What's the Real Size of Your City?


Trivia time! So, Florida is the third-most-populous U.S. state. What's the most populous city in Florida?

You probably answered Miami. I'd forgive you for guessing Orlando or Tampa. But would you believe the answer is humble Jacksonville?

 Technically, per the Census Bureau as of 2017, Jacksonville had 892,062 people, versus 463,347 in second-place Miami.

Here's the catch: metropolitan Miami—that is, including all of the suburban areas that share commuters, radio stations, newspapers, and a regional identity with Miami—actually has 6.1 million people, while metro Jacksonville has only 1.6 million.

Downtown Jacksonville, FL

Downtown Jacksonville, FL

The only reason the city of Jacksonville looms so large in the rankings (it's technically the largest city by land area in the continental U.S.) is that it legally merged with surrounding Duval County back in 1968, swallowing up most of its own suburbs.

Jacksonville is the biggest city in Florida in a legal way that's meaningless on the ground, except when property taxes are due or services like street paving have to be provided. But Miami—or more to the point, greater South Florida—is the biggest city in the state in almost every way that counts: job market, housing market, media market, cultural and economic influence.

Think of it this way: If aliens were to land on Earth, they would have no clue of municipal boundaries. But they would instantly recognize metropolitan areas.

So if you're in a conversation about jobs, housing, growth, decline, natural resources, the future prospects of a place—pretty much anything except the workings of local government—it's worth making sure you consider the issue at the metropolitan scale.

What's the point of all this? Not to help you win at trivia, but to think critically about the relationship between having a strong neighborhood, a strong town, and a strong region. We often fall into the trap of thinking in counterproductive ways by not considering scale. Here are a few:

"Control Our Population"

Boulder neighborhood at the foot of the Flatirons (Wikimedia Commons)

Boulder, Colorado has a long history of well-intended civic activists seeking to limit the population growth of the scenic city at the foot of the Rockies. These slow-growth groups talk about population in blunt terms, and in 1976, Boulder actually passed an ordinance (no longer in effect) that would restrict growth, by limiting building permits, to 2% per year.

The elephant in the room here is that Boulder is a small city within a much larger Colorado Front Range region, within a much larger state and country. The notion that local officials in Boulder have any real ability to control population growth at those larger scales is laughable.

What you can do, if you're determined enough, is keep people out. Don't build homes, and you will slow population growth—though you'll deal with fallout, as Boulder has. Home prices shoot through the roof, the working class within your own community gets displaced, and the freeways clog with more long-distance commuters.

"Drop Dead, Detroit"

L. Brooks Patterson has been the county executive of Oakland County, Michigan since 1992. He is infamous for his hostility toward his region's own core city of Detroit, and has a history of offensive comments about the city, as well documented in this New Yorker profile. Patterson views Detroit as a vortex of dysfunction and his own suburban county as the economic engine of Southeastern Michigan. 

But here's the thing: most of Oakland County and the rest of the region has developed according to the Suburban Experiment model: spread-out, car-centric development that we find time and again is a money loser for local governments.

Oakland County, Michigan is Cobb County, Georgia, or Collin County, Texas: almost certain to eventually choke on the costs of suburban infrastructure. But without the economic dynamism of an Atlanta or Dallas to keep drawing newcomers to the region and keep the Growth Ponzi Scheme chugging a little longer. 

Detroit was an early arrival to the fate that awaits many, many more places: we are all Detroit.

And yet, many of the neighborhoods in Southeast Michigan with a sustainable urban form in the long-run are likely in Detroit. Good things are starting to happen in Detroit. Oakland County needs Detroit. It just doesn't know it yet. 

Whose California Housing Crisis?

Photo: Johnny Sanphillippo

The unaffordability of California's coastal cities has led to booming populations of super-commuters: longtime Strong Towns contributor Johnny Sanphillippo has documented the rise (and likely future fall) of exurban boomtowns in the Antelope Valley and Tejon Ranch, a direct consequence of Los Angeles's failure to find a way to absorb those people closer to where job centers are.

More broadly, it's been suggested that California is undergoing a sort of statewide gentrification. The people moving in are much wealthier and better-educated than the people moving out. And the people moving out are altering the dynamics of the housing markets in places like Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, Austin, and Denver. 

A Reddit user recently posted this graph of where newcomers to Seattle are arriving from. To a significant extent, California's housing crisis is now Seattle's housing crisis.

We're all connected.

The Tax-Incentive Arms Race in Suburban St. Louis

We've written about this before: the St. Louis region is infamous for fragmentation. It's the anti-Jacksonville; instead of one huge city, there are countless dozens of tiny cities. And this combined with Missouri's sales tax structure leads to a perverse incentive for cities to compete over retail businesses and offer lavish tax incentives to land them. University City is in the process of using tax-increment financing to replace part of its Chinatown with a Costco (here's Part 1 and Part 2 of our 2018 series on this).

This arms race generates no economic growth for the region. It doesn't increase spending power. It just shifts retail activity around on the map. Thinking of metropolitan St. Louis as an economic unit—which it is—makes it evident how insane this situation is. 

Do We All Go Down Together?

Akron, Ohio planning director Jason Segedy has written eloquently on the greater Cleveland region's troubles. A lot has to do with the fact that metro Cleveland has more than doubled its built footprint since about 1950, while not expanding at all in population. Cleveland built a whole new Cleveland, and is predictably struggling to maintain the original one and provide those who remain a decent quality of life.

Metro Buffalo: physical growth without population growth. (Rise Collaborative)

Chuck Banas at Buffalo’s Rise Collaborative makes similar observations about his own city. The growth of the urbanized area has not been accompanied by population growth. It simply reflects the suburban experiment: the spreading out of the existing population, and the wholesale abandonment of parts of the original city by its original inhabitants. 

That's a lot of new infrastructure for a region that isn't rich. The bill hasn't fully come due yet—much of that pavement and pipe is still in its first life cycle. When it does, it will hurt.

It might be worse in the merger cities like Jacksonville. Jacksonville doesn't have suburbs it can let sink or swim. It is legally liable for a huge amount of suburban money-losing development patterns. We've written here before about the folly of annexation; this is why.

Neighborhoods First, But Neighborhoods (and Cities) Exist in Context

It's easy to say, "Let's fix our little corner of the world. Let's build a place that is livable and sustainable, and then let's protect it." That's a noble sentiment. And positive change often does have to start with the neighborhood, not even the city, as the unit that matters: that’s where the problems are that we can build positive momentum, and reap a return on investment, by solving. This is why Strong Towns's model for how cities should think about economic and community development is called Neighborhoods First

But we also need to be sober-minded about the fact that what's going on regionally can swamp our best efforts to preserve the kind of place we want to preserve locally. As the unsustainability of much of suburban America becomes increasingly evident, the fallout isn't all going to be felt by the people living in the worst-designed environments. It's going to be a lot messier than that.

We're all on this ship together.