Amidst population loss and persistent social issues, could Chicago improve its situation by annexing suburbs?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago expanded aggressively, luring in the formerly independent entities of Lake View, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park and Pullman with the promise of city services such as sewers and electricity. But except for the addition of O’Hare, that movement ended in 1930. By the post-World War II era of suburbanization, Chicago was boxed in by established villages that marketed themselves as escapes from filthy, crowded city living.
By contrast, Houston has used annexation-friendly state laws to inflate itself to three times Chicago’s geographic size over the past 70 years.
“Houston and other Sun Belt cities are really different than Eastern cities, in that many of them have never been surrounded by municipalities,” says Kyle Shelton of Rice University‘s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Annexations were easier for them to pursue because they didn’t have anyone to fight.” As a result, seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities are in the Sun Belt. Toronto used a similar process to leap past Chicago in population, amalgamating with five neighboring suburbs. Miami, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis have all merged with their surrounding counties…
But just because something makes sense financially doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen. Politics and civic pride are two obstacles: In Illinois, annexation requires a referendum in both the annexing city and the targeted community. Village residents and trustees are reluctant to give up power and patronage. Consider the story of East Cleveland, a bankrupt Ohio suburb whose mayor was recalled after proposing annexation to Cleveland.
This may not make sense for those calling to contract cities (Detroit as one example) but annexation may make sense at a metropolitan level. David Rusk writes about this in Cities Without Suburbs: cities that are more “elastic” (have expanded through annexations since the early 1900s) have lower levels of inequality as cities have been able to capture many of the benefits of suburban life (wealthier residents, property tax monies, etc.). Cities that have been able to merge governments – whether through annexation or joining city and county governments (such as in Indianapolis) – have experienced benefits.
At the same time, this call for Chicago to annex suburbs doesn’t say much about how this would benefit the suburbs. Even as inner-ring suburbs have experienced many of the same problems facing big cities, would the residents and leaders want to join with the big city next door? I doubt it.