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Howard Husock is director of case studies at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. This article first appeared in the April 12, 1998, Detroit News, and was excerpted from the winter issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

Breaking Up Cities More Promising Than Merger with Suburbs

By Howard Husock

Today prominent urbanists are urging a new wave of consolidation, exhorting cities to merge with their suburbs to form region-wide metropolitan governments. But equally energetic advocates have mounted fierce political campaigns to make exactly the opposite view prevail--to form smaller, decentralized city governments for neighborhoods that secede from a larger whole.

There are good reasons to believe the secessionists are right.

The idea of metropolitan government--a benevolent, expert central administration for urban areas--has tempted efficiency-minded urban theorists for generations. Here, they've argued, is a way of bringing order to the chaos of central cities surrounded by a crazy quilt of independent suburbs.

Though in the 1920s the movement saw metropolitanism as a recipe for improved city services and non-corrupt leadership, by the 1960s advocates added two more goals: redistribution of wealth, with affluent suburbs supporting public services in poorer inner cities; and environmental protection, with enlightened planners dictating the shape of future development, preventing "urban sprawl" and keeping "ticky-tacky" suburbs from devouring farmland.

Today's foremost champion of metropolitan government, David Rusk, one-time mayor of Albuquerque and self-described former civil rights and anti-poverty worker, travels the lecture circuit spreading the gospel of his 1993 book, "Cities Without Suburbs." A unified metropolitan government, Rusk proclaims, can "profoundly transform the long-term outlook for failing central cities and help re-energize American society."

Though big-city mayors and elite opinion makers like Rusk's views and consider them mainstream, on the political front lines these ideas don't carry much weight. Across the country local activists have been rejecting the push to create bigger jurisdictions. They want to retain--or create--smaller governments, by seceding from existing city government, by incorporating new, smaller jurisdictions carved out of larger ones or by resisting annexation by larger governments.

New Yorkers are familiar with this move toward the local: Five years ago the Staten Island secession movement blazed up fiercely, though the State Legislature eventually snuffed it out. But similar efforts are catching fire in many other locales.

In Los Angeles, the Valley Vote movement, with Gov. Pete Wilson's support, proposes to detach the San Fernando Valley (population: 1.2 million) from the rest of the city.

In Florida four successful referenda since 1992 have given birth to four new municipalities within Dade County, the administrative district for 1.5 million residents of the suburbs surrounding central Miami. Six other new municipalities are in the works.

Around Tucson, suburbs that have long resisted annexation by the central city leaped at the chance state legislation offered them last year to incorporate as independent towns. Two have already done so; six others have proposed or already scheduled votes.

To liberals like Rusk, localism reflects yet another example of what journalist Robert Kuttner has called the "revolt of the haves"; it is a greedy retreat from the commonweal, sacrificing the city for for the short-term improvement of the suburbs. But Rusk believes the revolt of the haves is futile. It threatens the suburbs themselves, as inner-city chaos overtakes the surrounding communities.

Localism is popular, however, not because it promises a sweetheart deal for a few privileged suburbanites at the expense of the greater good, or because the unsophisticated fail to understand a demonstrably superior metropolitan approach. Voters' common sense tells them that the closer they are to government, the more it will respond to their demands.

They will see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on the kind of projects they prefer and will have a greater assurance that interest groups--such a public employee unions--will not usurp local government for the benefit of their own members, who may not even live in the city where they work.

In fact, there are good reasons to go one step further. To improve older neighborhoods in older cities requires not a single, bigger government but increased numbers of smaller ones. We should break cities up into an array of independent, neighborhood-based governments that would set their own property-tax rates, elect their own officials,and give city residents the same control and sense of community that their suburban counterparts take for granted.

City dwellers could direct public spending to the things they consider most important. They could ask the local public works director why their street went unplowed or unpaved, or push the local chief of police to deal with the rowdy playground gang before the things get out of hand.

Freed from centralized bureaucracies, these neighborhoods, including many of the older, poorer ones, would prosper. As for paying to maintain, or build, expensive regional infrastructure systems: for that purpose, these independent local governments could cooperate in a loose confederation, or "special purpose district."

Consolidation of formerly independent municipalities in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston, which metropolitan advocate Rusk cites to buttress his case, didn't arise from a Rusk-like belief that bigger was better. Rather, newly developing areas saw consolidation as the best means to plug into the services core cities offered.

By the 1920s, as soon as suburbs discovered other means short of consolidation to hook up to regional infrastructure--typically special-purpose districts--they stopped joining central cities.

Municipalities have differentiated themselves from one another for good reason. The formation of independent cities and towns fueled the explosive economic takeoff of the late 1800s; it defused tensions between immigrant and native-born; and it allowed the upwardly mobile to build communities that reflected their hard-won new social status.

Even as advocates (including the Department of Housing and Urban Development) beat the drums for metropolitan government, the number of local governments in the United States kept rising. From 1952 to 1992, the number of municipalities grew from 16,807 to 19,279. While a few core cities--Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Nashville--have merged with their surrounding metro governments in recent years, citizens have overwhelmingly scorned the metro vision during the past half-century.

Champaign and Urbana in Illinois twice rejected consolidation, even though they're often thought of as a single college town. Voters in the Knoxville, Tenn., and Richmond, Va., areas refused city-county consolidation, as did voters in David Rusk's own Albuquerque (before Rusk's tenure as mayor).

Instead of promising more of the redistributionist machinery that has failed so roundly over the last generation, breaking up the cities holds out a different,more valuable promise to poor neighborhoods. It offers them the incentive and the means to encourage economic growth.


This article is being submitted to the Gazette for possible reprinting on the opinion page..