Would more Americans move to cities if they could live in a suburban neighborhood in city limits?

This summer, the New York Times profiled two neighborhoods in a “Suburbs in the City” series. See the profile of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn and Marble Hill in Manhattan. Many American cities have such locations: neighborhoods within the city limits of a major city but with single-family homes, quieter residential streets, and wealthier residents. This is true of both older American cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago – as well as newer cities that are more sprawling – Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.

Three quick thoughts regarding such neighborhoods:

1. Americans like suburbs in part because they offer proximity to the big city and its amenities without necessarily having to feel like they live in a big city. I would guess at least a few Americans would consider attractive urban neighborhoods that have the feeling of a suburb. Single-family homes with yards alongside assurances that their kids are safe and will get ahead are huge. The biggest downsides might be issues like a further removed city government and higher taxes.

2. David Rusk discusses how important it is for big cities to capture such locations within city limits. What he calls elastic cities, places that have successfully annexed more land in recent decades (and many cities in the Northeast or Midwest, like Detroit and Chicago, have not), tend to do better on a number of economic and social measures. These neighborhoods allow some city residents who would otherwise move to the suburbs (like many other Americans) to stay in the city.

3. How much should big cities work to enhance these more residential neighborhoods to entice wealthier residents to stay versus deploying resources to neighborhoods who need the resources more? Chicago presents a great example: the city has worked to reassure whiter and wealthier families that residential neighborhoods, particularly on the north and northwest sides are worth staying in (read about one white flight reassurance program). On the other hand, mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have been dogged by claims that the city cares little about poorer neighborhoods.

Sprawling American cities have less inequality

A new report from the Brookings Institution suggests sprawling American cities have less inequality:

In a new report, All Cities Are Not Created Unequal, Berube compared levels of inequality in fifty large American cities. He found the gap between rich and poor is rising in large cities on the East and West Coasts, while cities in the South and West like Las Vegas, Mesa, and Fort Worth, are more equal, and retain more of what the middle class needs…

“They built a lot more housing over time that has managed to maintain a middle class, and they don’t have sectors of the economy, like finance and technology, that tend to be driving incomes at the upper end of the distribution,” Berube said. “They’ve got sectors like transportation, warehousing, and retail.”

Those are industries, Berube says, where you’re unlikely to strike it very rich, but where a middle-class income is still within reach.

This sounds very much like David Rusk’s argument in Cities Without Suburbs. He suggests what differentiates cities is their elasticity, a measure of how much land they have annexed during their history. Newer cities, particularly in the South and West, have been able to annex more land. This then gives them more residents who might otherwise move to the suburbs, boosting the city’s tax base and mix of residents.

Read the full Brookings report here.

Chicago’s annexations through the years

Watch Chicago expand through annexation here.

Maps at the Chicago History Museum show that in 1837, city borders were:

  • Lake Michigan to the east
  • North Avenue to the north
  • 22nd Street to the south
  • Wood Street to the west

In the Great Fire of 1871, much of the city was destroyed. The most significant annexation in Chicago history came almost two decades later, in 1889.

That’s when Hyde Park, Lake View and Jefferson and Lake townships became part of Chicago. The annexations were the result of an election and added 125 miles and 225,000 people to the city, making it the nation’s largest city by square mileage at the time…

“One of the reasons annexation stops […] in the early 1900s is because the city really doesn’t want to annex any more territory,” said Chicago historian Ann Keating, who wrote Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs: A Historical Guide and co-edited The Encyclopedia of Chicago. “Our vision is suburban communities wouldn’t want to join in to the city, but the fact of the matter is the city kind of hits a point where they can no longer extend services.”

This is a common trait of most American big cities: they started relatively small and then annexed quite a bit of territory. However, Chicago’s experience mirrors cities in the North which essentially couldn’t annex much past 1900. While suburbs prior to this point had been willing to join the city to gain from the big city’s services and the city’s prestige, by around 1900 these local services were cheaper to build themselves and cities had different reputations. But, annexation was still quite common for Sunbelt cities, most of whom were able to continue to annex through the 20th century. David Rusk tracks these annexations in his book Cities Without Suburbs. Here is one chart:

RuskCitiesWithoutSuburbsTable1.5Quite a big difference which Rusk argues allowed Sunbelt cities to capture more of the suburban growth and benefit from a wider tax base and more diverse population.

An argument for expanding Detroit rather than contracting it

In the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested contracting cities like Detroit or Youngstown. So it might seem strange to suggest expanding Detroit instead – but this idea is rooted in some interesting recent works:

I’ve come to learn my friend’s idea is a favorite thought experiment among a certain subset of Detroit-area urbanophiles. Sometimes they will reference David Rusk, the former Albuquerque mayor whose book Cities Without Suburbs makes the case for the economic vibrancy of “elastic” cities (like Houston, Austin, Seattle and Nashville) whose central hubs have the capability to annex or otherwise regionalize their surrounding suburbs into a unified metropolitan area.

The takeaway from the census stories was that Detroit plummeted to 19th place on the U.S. city-size list, behind Austin, Jacksonville and Columbus (Columbus!). But the Detroit metropolitan area — which we’ll define, for these purposes, as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — still retains a population of nearly four million. If our territorial-expansion fantasia could have been magically enacted with even two-thirds of this figure, the Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. This would translate into more state and national clout (and allocated funds, many of which are based on population) and eliminate the need for much of the wasteful duplicate spending inherent in maintaining dozens of tiny separate municipalities, especially at a time when many of these suburban communities have announced their own cutbacks. (In February, the westside suburb of Allen Park announced plans to eliminate its entire fire department.)

Super-sizing Detroit could also translate to better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar “Unigov” city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region’s dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn’t necessarily be reigned in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city’s, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That’s a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has written several books (Cities Without Suburbs and Inside Game/Outside Game) about this subject. Rusk’s argument in both books revolves around this idea of “elasticity” which is the ability for cities to expand their boundaries. According to Rusk, more modern cities (particularly those in the South and West) have been able to annex more land compared to older cities like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. With more land, Rusk argues these cities have lower rates of residential segregation, a broader tax base, and more beneficial outcomes.

Of course, these plans are not easy to implement. The trick is convincing suburbs that they should vote for annexation by the large city. Why would wealthier Detroit suburbs want to become part of the City of Detroit? Historically, such annexations in Midwest and Northeastern cities stopped in the early 1900s as suburbs no longer needed the city services big cities offered and the city was increasingly viewed as a dirty, problematic place.

The last city I recall reading about (in The American Suburb by Jon Teaford) that was able to successfully do this was Louisville, Kentucky. Teaford described how the city was able to convince the suburbs that the annexation would improve the city’s business standing, particularly through having a larger population.

The Atlantic piece suggests this annexation would be difficult to implement:

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s benign proposal to ease the ability of state counties to merge into loose metropolitan authorities has been a non-starter in the Detroit area. “I don’t think anyone would support it,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Detroit News.

With a decreasing population (a “staggering 25% in ten years”), Detroit will have to make some decision about moving forward.