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Edge Counties in Expanding Metropolitan Regions

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

By David Hamilton
August 30, 2016

The previous article in this series introduced the concept of rapid-growth edge counties located at or near the periphery of expanding metropolitan regions. This second installment is focused on their geographic setting, the metropolitan region.

Regardless of their label, edge counties have been recognized as rapidly-growing suburban counties for many years. In 1970, T.P. Murphy described the extensive changes occurring in counties, located in metropolitan areas, affected by the pressures of urbanization and population growth. Their potential and importance was highlighted within the 32 findings of a major report prepared in 1975 for the Department of Housing and Urban Development,

“While the county scale seldom includes the total interactive and interdependent area of a metropolitan community, enlarging the responsibilities of the counties may improve local government for smaller metropolitan areas. Counties may also serve as effective subunits in a larger metropolitan regional system.”

Unfortunately, this well intended recommendation for metropolitan counties contained marginal relevance, due to the lack of ‘regional systems’ in America. Aside from consolidated city-county governments and regional councils of governments, there are only two actual metropolitan governments in the country, Metro in the Portland, Oregon region and the Metropolitan Council in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities area. Both of these entities have governing powers that apply to many, but not all, of the counties and their local governments within their respective regions. The absence of metropolitan governments is based on the American preference for small, local governments and its aversion to large, central formations that include metropolitan models. The void has left organized counties to fend for themselves within the unorganized metropolitan areas of the country.

Instead of creating actual regions with formalized boundaries and authorities, we have deferred to the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. census to define our regions as statistical constructs. This arrangement has created a muddled medley of abstract terms and groupings. Currently, there are eight different regional models that use counties, boroughs and parishes as building blocks. Within 44 states, five of the terms are applicable:

  1. Core based statistical areas.
  2. Metropolitan statistical areas.
  3. Micropolitan statistical areas.
  4. Metropolitan divisions.
  5.  Combined statistical areas.

In regions within six New England states, two where counties do not even function, three additional terms are utilized:

  1. New England city and town areas.
  2. Combined New England city and town areas.
  3. New England city and town area divisions.

The Metropolitan Statistical Area, commonly referenced as the MSA, is a popular model for research and has served as the chosen regional setting for my ongoing work with edge counties for several reasons. First, it provides a consistent configuration for defining edge with a long, continuous record of population data from the U.S. census dating to the 1950 census. In 1975, Ray M. Northam observed that the MSA formed “an urban region that serves well for data compilation, since it is based on counties, and which suffices for a rather general frame for reference where one might conduct investigations of a metropolitan nature.” In addition, MSAs have at least one urbanized area with 50,000 or more residents, plus adjacent territory that have a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting times. Finally, they were constructed by assembling configurations of whole counties or county equivalents providing an ideal setting for regional county-based research.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, about 84 percent of the nation’s population resides within one of 366 MSAs. However, not all MSAs are growing nor are the majority of the 1085 metropolitan counties found within them adding population. Edge counties are found within only 105 MSAs but they represent a major source of increased population within their regions. This was why the study of edge counties was connected to MSAs as they represent an important harbinger of regional population expansion in places where most of the nation is located.

Regardless of the model, regions do not necessarily experience even patterns of growth within their boundaries. In 1987, Fishman stated that, “The metropolitan arena is being transformed. This transformation is taking the form of a massive, if piecemeal, re-concentration of the population away from urban cores to their peripheries. This process has occurred slowly and disjointedly but the results are dramatic and clear.” Edge counties form a critical part of this transformation with important ramifications for public administration. Left to fend for themselves, they have assumed new urban roles, services and responsibilities, prompted by their development and rising population.

More recently in 2007, Benton et al. identified edge counties as an emerging area of needed research by asking: “How has the emergence of ‘edge counties’ affected the ability of counties to govern and deliver services?” This is the focus of these articles. With the metropolitan setting established, the next article in this series defines edge counties based on their geographical location within their regions.


 AuthorDavid 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. He currently heads his own consulting firm guiding local governments with visioning, planning and organizational alignment. David is the current president of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA. 

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One Response to Edge Counties in Expanding Metropolitan Regions

  1. Pingback: Defining Edge and Core Counties | PA TIMES Online

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