Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Urban Governance: Merger and Fragmentation

Let's consider two hypothetical cities. For convenience, I'll call them "Hartford" and "Nashville."  Both are state capitals.  Both are favorably located on bluffs overlooking large rivers and are surrounded by abundant buildable land.  As of 1960, both cities proper had comparable populations, with Hartford at 162,000 and Nashville at 170,000.  Hartford was in 1960 by far the wealthier of the two, being located in one of the richest states of the union and hosting the headquarters several of the nation's largest insurance companies, yet housing costs were reasonable in relation to Boston and New York.

From the standpoint of a 1960 observer, Hartford appeared to have the brighter prospects for population growth.  Hartford's metropolitan area, represented by the county of which it was the seat, was in fact growing at a more rapid clip than Nashville's Davidson County, with a population increase of 28% during the 1950s compared to 24% for Nashville, even though Tennessee at the time had a higher birth rate than Connecticut and Davidson was absorbing heavy in-migration from much of the central Tennessee region.

Around 1960, however, two developments reshaped the governance of both cities.  In that year, Connecticut's abolition of county government went into effect, leaving only the state government and 166 town governments, one of which was the rump city of Hartford, a jurisdiction of 17 square miles.  Only three years later, Nashville moved in the opposite direction, merging itself with the 504-square mile Davidson County and forming a consolidated city-county government.

Since 1960, Hartford County has grown 23%, while Davidson County has grown 40%.  By 2010, Nashville's urbanized area population exceeded Hartford's.  As of 2014, Davidson County with 668,000 inhabitants held fully 62% of the greater Nashville urbanized area population.  By contrast, the city of Hartford had lost population since 1960, and with only 125,000 residents held only 13% of the greater Hartford urbanized population.  Nashville's downtown area is today booming with apartment construction, while Hartford has seen little multifamily development since the 1960s.

The factors in the success of Nashville relative to Hartford obviously are more complex than the arrangement of city government, and involve developments as varied as the economic rise of health care and higher education and the general increase in prosperity in the American south relative to the nation during the mid and late 20th century.  Nonetheless, the relative fragmentation or centralization-by-annexation/merger of city governments is of major importance in how cities are run, regulated and taxed.  For instance, consider that a home in Hartford today bears a tax burden more than three times that of a home of identical value in Davidson County.

For the 2010 Census, the list below shows the top and bottom 15 rankings for the population of cities proper expressed as a percentage of total urbanized area population (out of the top 50 largest urbanized areas):

The list of metros with the highest percentages of their urban population contained within their cities includes several of the fastest-growing and most economically resilient cities in the United States: of Brookings' list of the top 10 performing cities over the past several years, five are on this list.  Only one metro on Brookings' list, Salt Lake City, appears on the bottom 15.

Simply because a metro appears on the low end of the rankings, however, does not necessarily mean that it is highly fragmented overall.  Washington D.C., for instance, is surrounded by large and relatively powerful county governments, including Fairfax (1.1 million, 407 sq. mi.), Montgomery (1.0 million, 507 sq. mi.), Prince George's (890,000, 598 sq. mi.), as well as the smaller but populous Arlington County and city of Alexandria.  Others, such as Bridgeport, CT, Providence, RI and St. Louis, MO do have a highly fragmented governing structure throughout the metro area, with a large number of small towns each guarding their own local taxing and land use prerogatives.  County governments fractured into townships tend to replicate, in approximate fashion, the metro areas of non-county states such as Connecticut and Rhode Island.  The proportion of people living within the central jurisdiction is suggestive of degree of fragmentation, however.

I can hear the reader say right now: but correlation isn't causation!  While that is certainly true, and while I also bear in mind Jane Jacobs' comment that a region "is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution," those who have studied this issue have found definite advantages to a more centralized form:

  • Zoning.  Although one might imagine that a multiplicity of jurisdictions might compete with each other for residents, thereby raising the net quality of life, what is observed instead is that jurisdictions attempt to compete for wealthy residents by imposing restrictive zoning regulations.  This results in a zoning race to the bottom, as towns enact ever-stricter regulations to keep prices high.  The result is high citywide housing costs relative to income.  More centralized cities tend to have more permissive zoning.
  • Property Taxes.  A highly fragmented metro tends to have high property taxes as well, due to lack of economies of scale.  Central cities often suffer the most, as they have the largest share of public or non-profit land, and must impose nearly ruinous taxes on the remaining devalued private land to cover basic municipal services.  The taxes further drive down property values, resulting in a situation where (as with Hartford, see below), the situation nearly becomes unsustainable.
  • Education.  As I've written about before, overall educational outcomes in county-wide educational systems funded out of general revenues can be as good or better than even the best and most lavishly-funded local school systems.  
  • Transportation.  In general, regional transportation planning would be expected to have a smoother political course in a centralized city.
There are disadvantages too.  Very local governments, for better or worse, can be (or at least are perceived to be) more accountable to the individual citizen.  These governments may have long histories and impart to an urban area much of its character.  Some of the advantages of the centralized form can be overcome through adopting elements of a centralized form, such as pooling of certain services, without relinquishing all local authority.  

Still, where all else fails, consideration of more drastic measures may eventually become necessary.  In its election just a month ago, Hartford elected a new mayor, Luke Bronin, who defeated the incumbent in an earlier primary.  Although the local paper has wished him well, it closed a post-election op-ed with words that may soon need to be uttered more forcefully:
"The steep challenges facing Hartford and Bridgeport [which also elected a new mayor] raise the question of whether these cities, which have heavy costs and little property to tax, can continue to be viable. The canary in the coal mine on that may be New London, where Democrat Michael Passero, a city council leader and former firefighter, was elected to replace Mayor Daryl J. Finizio.

At seven square miles, New London is the second smallest geographical municipality in the state. Like Hartford and Bridgeport, it bears a disproportionate amount of its region's social costs. 
If the new mayors cannot make these cities work, we shall have to rethink them."
Whether Connecticut has the capacity to "rethink" the organization of its centuries-old towns is a reasonable question, as is the question of whether any such reorganization would work to solve central city ills.  That the question is presenting itself at all, however, is indicative of the scale of the problems at hand.


  1. It seems to me that there might be a better comparison if you looked at cities that were more similar otherwise. There are a lot of differences between development patterns of New England and the Inland South during the last 50 years that don't depend on the details of the particular cities.

    One case study that could be useful is comparing Houston (which has largely grown by annexing land around it, though it does have some important suburbs) and Dallas/Fort Worth (which is famously made up of dozens of cities, including five of the fifteen largest in Texas). The metro areas as a whole are very similar in population, and largely developed in similar time frames. There are some important climatic and geographic differences, but the differences in the light rail systems might be well explained by the difference in governance (Dallas has light rail running for dozens of miles in every direction to serve as many suburbs as possible; Houston has a concentrated system focused on the highest-ridership central neighborhoods).

    1. Yes, I agree, and correlation is certainly not causation as I said. This was a pretty broad overview. Other possibilities I thought of were Columbus (centralized) and Cincinnati (fragmented) or Nashville (centralized) and Birmingham (fragmented). An interesting similarity between Nashville and Hartford, apart from those things I mentioned, is that their urban development style is actually very similar -- the Nashville and Hartford metros are among the least dense in the entire country. Hartford in that sense does resemble a southeastern city. Their transportation systems are similar, too, although Nashville doesn't even have Amtrak service.

    2. Also, what may be of interest is the source data for the chart:

      I did plot a correlation between growth over the last few years and centralization, and the r squared value was small but positive.

    3. Was that growth at the level of the city or metro area?

      Maybe Pensacola or Panama City, FL (fragmented) vs many of the other cities nearby like Montgomery, Panama City, Jacksonville (centralized) could also be interesting to compare?

    4. Growth is at the metro area level. Often the small central cities (that did not expand) lost population over time, and in some cases are still losing it. The smaller southern cities would also be worth looking at, I agree.

    5. Nick -- to clarify, I compared the county level in both cases, as this is the only way to get consistent data back to the 1950s. So, Hartford County vs. Davidson County.

  2. This comparison is so wrong on so many levels, I can't even begin to list them. You are comparing 17 square miles that is the core of a large metropolitan are to what is basically the entire Nashville metro area. This is so unfair. The author would be better off comparing the entire region of each city and you will see Hartford comes out ahead. Hartford is still very affluent with many beautiful suburbs. Nashville is less so. Hartford's affluence meant that its middle class moved to the suburbs which are outside the city limits during the great suburban movement of post World War II. Hartford is surrounded by a lot of very old established communities with very long and very strong histories and identities. You can't just erase that, nor should you. Also last I looked there is a lot of development going on it downtown Hartford right now so the contention nothing is happening is just plan wrong. Finally anyone who promotes the idea of bigger government is just wrong. Regional governments ARE less accountable and not the answer.

    1. Hi Anonymous -- I might have made this clearer in the post, but the comparison of population is between Hartford County (735 sq. mi.) and Davidson County (504 sq.mi.), not greater Nashville and the city of Hartford. Nashville has been the faster gainer under that comparison for the period in question.

      Nor am I specifically advocating for "bigger" government. The point is only that, when property tax revenues have declined to the point that municipal services are jeopardized, it may be worth considering *some* form of reorganization. That does not necessarily mean reviving county organization, and could take a number of forms.

      Finally, as to development, Hartford does have a handful of redevelopment projects in the immediate downtown, but much of it is old and decaying six-flats and three-deckers. Nashville's downtown area OTOH was so booming with apartment construction that a moratorium was recently imposed on Music Row:

      Hartford may not be barren of development, but Nashville clearly has the edge in terms of rate and volume.

    2. Also -- are you JayCT from the CityData forums? If so, cheers, and thank you for the criticism. I really do appreciate critical comments! I'm a Connecticut native myself and very much an optimistic supporter of Hartford and all Connecticut cities. The long history of the state obviously can't be ignored, but it is also an impediment to rethinking city governance. To some extent Hartford, Bridgeport, New London and New Haven all suffer from this problem, which is a shame as they should be very prosperous places, central cities included.

  3. Great piece. An alternative explanation for why smaller governments produce stricter regulation, advanced by Bill Fischel in his latest book: smaller municipalities (traditionally clustered in the Northeast) typically represent smaller, relatively homogenous groups of homevoters. In such a system, policymakers are necessarily more responsive to ground-up demands for stricter zoning. Larger municipalities give policymakers the leeway to take into consider developer preferences (who could be seen as representing prospective residents) and represent diverse populations with diverse land-use preferences. An example I've always found fascinating: low-income HHs and renters nearly always oppose efforts to establish formal zoning in Houston, while high-income households and homeowners nearly always support.

    1. Thanks Nolan. I did read Fischel's book recently so I should have thought to mention his theory. Thanks for bringing that point up. I think his theory is further supported by an international comparison -- those countries that conduct land use at the state or national level, like Germany and Japan, tend to have more permissive land use regimes.

  4. This goes well with Stephen Smith's argument that land use planning is worse the more local it is:

    As a Bostonian, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that while the city proper is a small percentage of the population relative to the metro, it's hardly the only urbanized portion, although the point stands aboout fragmented land-use control.

    Another point is that New England county government was always very different from county government elsewhere. Virtually all land in New England (and all of it in Massachusetts) is incorporated into cities and towns, so counties rarely had any functions left by the beginning of the 20th century.

    Interestingly enough, the Massachusetts counties that retained their government are Barnstable and Dukes, on Cape Code and Martha's Vineyard, and have the most restrictive planning commissions in the state. Land use regulation is governmed by the state, which set up a uniform zoning enabling act (called Chapter 40) for the cities and towns (except Boston), which was designed to be restrictive. It'so restrictive that even the towns that want to be more permissive to density and walkability in their zoning have an uphill climb because it's so diofficult to approve changes.

    On a related note, do you have any opinion on the size of city councils? Most American cities, even huge ones, have tiny councils of less than 15 members, while in Europe the London Assembly's 25 members is a lower bound and 50 or more isn't unusual. Even Montreal has 65 and Toronto 44.

    1. Hi Matt -- interesting point about MA. Dukes County is one with the population of a small town, so perhaps it is understandable why it acts like one. Barnstable, on the other hand, is fairly populous. And yet the most restrictive planning regulation I am aware of there was federal in origin -- the Cape Cod National Seashore. It seems to cover as much as 10-15% of the county, although it's difficult to tell based on the overlay. The other thing is that Barnstable is, by far, the fastest growing of the large counties (excluding Nantucket and Dukes) since 1980 (46%). Worcester, the next behind it, grew only 26%. And that is in spite of the fact that Barnstable has been losing population since at least 2000. Does that mean Barnstable is more development-friendly, or are the factors that led to rapid growth on the islands simply being replayed on the mainland? Not sure.

      I really don't have much insight into city council memberships. I did check Nashville and they have an even 40, 35 district-based and 5 at-large. I would think that the same principles would apply here: more at-large members would mean a more pro-development stance, and more local members would mean more of a neighborhood-led approach (but less so than in a city with many smaller jurisdictions). Whether the overall number has an impact I don't know. Many of the zoning appeals boards are only 3 or 5 people or so.

    2. Also, for an example of the other extreme, check out the 230-member legislature of the Connecticut town of Greenwich -- so large that they were recently unable to field candidates for all the seats:

      It gets weirder in detail: "For write-in RTM candidates who registered their names with the town, there are no minimum votes needed -- write-in candidates with as few as two or three votes are elected. Five districts ... could not field a full ballot even with write-ins."

      So you could essentially write yourself in, vote for yourself and win the election, yet there was no demand for the position!