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Culture Cacophonies: Implications for Public Administration in Growing Edge Counties

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
March 3, 2017

America is a place of demographical change driven by our restless patterns of internal migration that flowed to numerous places. According to the U.S. census, we have also grown from an estimated population of 2.5 million in 1776 through the tandem forces of natural regeneration and external immigration creating a vibrant nation of new and diverse people. Today, the census estimates our population at just over 324 million, ranked third in the nations of the world. Whether we frame our populations within cities, regions or rural locales, this incredible narrative of growth has occurred within the 3,142 counties within the United States.

While most of our 3,142 counties remain rural, 1,167 are included within the 382 Metropolitan Statistical Areas configured by the Office of Management and Budget in their memo of July 15, 2015 and the number continues to expand. The traditional urban/rural divide does not present a complete dissection of county growth. More current observations indicate patterns of settlement have changed. T.L. Daniels noted starting in the 1970s, the populations of non-metropolitan suburban counties grew at a faster pace than urban counties, “for the first time since the early 1800s,” while adding “a sizable portion of this growth occurred in counties adjacent to metro areas, helped in part to attract newcomers to the fringe.” In addition, Neil R. Peirce et.al. revealed the 1990 census presented the United States as a truly metropolitan nation for the first time in its history with 125 million or 50.2 percent of the national total found to live in the 39 metropolitan areas with a population of 1 million people or more. As an example, he noted “the speed of change from 1950, when only 14 U.S. metropolitan areas of more than 1 million people were home to only 30 percent of the country’s population.” While much of this rapid transformation was occurring near “the fringe,” the type of county that was enabling rapid urbanization was not identified until 2002, when Patricia S. Atkins et.al. presented their paper to the Fannie Mae Foundation entitled, Edge counties struggle with impacts of rapid growth:

Leaders of the nation’s fastest-growing Edge Counties confront one of the most perplexing challenges facing local public officials today…At its most confounding, this growth threatens the very attractiveness that propels the growth.

Fringe and edge are simple words with complex implications. In common practice, people use them interchangeably but definition requires clarity. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines edge as a sharp terminating border where something else begins, while fringe denotes that which lies at the borderline. Both describe a place where something changes and that is what prompted Aiken’s concern related to growth and the ability of county officials to manage it.

Edge Counties are evolving social settings created by rapid growth. Newcomers bring their beliefs and values along with their possessions to build their future fueled by hopes and dreams. These segments of society, which are attracted for various reasons, collide with the existing culture of the settled population. This is important for public administrators to understand. Migration patterns tear into the existing social fabric of edge counties, creating a unique blend of newcomers and longtime residents forcing and compacting vicarious assumptions and values into the county’s social DNA.

Growth is not a singular occurrence, it builds and blends creating powerful forces and social fault lines that emerge over time. Edge counties are places with muddled identities and a weak sense of community based on the accumulated consequences of random migration. At the heart of the issue is what sociologists refer to as a sense of place or community implying good neighborhoods populated by compatible people. Although these are common terms, they are elusive in definition and vary based on subjective assumption, exponentially multiplied by the addition of new county residents. In the aggregate, according to Philip D. Brick and R. Mc Greggor Cawley, neighborliness is a highly-prized quality of life and where it is present, it is always near the top of people’s lists of why they like a place. Where it is absent, individuals deeply lament and this deep-seated attachment to the virtue of neighborliness is an important but largely ignored civic asset.

Understanding, identifying and sorting out the needs and preferences of the medley of residents presents formidable challenges for public administration based on vicarious migration patterns that are unique to each individual edge county. Understanding the culture and makeup of these groups is an important consideration. Equally important is how the eclectic mix of residents view their county and its administrative competency. While the goal of compatibility is the ideal, the probability of conflict also arises. This will be the focus of subsequent articles based on the results of ongoing research.


Author: David Hamilton is a public administrator and change leader with experience managing county and city governments. He recently completed his DPA at Hamline University focused on the administrative impact and challenges of rapid-growth on regional governments. Hamilton heads his own consulting firm guiding local governments with visioning, planning and organizational alignment. He is the current president of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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