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Kyle

Totally agree. City Proper definitions have no place in the deiscussion. It's all about scalable/walkable places.

Dan Miller

The problem is that what constitutes a city properly defined is tough to systematize. Everyone can at least agree on city boundaries.

David Paschich

A couple of places in the US have dealt with this, usually by adding another layer of government. Denver has reasonably effective regional planning, via a regional transit district with its own elected board, plus a inter-governmental body (the Denver Regional Council of Governments, or Dr. COG). It also helps that Denver is the dominant urban center in Colorado, so it's possible to resolve regional issues at the state level. Even things like museums and other cultural institutions, while located in central Denver, are funded via a region-wide sales tax.

Contrast that with California, where the two major population centers spend more time fighting over a north vs south split of resources, rather than resolving issues within each region.

reader

I believe that city boundaries are important, regardless of the reason for their precise location, because of their importance to governance and representation. The political boundaries of a city distinguish between the represented "citizenry" and unrepresented. The suburban-city trope can be usefully defined by considering the conflict between these two groups - in terms of funding, priorities, and myriad other matters, including transit. For example, when a transit line is built, who pays for it if it crosses a jurisdictional line? The answers to such questions bear little relation to what a city "is" but matter a great deal to citizens in each involved jurisdiction.

Every government owes a duty to protect the interests of its citizenry - even if those interests conflict with those of surrounding jurisdictions. This naturally creates conflict in some cases. At least to some extent, then, there is a suburban-city divide that exists outside of the imagination of lazy journalists.

EJ

- I would like to second reader's point. There are jurisdictional distinctions that matter. This has ramifications for funding transit and other regional projects (water, etc) but just as importantly funding public schools and determining who gets to go to which schools. School districts are very important to people raising children.

The city of Memphis is trying to combine their schools with the much more wealthy suburban school districts. Naturally, the suburbs oppose this.

- There's also an issue of identity. City/suburb is sometimes used as an in-group/out-group distinction. (And of course there are plenty suburb-vs-suburb ways of distinguishing individual suburbs)

stino

Boundaries are quite arbitrary and belong to charts. One doesn't have to pass through city gates and defensive walls when moving to the next municipality in a metropolitan area. The fact is people and goods travel on paths that don't give regard to boundaries. A road, freeway, rail line, busway, &al. should follow the best path and not have to make excessive detours to bypass areas that don't want to contribute funds or taxes.

The problem for transit, (at least in Texas) is a matter of funding. Incorporated cities must vote to designate any free funds to join or create a transit agency. If you've already reached your sales tax cap of 8.25%, too damn bad. You end up with clusters of cities that all have different visions instead of a regional approach. Sadly a conurbation, whether city, suburb, exurb, is never thought of as what it really is: a unified inhabited space.

david vartanoff

The boundaries do matter because they are shorthand for where the money is. Suburban sprawl is where the power and thus control of most state legislatures is whereas the cities are where the least well off are in many cases. When Norman Mailer ran for mayor of NYC, 43 % of the State of NY's revenues were generated within the five boroughs but only 27% came back in state expenditures. This issue has become more acute in the intervening years nationwide.

Zach Shaner

I agree that we should defend the ontological status of true Cities as something more than just dense walkable places, but rather also as centers of thought, innovation, and culture. "Suburb" means very little anymore as a spatial entity (a location defined by radial distance from an historic core), but as a type of built environment it's still a useful shorthand. Here in Seattle two-thirds of the city proper is still single-family housing, and very suburban by anyone's definition. Downtown-esque business parks (Bellevue) blur the line between city and suburb, while new 'downtowns' could rightfully be called 'urban' despite their relative autocentricity (Redmond, Kirkland), but none of these seem to deserve 'City'. Either/or disjunctions in general are coming to mean less as trends diffuse and localize. Some historic cities are getting denser and richer, others are still in post-industrial decline. Some suburbs are becoming poorer, but new greenfield development still tends to be wealthy. Urban geography is a field whose complexity defies the easy analyses of NYTimes trend pieces or Kotkin-style boilerplate.

Cascadian

The US (as its name makes explicit) was founded as a union of states, and cities owe their official existence to state constitutions and legal frameworks. Important decisions such as boundaries and taxation levels are largely out of their control. Like stino says, if a city is at its sales tax cap (this is true in WA too) then it can't tax its own citizens without first getting special approval from the state to change the cap.

This is backwards. Political power should emanate from people, be manifested in local governments, which then constitute larger governments to handle issues that cross existing political boundaries. If the US followed that model, than each county would simply be the city plus its surrounding and supporting areas. The city would be urban, the suburbs would be clearly defined and limited in ways that strengthened the city, and states would be groups of cities that have a common geographic, cultural, or historical bond. Transit and land-use policy would follow accordingly.

Unfortunately, the very same state-centeredness that produced our Constitution enshrines state power so that it is impossible to change it. So we're doomed to working with state governments that are driven by suburban and rural interests in isolation to the effect they have on cities (and in opposition to urban interests). And that's a big problem, particularly for transit.

Tim (in Brisbane)

I'm guessing these strange urban boundaries are a result of gerrymandering. Perhaps the quickest way for the US to get better urban planning is to strip boundary drawing away from political animals and put it in the hands of neutral parties.

It would also help make elections fairer.

Tim (in Brisbane)

^ EDIT: I'm guessing +at least some of+ these

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Tim.  Electoral districts (called electorates in Australia or ridings in Canada) are often gerrymandered in the US, because they're usually drawn by politicians.  City boundaries are developed more the way that medieval German principalities determined their boundaries: through various kinds of warfare.  States have various laws about how cities are formed and expanded, but in the western states that I know best, it's a largely competitive process.  In California, odd boundaries often arise because cities want employers but not residents, since the former are net contributors to the tax base while the latter are net consumers.  This has led to the creation of several "cities" (see Industry, Irwindale, Vernon, Commerce) with large numbers of employers and almost no residents.  City of Industry, California is especially notable for its extremely contorted shape, twisting and turning to include businesses and exclude neighborhoods.  It's hard to pervert the original meaning of "city" much further than that.

Tim (in Brisbane)

^ So it's bipartisan ridiculousness rather than partisan ridiculousness?

It does still strike me that taking that out of the hands of interested parties would: a) provide both better representations of the city network and b) enable better governance of those city networks.

I think there was some reform in the 80s but I'm pretty sure the UK still has some city boundaries determined by medieval populations. It's not quite so bad but, like the US, it doesn't make for realistic local government areas.

Ana

yeap - "city, civic" from "civitas"= « concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati « which refers to an community that is legally and politically independent, or ad literam, to the right of people to assemble in council and meetings/associations.(A right that is also a responsibility.... )
Later it will develop into a political concept -the state. The state was derived from the concept of political independence.
From the social point of view is the right of communities to administrate their issues by the means of their own council.
And , last but not least, the city as the place where people can associate with each other in council. There was always unity beyond the diversity of populace. And more the place was such that these associations, assemblies where constant - there were no walls between neighborhoods. A city implies public squares or public gardens , walkability and administrative unity and independence. Which as you noted is no longer the case for the American urban area, which is a fractured world of 20,30 , 40 or more independent communities....

Aidan Stanger
As Leinberger says, we need a distinction between walkable urban communities and drivable suburban ones,
No, we need to stop regarding walking and driving as the only options!
Tim (in Brisbane)

^ Walkable and drivable provide the two most common scales. All other means of urban transport (with the exception of high-speed rail) I'm aware of fall in between these two scales.

GMichaud

One of two things will happen with the auto in the short term: either another energy source will replace oil or oil will become so expensive that the public will demand alternatives to the auto. (In the long term the individual auto is doomed with its large resource use footprint).

This makes city and suburban boundaries and funding sources irrelevant. The suburbs will ultimately have to be redesigned and rebuilt to better accommodate transit. The transit system should be planned without concern for boundaries.

A good reference demonstrating how transit helps generate the form of new communities is the book by David Pass, "Vallingby and Farsta, from Idea to Reality" (MIT Press 1973),
It details the building of two suburbs, north and south of Stockholm, Sweden and shows the role of transit, the creation of walking environments as well as the inclusion of the automobile in shaping these suburbs.

In a similar fashion artificial boundaries have no meaning to the design of transit.
Thus in an old industrial city such as St. Louis the question is how should transit work? (61 sq miles and surrounded by literally thousands of square miles of sprawl). What modifications to the suburbs would help build a coherent system for moving people in the region? The shape of a comprehensive Los Angeles plan will be different.

Solutions, by definition, have to transcend boundaries and include city planning concepts.

Movement systems must function at the highest levels to be successful. If the automobile for whatever reason was no longer a viable alternative, what modifications would be needed to make transit work everywhere?

Eugene Wong

This is a great blog entry; just in time for some of the discussion regarding Vancouver vs. Surrey. People need to quit thinking about each city on its own, as far as the regional district goes. No matter what system we use, we're not going to stop travelling once we hit a city boundary.

Chris M

This isn't an exclusively American problem or one that national planning will completely do away with. In the UK it's quite common for mid-sized city boundaries to be fixed at the point that their urban areas ceased in the 1930s, with newer suburbs sitting in authorities outside this (Bristol, Leicester, Nottingham, Portsmouth). Metropolitan bodies around the new urban areas were introduced in the 60s and 70s for the largest cities, but central government found them too threatening and so disbanded them, leaving many of these cities hobbled by unrepresentative boundaries.

While nothing as absurd as Los Angeles exists in the UK, Manchester is fairly ridiculous. It's about 14 miles north to south but only 3-4 miles east to west, excludes about 1/5th of its own city centre and half its own inner city but reaches open countryside at its northern and southern extremeties. Sometimes centralised planning doesn't work to promote civic cohesion.

The larger point about walkable urban communities doesn't really apply here though, as from my experience of UK/US suburbs, in US terms almost everywhere in the UK is a walkable urban community.

John

You think LA's boundaries are weird? Check out Columbus:
http://mappery.com/map-of/Columbus-Ohio-City-Map

I have yet to see a large city boundary as odd as this one.

EngineerScotty

The city limits of Beaverton, OR (a Portland suburb) are another good example. The city of Beaverton has annexed many arterial streets, in order to be able to maintain City utilities within them; but there are numerous non-incorporated islands within the city. Some of them are industrial/residential parcels desired by the city which have resisted annexation; others are low-income neighborhoods that the city won't touch with a ten-foot pole.

Of particular interest is the green (on the map) parcel on the map near the left edge that contains the word "Jenkins"; that parcel contains the corporate headquarters for Nike. A few years back, the city announced an intent to annex the parcel (or parts of it, including the Nike campus), as well as many of the upper-middle-class parcels to the north ("Cedar Hills", "Cedar Mill", "Bethany") and claimed that because these were island (albeit bordered in many cases only by annexed streets), it could do so without any vote. Nike, along with other residents outraged by the city's heavy-handed conduct fought back--a state law was passed specifically restricting Beaverton's authority to annex the parcels without consent of the owners, and a court ruled against Beaverton's claim that it could use the "island" provision of Oregon incorporation law in this manner. Oh, and Nike bankrolled an opposition candidate for mayor in the 2008 election, and successfully ousted the incumbent mayor from office.

Immediately to the southwest of Beaverton (and to the southeast of Hillsboro, the yellow areas on the map) is the community of Aloha, a poorer unincorporated area which has had many of the revenue-positive parcels which might be able to fund city operations picked over by Beaverton and Hillsboro over the years. In Beaverton, the city streets FTMP are all well-maintained and have sidewalks and bike lanes. Aloha's streets resemble narrow country roads in many places, with nothing resembling a shoulder, let alone a sidewalk.

Ben Smith

Another article which all I can say is THIS. On many Toronto based forums, you will distinct arguments between 'city' and 'suburbs,' and in many cases the people arguing have no idea what the difference between the two are. On this one forum I used to post on, some troll used to take cheap shots at me because I used to live one side street north of the city limits.

As I said elsewhere, rather than looking at where people live, we should look at how they live. Someone lives in the suburbs and takes transit a short distance to their place of employment is far more urban than someone who lives downtown, but then drives an obscene distance to work.

Jonathon

In Toronto though, a HUGE difference between the City, and the suburbs, is in that of urban planning. Generally, outside the urban borders which are well-defined (Especially to the north, Steeles Avenue), the local municipalities favour suburban development patterns with sprawling subdivisions. The City of toronto favours dense developments because it has limited supplies of land. One will also notice a precipitous drop in the frequency and (thus?) usage of public transit outside the city.

Kenji

Still, even with well defined boundaries like Steeles, there are still a lot of car-dependent neighbourhoods in the City of Toronto proper (although this is partly because of amalgamation). The drop in transit frequency happens because each municipality has its own transit system. If it weren't for the political differences, the Steeles Avenue boundary wouldn't mean much.

Andrew

Also in Toronto there is an increasing trend for more pedestrian/transit friendly neighbourhoods in the "905" suburbs. Mississauga comes to mind, there is large scale high density redevelopment occurring in the Mississauga Centre area. This area is still way too car dependent mostly because of the large swaths of car parking that belong to the shopping mall, but this is gradually improving as new condo developments get built. Aside from that, there are various other small towns that have been absorbed into the urban sprawl that are pedestrian friendly (e.g. Port Credit, downtown Brampton, Streetsville, old Markham etc.) Nevertheless most parts of the outer 416 and most parts of the 905 are both very similar car oriented suburbia. The division between the 416 and 905 is mostly historical (the 416 has always had good bus service but the 905 has not) and socioeconomic (outer 416 suburbs are generally poorer while most parts of the 905 are richer so there is more demand for bus service in the 416). This division is gradually disappearing as 905 bus service improves and 416 bus service stagnates under Rob Ford.

Annonymous

In the Seattle area, you can see how these arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries are affecting transit, only the boundary in question here is the county boundary, rather than the city boundary.

Because adjacent counties have separate transit agencies and each is only willing to spend its taxpayer dollars on routes that go within its area, the result is that any trip that crosses the county boundary requires a transfer at the boundary point, even if you're just going 2-3 in a straight line along a major arterial.

While we do have a regional agency which operates express trips that do cross county boundaries, because each county's agency is still responsible for local service, shorter trips (< 5 miles) that happen to cross county boundaries are still unnecessarily convoluted.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Anonymous.  Yes, and you could even argue that the only solution to that problem was to create yet another transit agency, Sound Transit, which is what the region eventually did.  Sound Transit does great things, but it also requires even more entanglement of transit agencies with each other, making clear service planning decisions more difficult. 

EngineerScotty

To address the Seattle situation--why wouldn't the various agencies involved (King County Metro, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, etc) consider merging or greater consolidation of operations?

For the same reason that many other political boundaries exist--jurisdictions jealously guard "their" resources. Were Community Transit, which serves Seattle's northern suburbs (and exurbs) in Snohomish County, to be merged with KC Metro, there is a good chance that the combined agency might choose to focus more service in Seattle (where land use is more supportive of transit), and reduce service in the more sprawled out communities served by CT. While doing so would be defensible from a technical point of view, a good argument could be that it's inequitible--even though there isn't anything magical about the line on the map dividing the two counties.

On the other side of the coin, Portland has had an issue over the years with suburbs withdrawing from TriMet. The city of Wilsonville and the unincorporated (and mostly rural) community of Damascus did so in years past; the community of Boring (also unincorporated and rural) is attempt to do so now. All three have the same complaint--"their" tax dollars (payroll taxes collected from employers in the area, regardless of where the employees in question live) were being used to provide service elsewhere, with only skeletal service being provided to the communities in question. Wilsonville at least started its own transit agency; Damascus simply abandoned provision of public transit, and Boring likely will do the same. OTOH, given the rural character of both; regularly-scheduled urban transit might not be appropriate.

There are ways to mitigate these conflicts, such as service guarantees. An integrated service would be much better for the transit rider. And at the very least, a good practice for dealing with boundary crossings is for both agencies on the boundary to run lines to the nearest transit center on the other side of the boundary, rather than simply stopping at the edge.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

@Scotty.  Not everyone at TriMet was unhappy to see outer suburbs secede.  Every time this happens, it becomes politically easier for TriMet to focus its resources on its higher-ridership areas, generally Portland and inner suburbs.  Becuase TriMet depends on payroll tax, I'm sure they had big issues with losing job-rich Wilsonville, but the other suburbs and small towns that seceded probably consumed far more in service than they provided in either payroll taxes or fares. 

EngineerScotty


@Jarrett... probably true, although it's hard to know. Payroll taxes are collected by the state of Oregon and dispersed to TriMet (and other agencies with similar funding) as a lump-sum. While TriMet knows how much bus service to Boring costs it (probably not very much, as there's only one line which only runs several times a day on weekdays; and is widely considered unusable by all but the most desperate), it can only estimate how much payroll tax comes from Boring employers.

Wilsonville is a special case: Back in the 1980s, when it withdrew from TriMet, it had more jobs than residents. And the withdrawal wasn't entirely about better transit service but about tax reduction as well--SMART is funded by a city payroll tax, but one at a lower rate than TriMet provides. Most other Portland suburbs aren't in position to perform a similar maneuver, being bedroom communities who consume more service than they contribute in payroll tax revenue.

The folks most inconvenienced by the Wilsonville withdrawal are those who live outside Wilsonville but work in one of the city's many high-tech firms, at least prior to WES opening. (With WES, you can travel to Wilsonville station on a single TriMet ticket than transfer to SMART's free intercity services; without it you have to use the SMART 2X line, requiring payment of an extra fare).

TriMet and SMART still have a bit of a frosty relationship, unfortunately--Wilsonville objected strongly last year when TriMet proposed service reductions on WES in order to deal with its budget crisis, including public officials lobbing blunt comments TriMet's way suggesting that the agency's budget crisis was self-inflicted ("SMART isn't having to cut services"); and many in Portland appear to still have issues with what is often viewed as wealthy corporations politically segregating themselves in order to avoid having to contribute to the greater common weal. An issue which, as the article demonstrates, is replicated in many places 'round the country and world.

Wad

@David Paschich, since the term limits era in California, the political division has shifted from Northern California vs. Southern California to Coastal California vs. Inland California.

The coastal areas, like NorCal was in the north vs. south divide, are wealthy and have more stable growth. The inland areas are poorer and fast-growing. Many of them still have dominant agricultural sectors. If California were the nation, the coastal areas would be blue states, and the inland states would be red states.

Ted K.

Here's my candidate for Calif. State Champion of Weird Growth Patterns :
San Francisco County.
This county shrank with the splitting off of San Mateo Co. This gave a degree of independence to several wealthy enclaves on the S.F. Peninsula. Thus the fat cats of yore (19th Century) hamstrung San Francisco of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Consider how different SFMuni could be if it included the service equivalents of SamTrans and Caltrain (e.g. SFMTA = SFMuni + SFCoTrans + Parking). Yes, it's an ugly thought (more chances to make mistakes) but the BART extension down the peninsula would have been earlier and perhaps more balanced (Serramonte Stn. ?).

Those who are fascinated by quirky boundaries should take a look at S.F.'s southern neighbor - Daly City. It has an eastern enclave that requires a transit of S.F. (via Geneva Ave.) for ready access. The alternative is a hill and canyon route that can be awkward at times.

P.S. Jarrett - My mind recast the title of your neat article as "Cities vs. Suburbs" - Trope or Trap ? .

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Ted.  Thanks!  But re "trope or trap" see my comment early in the post re any ideas that rely on rhyme or alliteration!  I accept the need to play that game rhetorically, but am always reluctant to let it shape my thinking ...

Morgan Wick

What's Jarrett's take on people wishing their cities had expanded to "include their suburbs" in order to take in the tax income from their wealthier citizens? Seems like that might result in some of the devaluation of "city" he abhors...

Sometimes political boundaries can influence developmental distinctions. In Seattle, the 145th St northern border is fairly arbitrary, but you can see a clear difference from one side of 145th to the other (although I could make a case that much of the northern suburb of "Shoreline" that isn't actually that close to the water could fit right in as part of Seattle proper, especially along relatively-urbanising Aurora Ave). On the other hand, the jagged (though not tenticular) southern border of Seattle is just ridiculous. The most obvious example is in West Seattle, where the community of White Center is cut right down perhaps its main east-west throughfare (King County is trying to get someone to annex the area, but the state of the economy and the budget situation on all levels of government may mean Burien gets it), but there's also the fact that the border cuts through the South Park neighborhood, Boeing Field is split between Seattle and Tukwila, and in general in Southeast Seattle street signs just tend to peter out somewhere and Tukwila or King County signs pop up out of nowhere (and the streets change from being named to being numbered, except in West Seattle's Arbor Heights neighborhood for some reason).

Morgan Wick

Oh, and it's worth noting part of the reason why US governmental structures are so state-centric is that in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the states were really seen as separate nations (and when you look at the at-the-time cultural differences between the thirteen colonies, especially north of Mason-Dixon, it's easy to see why) and the US was seen first as an alliance between them to beat the British and later as something similar to what the EU is today. The biggest piece of controversy surrounding the Constitution was actually its creation of a relatively strong federal government (people didn't want even that much power taken away from the states - people who follow EU politics may find this familiar), so you can see how the modification procedure was something of a necessary compromise. Even with the Constitution, though, people identifying as (say) "Virginian" before "American" remained the norm at least through the War of 1812, a point of important historical interest at least through the Civil War (as the Confederacy was in part an attempt to return to a system closer to the pre-Constitution days), and still present in present-day Texas. :)

EngineerScotty

I'm all for letting Texas secede.

(Or better yet, return it to Mexico who are its rightful owners...)

:)

WJF

One particularly interesting example of this can be found in Montréal, Québec, Canada. The island of Montréal is divided into towns and boroguhs, which at some point in the 90s were all amalgamated, later de-amalgamated, and eventually re-amalgamated by referendum, so that only those that voted to be part of the city proper would be joined. The divisiveness came not only from economic affluence but also from language issues between French and English that resulted in a patchwork of "city limits" across the island.

Dexter Wong

Yes, Ted, things could have been quite different had San Francisco County not split off San Mateo County near the end of the 19th Century. I read that San Francisco County originally was planning to use the Borough system (like New York City)to govern San Francisco, Daly City, San Bruno, South San Francisco, Colma, San Mateo, and other communities on the peninsula north of Santa Clara County. All this went away when San Mateo County was created. Who knows what would have sprung up if San Mateo County had not existed?

Phillip

Would have thought there were plenty of walkable urban locations in the US cities... Here in the UK, we have nothing, not even decent non urban transport!

Joey Urban

Its funny, because I always thought a city was determined by if it had a post office or not. Bcause most towns, or even subdivisions all utilize the same post office. If you choose to determine a city by walkable area or drivable, what type of distance would you have in mind?

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