Monday, November 21, 2005

Cities, their suburbs, and regionalism

From Otis White's Urban Notebook at, which still does not have permalinks:

The Value of an Amenity
Why Suburbs Need Cities

The history of post-World War II metropolitan America can be written in five words: Suburbs grew faster than cities. So much faster that many suburban leaders have come to believe that they are little affected by the cities their residents left behind. But as an economist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank wrote recently, that’s not true. The suburbs, he said, are far more tied to their cities than most believe.

As Jordan Rappaport explained in an article in the bank’s Economic Review (click here to view it), cities and their suburbs do compete in some areas (for certain kinds of population and jobs, for instance), but the more important competition occurs among metro areas. That is, most suburbs of Cleveland grew faster than Cleveland itself in the last 50 years but much slower than their counterparts in Dallas. “In other words,” Rappaport wrote, “cities and their suburbs tended to grow or decline together.”

OK, class. So what does this mean? Answer: It’s a textbook argument for regionalism, for acting on the notion that what’s good for the city (or your fellow suburbs) is good for your community. Rappaport describes three kinds of cooperative arrangements in metro areas: Those that lower the average cost of services by spreading them over large groups (such as regional sewer systems); those that increase their benefits by serving larger areas (such as a transit system that takes you across an entire region rather than a single city); and those that build important amenities to serve an entire region. The first two are fairly common, he notes; the last one is rare.

Why? Because while the amenity (think of a major museum, football stadium or airport) may be regional in its impact, it’s always local in its location. And it’s hard for people to see the benefit to them of a stadium or performing arts center elsewhere. Result, Rappaport noted: “... Only a handful of special [taxing] districts exist to provide true metrowide funding of single-site local amenities.” But if Rappaport is right, more should because having a great art museum or botanical garden on the other side of the region benefits your community as much as the community it’s located in.

Footnote: The importance of such high-quality amenities is growing, Rappaport wrote. Reason: People are more affluent, more mobile and consequently more choosy about where they live. “Just as [rising] wealth fueled people’s desire to live in larger houses, it has also lured them to move to places with more amenities,” he said. “For example, recent research estimates that the average amount a person would be willing to pay to live in a place with the climate of San Francisco, instead of Chicago, increased more than fivefold from 1970 to 1990.” While Chicago (and, for that matter, suburban Schaumburg or Des Plaines) can’t do much about the weather, they can offer world-class museums, performing arts centers and baseball parks. And if they’re smart, they’ll do so together.
This is an area where Houston got kind of lucky from the simple fact that it is a very large city (from annexation) that is relatively centralized within very large Harris County. Harris County has been able to roughly act as the de facto regional government all these years, building amenities like stadiums, parks, and roads and spreading the cost over large areas. This is a little less true today with the rapid growth of Montgomery and Ft. Bend Counties, but Harris County is the undisputed 800-lb. gorilla of the region. This makes a lot of projects easier than more fragmented metros like DFW, Atlanta, and the SF Bay Area that are spread over multiple municipalities and counties.


At 9:08 AM, November 22, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

Luckily we do have the H-GAC to act as some sort of regional body.

There work is instrumental in link much of the region.

They also help in providing some consistancy across the region in planning (particularly in transportation)

At 10:27 PM, November 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

of course every metro area has an organization like H-GAC...

At 10:21 AM, November 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

H-GAC is a great agency, but is planning focused. The article was talking about regional governments/taxing-authorities that have the power to do things for the good of the region and spread the cost widely.


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