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By David Hamilton
July 29, 2016
The chronicle of America portrays a transition from rural to urban settlement, but the American county has largely been absent from this narrative. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 84 percent of the U.S. population lives within 366 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), with the majority of people residing outside the traditional core city. In their 2004 report titled “U.S. Metro Economies, MP-The Engines of America’s Growth,” the National Conference of Mayors noted urban areas are responsible for providing 80 percent of the U.S. economy’s employment, income and production of products and services. While references to cities, townships, census-designated places and other localities dominate both past and current analyses, the entire transition from rural to urban settlement has occurred within existing county boundaries.
Aspects of this phenomenal pattern of development have been cited within numerous articles, papers, books and journals. But in the early 1990s, Joel Garreau jolted the prev
ailing literature with his highly provocative book Edge City, Life on the New Frontier in which he described an unprecedented pattern of growth spreading into the hinterlands of the urban landscape. Unfortunately, Garreau misconstrued what he observed. These were not edge cities. They were edge counties, camouflaged by his literary allusion. Without accurate description, he deflected diagnosis of and prescription for practical public administrative challenges facing county governments. This has resulted in a lack of focus on the issues that rapid population growth places on counties.
Garreau was not the first to focus his attention on the city within the expanding urban context. Commenting on the pioneering work at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, B. J. Berry and F. E. Horton noted that Burgess’ Concentric Zone Theory drew from what Park described as the “urban ecological processes…that derive their energy from the expansion of the city’s population and the city’s areas in a concentric ring-like fashion over time.” In 1955, Richard Hofstadter noted, “The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city.” Although partially true, this post-war-era observation restated long-held inaccuracies about American urbanization. Jane Jacobs referenced metropolitan areas as city regions and asserted that they are not defined by natural boundaries “because they are wholly the artifacts of the cities at their nuclei; the boundaries move outward—or halt—only as city economic energy dictates.” As recently as 2003, David Rusk claimed, “Despite the romance of the frontier, the true land of opportunity in America for over 150 years has been the cities.” These sample analyses from differing eras sustained the ongoing academic fascination with cities as the central point of urban growth. In most cases, references to counties were nonexistent. In the book, The American County, Frontiers of Knowledge, Alabama, Donald Menzel, et al. aptly summarized the dilemma:
The American county is an important yet often neglected and maligned unit of local government. Indeed, in certain respects, it has taken on mythical qualities, having been described as the dark continent of American politics, ramshackle, and the plague spot of American politics. Although the words are less harsh in recent years, phrases such as “still-forgotten governments” are invoked to describe the county’s role in the American federal system.
County government is an overlay of history striving to adapt to an uncertain future. Increasing arrays of complex issues face public administrators in counties as they grow and urbanize within adjacent sprawling metropolitan regions. Of the 3,031 counties in the U.S., 1,100 are now included within the 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas and that number continues to grow as urbanization expands. The Metropolitan Institute identified 124 growth counties in the United States within three categories, including one termed edge counties. “Together, these places now contain over 62 million residents, about one in five Americans. In 1950, the same growth counties contained just over 12 million people, about one in 12 Americans.”
As growth pushes outward into the peripheral suburbs of expanding regions, county officials are confronted with problems in organizations with policies that fail to address the emerging issues. In particular, public administration within edge counties struggles to respond to the urban demands of a growing population within a form of government enacted in a previous rural era. Remarkably, few researchers have addressed the county from the critical perspective of how to manage within this chaotic environment. This series of articles will discuss metropolitan configurations, identify core and edge counties within them, and present the challenges that they create for public administration.
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. 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.