Are more “super-sized cities” coming soon?

For years, people have talked about a phenomenon called “suburban sprawl” – what happens when cities tend to blend into each other along a stretch of road, making it difficult (if not impossible) to tell when you have passed into a bordering community. This is often said of the Chicago to Milwaukee corridor – both large cities seem to have become one huge metropolis. Drive around the Phoenix area and you’ll get the same sensation as well (are we in Chandler or Tempe or Gilbert?)

Well, with city budgets being so lean nowadays, one wonders if communities will start partnering even more to provide services such as public safety, water, street maintenance, etc. Sure, this is already going on out there (particularly when a small city can’t afford its own public safety or water departments), but I think we’re going to start seeing it spread like wildfire (pardon the pun).

Beyond this “sharing” of resources, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see some cities (and counties) merge together entirely – creating mega-cities or huge regional entities. It’s already happened in places like Louisville, Kentucky. Their “Metro Council” – which resulted from a 2003 merger with Jefferson County, Ky. – contains a total of 26 districts and 26 elected representatives.

What do you think of the “super sizing” of cities in the United States? Is it a good response to budget constraints, or are communities creating unnecessary bureaucracies that will make consensus difficult?

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Jeremy Sutherland

We posted an article back in ’09 talking about similar ideas in the nonprofit and charity world, called “M&A in the Social Sector” because it is such a fascinating option for nonprofits to share costs while also increasing their ability to achieve mission-driven success.

M&A activity, also known as Mergers & Acquisitions, is a huge part of “for-profit” business strategy because of the potential for realizing cost reductions and economies of scale by sharing services.

Two or more municipalities may find similar economies-of-scale by sharing 911 call centers, better integrating Police, Fire, and Sanitation services across a larger regional view. Combining HR and IT functions can also create significant efficiencies by combining workflows, marketing efforts, and technology costs.

Former Virginia Governors, Jim GiImore and Mark Warner, both made a big push to consolidate procurement efforts across state agencies to take advantage of larger quantity discounts. The idea sounds simple in theory, surely was a little more difficult to implement, but has resulted in real savings across the state. More information is available here eVA Procurement Benefits

While I am no genius, it seems pretty smart to pursue the benefits of partnership, collaboration, and shared-services going forward, both in city and state governments, and the in the nonprofit and social sector too!

Mark Dixon

I suppose you mean in the US, as opposed to internationally…but in either case, the answer is an emphatic yes.

From the US perpective, we have very redundant and archaic organizations at the local (and in some cases, the state) level…way to much bureaucracy and overhead spread out across the land in a 19th century model…(just look at how the structure of government is laid out across the geography of the US). It makes no sense whatsoever in the 21st century.

To become more efficient and effective at service delivery to citizens (most happens at the local level), we will have to morph our current mess into more regionally focused structures. I assert the way to start is with IT, as it is easier to move bits around than atoms. The current organizational and physical governance structures can remain in place until it becomes painfully obvious to the even the most casual observer that such archaic structures make no sense…organizationally or economically. The economics will force the change as the US will continue to wallow in a pseudo-recovery for years to come…

The key is to reduce the mega-councils over time, develop digital engagement capabilities for citizens, and use modelling/gaming to drive consensus. Take more of an engineering (fact-based) approach than a legal (endless debate – rhetorical) approach or risk further US decline…

Andreas D. Addison

I think the concept is definitely trending across the US right now, but being a local government employee in Virginia, I see this as an impossible feat. The separation of cities and countries will limit the ability to successfully intergrate and share service delivery. I work in Richmond and there is constantly a battle between the City and surrounding counties. The issue to me would come down to who shares the brunt of the responsbility of the combined territory for the shared service delivery? How is the funding shared between the city and county? For one, I know that an urban area like Richmond will be much different cost wise to provide a service such as trash/solid waste collection than in a suburban setting like Henrico or Chesterfield county. Do you split costs by households, distance traveled, etc? This would create a political seesaw between the involved parties that could take away from the true motivational force of the effort.

I personally think the idea is very needed. I just see political structures, organization and pride getting in the way of truthfully being able to create and realize the savings generated from such collaborative efforts. Plus, the real savings from some of these efforts take years to realize and can potentially create other costs that were unforeseen. I look forward to seeing what others post about this topic.

David Kuehn

Public agencies contracting services from other public agencies may provide more flexibility and allow scales of efficiency while maintaining local control.