Or 20 municipalities with 125,000 residents each? Whatever one thinks about local control and suburban independence, it’s clear that larger jurisdictions would have greater ability to capture the attention of state and local governments, businesses and institutions, and the movers and shakers who make decisions that impact them.

All this being said, suburban consolidation would not be easy. Suburban fights would ensue over boundaries, over whose name remains in place or lost to history, and over whose elected officials would win out. To make it happen, state governments would have to recognize the value gained from consolidation legislation and offer incentives for communities to do it. The truth is, I don’t see suburban consolidation as particularly likely — but probably more likely than adjacent city-suburban mergers. But as dynamics change we need to explore more options that could potentially improve metro areas.

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