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Creating new cities causes social and economic fallout

Atlanta map of cities

A map of Atlanta showing many of the cities in the region (Special: RusUSA.com)

By Guest Columnist JOHN MATTHEWS, a retired city planner who specialized in urban growth policy and a retired instructor at both Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and  at Georgia Tech

Metropolitan Atlanta is seeing the creation of an increasing number of local governments; there are many new cities and more are sure to come. There is additional movement to allow creation of new small school districts tied to the new cities.

Local government in the Atlanta region is already highly fragmented with many local governments: Atlanta ranks 17th for high government fragmentation among the nation’s 942 urban areas.

John Matthews

John Matthews

In Atlanta, and in other metropolitan areas in the United States where many small local governments have been created, the driving forces are a desire to preserve a “special” local community, enjoy lower local property taxes, provide better public services, and address a general dissatisfaction with a larger general government currently providing services and levying taxes.

Rarely discussed is the downside: Fragmented political systems encourage inefficient competition among local jurisdictions, a process that often leads to socially and economically undesirable policies.

Cities steal malls and office parks from each other (see the fight between Tucker and Lakeside over North Lake Mall); fight tax incentive wars for new development, simultaneously reducing revenue and increasing demand for services; and zone out the poor – or just the less wealthy – for fiscal advantage.

Regional decision-making becomes more and more difficult with local jurisdictions seeking regional resources for their own projects and denying resources to others.  The metro counties’ inability to set T-SPLOST projects in 2012 and current failure of needed transportation legislation are two examples.

Increased local government fragmentation – remember Atlanta is already highly fragmented and that creation of new cities means more fragmentation – leads to increased economic and racial segregation. Residential segregation is associated with undesirable consequences such as increased income inequality, poor or lower income and minority students, and inability of poor people to move out of poverty.

While perhaps not intentional, zoning is the tool used by local governments that creates class and – consequently, racial – segregation. Suburban cities and towns have used their zoning powers in exclusionary ways – allowing only single family houses on large lots and not permitting higher density houses and apartments – to preserve community character.

The Atlanta region ranks high in the use of exclusionary zoning.  In Georgia law, a city must provide at least three services. Zoning is always one of the three services prospective new cities want.

Atlanta map of cities

A map of Atlanta showing many of the cities in the region (Special: RusUSA.com)

Atlanta is highly segregated by income and, consequently, race. In spite of rapid African-American suburbanization, Atlanta’s segregation has been increasing over past decades with a rapid rise of concentration of poor people in segregated suburban and inner-city neighborhoods. As a result, although metro Atlanta’s blacks are less geographically concentrated near the urban core and scattered more widely around the metropolitan area, they remain highly segregated.

So what? Blacks living in more segregated, as opposed to less segregated, places do worse in schooling, employment, income, and incidence of single parenthood than Blacks in less segregated areas. On the other hand, the effect of segregation on whites is negligible; education and income outcomes are the same whether whites are in greater or lesser segregated places.

In Atlanta, which is highly segregated, we might expect to see a higher rate of these bad outcomes for blacks than in less segregated places.  And – we do.  Atlanta has the highest measure of income inequality of the 50 largest U.S. cities and, in recent years, the second highest increase in income inequality.

Not only is income inequality in Atlanta the highest among the nation’s largest cities, but the opportunity in Atlanta to move out of poverty is among the lowest. In the last 20 years, the metro area’s schools have become more segregated.  Segregated schools have a negative influence on academic achievement and black/white achievement gaps. Among the nation’s 55 largest metros, Atlanta ranked 52nd in terms of the odds that its children born into low-income families would, as adults, reach the top 20 percent income group. Within the Atlanta metro, low-income children’s chances of reaching higher incomes as adults were worse in more segregated counties than in predominantly white ones.

In summary, as metropolitan areas become more governmentally fragmented there is a tendency for racial and economic segregation to increase; as segregation increases, income inequality increases; and poor education, social immobility, and family instability among the black population increases.

Atlanta is already highly fragmented and displays some of the highest rates of racial and economic segregation, income inequality, unequal education, social immobility, and family instability among its minority population.  Increasing the number of local governments will not positively effect this situation; in all likelihood it will become worse.

Creation of new cities, and especially new school districts, should be approached with great caution and full awareness of all the public finance, regional governance, race and class consequences.

Late last year, a Georgia Senate study committee released a report addressing issues raised over the past few years regarding creation of new cities. The report did not address the issues issued here: Intergovernmental competition for development and taxes, difficulty initiating regional public investment, and increased economic and racial segregation and the negative impact of segregation.

Regional intergovernmental planning bodies, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission, and metro governments, such as those in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon can help address problems of competition, tax imbalance, and regional public investment. The metro governments on Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland are generally considered more successful at addressing these issues than is ARC, because they are governments with some regional governmental powers including limited taxes, service provision, and capital investment.

Over 30 years ago, then Gov. Carl Sanders urged the General Assembly to look at these two metro agencies as possible models for restructuring Atlanta’s governance.  That advice should be taken now.

More than 200 communities in the United States have some sort of inclusionary zoning: A municipal or county zoning ordinance that requires a given share of new construction to be affordable by people with low to moderate incomes.

The City of Atlanta has been providing incentives for inclusionary housing development. It has an affordable housing policy and funding mechanism in place for the Atlanta BeltLine. The city is considering, and may soon bring forward, a mandatory inclusive zoning ordinance.

The General Assembly needs to study the problems the city is seeking to address with these policies in the context of requests for new cities and the issues creation of these cities raise.


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  1. Wormser Hats April 11, 2016 1:45 pm

    With due respect, as opposed to the era of Jim Crow, what racial segregation we have in the Atlanta-area is very-much a function of self-segregation.  The column speaks in broad generalities about how municipal zoning leverages segregation, but “how this happens” remains unqualified. There is only so-much tinkering that political/governmental powers can do to cultivate socio-economic and cultural diversity in our urban and suburban communities. 
    No law can impose that people with dissimilar incomes and aspirations must live as next-door neighbors.  But the column also fails to cite the shining-examples of dilapidated, inner-city communities where younger generations, and a diverse – if gentrifying – population is revitalizing the already-developed landscape, schools, and reenergizing the virtues of active citizenship.  
    If anything, the calls for cityhood that echo across DeKalb are a direct result of a political structure that worked for decades before being usurped by a segregated class of politicians who wizened to the perks of having little oversight or accountability. 
    Without question, it would be a much bolder move to overhaul DeKalb County’s commission and system of leadership, before any more incorporated areas are sequestered or annexed.  However, no one seems interested in fixing what’s truly broken; only pointing at it and endeavoring to enshrine new, more-accountable governments.Report

  2. RobAugustine April 11, 2016 2:55 pm

    I take the opposite view and disagree with the author that more cities causes fragmentation. In reality, the big county governments that have dominated Metro Atlanta (usually for worse) have created the fragmentation of the region. Had the region developed with more local cities, regional planning would have been delegated to a regional authority. Most major metro areas around the US have a lot of small cities. Very few are dominated by big county governments. And, they all have Regional Authorities for major infrastructure, transit, and other items. That’s what we needed in Atlanta since day one. Small cities, local control of local issues, and regional agencies to handle the big items. One need look no farther than the big counties’ refusal to join in MARTA as a prime example of the dysfunction caused by this fragmentation. And really the same argument applies to school systems. Ours are too big and too bureaucratic. Local systems in local communities would function much better. But again the legislature prohibits any new city schools from being formed.Report

  3. Timothy Young April 11, 2016 9:45 pm

    No. This is somewhat erroneous to blame new cities for all the ills of the Atlanta region. The failure of the TIA region transportation tax was suffered by 9 of the 12 regions and really was the fault of the Legislative body of the state not to make the hard choice in the first place.Report

  4. JoeSeconder April 11, 2016 11:32 pm

    I grew up in Michigan, where there are NO unincorporated areas of counties and it works great. They are neatly subdivided into one level below the county as either a city, village or township. The counties handle the big things like roads that span the county, courts, jails, sheriffs, public health. (And the schools are NOT ran at the county level, either.) The rest are left to the cities/villages/townships. And Michigan’s counties covers land than is many times larger than ours in Georgia. It completely baffles me that Georgia was created with such a hodge-podge system for municipalities. Along with ZERO unincorporated areas, I’d also go to CONSOLIDATION of the counties. Instead of 10 in Metro Atlanta, there should be a max of 3. That too, would further aid regional planning for great things like transit. (there’s lots of states out there with a lot less counties). And don’t get me going about Switzerland where I lived for 4 years. They don’t even have a county-level of bureaucracy in their country. There’s only 3: Federal, State and City/Village. Nothing unincorporated, either.Report

  5. Khurram Hassan April 12, 2016 10:57 am

    Great analysis.  These trends and impacts have been known for awhile but it is helpful to get a reminder of the consequences of not paying attention to the impact of fragmented government.Report

  6. Wormser Hats April 12, 2016 11:16 am

    One could flip the column’s title around and it would speak a poignant truth: Sohttps://saportareport.com/creating-new-cities-causes-social-economic-fallout/https://saportareport.com/creating-new-cities-causes-social-economic-fallout/chttps://saportareport.com/creating-new-cities-causes-social-economic-fallout/Report

  7. mikeleeph12 April 13, 2016 10:23 am

    I see nothing positive from all these new cities incorporating within Fulton and Dekalb.  It creates another layer of bureaucracy and government.  And I thought Republicans hate government so why are they creating another layer?  Most of these new cities shouldn’t be new cities and have too small a tax base to draw upon to provide anything.  These new cities form mostly as an excuse to provide a POLICE force.  That’s what this is all about.  Most of these people are brainwashed into thinking that they’re unsafe so they’ll just sign up for more police.  These cities can’t even provide basic services but they’re sure as hell providing POLICE.  And when you have so many cities fighting for their own slice of the pie, then how can anything get done regionally and how can we accomplish anything as a region?  We can’t.Report

  8. Wormser Hats April 13, 2016 10:55 am

    mikeleeph12  I have to disagree.  Incorporation of new cities in the metro area is not merely about creating dedicated police forces.  While that may happen, a lot of what we see is a result of distrust in county government administrations that patently-ignores the needs of some constituents, while pandering, earmarking, and foisting pork on to others. And Republicans don’t “hate government;” they simply (at least, theoretically) espouse less centralized government and more governance at the state and local level.
    Local control means prospectively keeping more of your tax dollars at work close-to-home, instead of in some far corner of your county where neither you nor your neighbors have a claim, but whose denizens have stacked the county commission and administration in their favor.  For example, I’m all for improving the infrastructure in southeast DeKalb, it’s part of my county, too, after all.  However, when one of the worst intersections in the metro area is at LaVista Road and North Druid Hills is getting no attention, why are county taxes paying for a dedicated new exit and driveway to New Birth Missionary Baptist Church?  If Lee May, Burrell Ellis, Vernon Jones, and their ilk want to reward the people who voted them into office from the Lithonia area, they should find some other source of funding than the taxes paid by me and my neighbors in the northwest part of the county.  And that’s just a bold-faced example of why incorporation makes sense for citizens wanting a greater stake in the accountability of local officials. 
    It comes down to this: by mere association, your neighbor stands a greater chance of representing and advocating for your interests than the elected official who lives 15 miles away.Report

  9. bcngator63 April 18, 2016 9:22 pm

    When the CEO complains about county departments being too white, one really has to wonder about the even handedness of government.  When the DA fails to prosecute the school board chairman when corruption is uncovered under his guidance, one has to wonder about how colorblind justice is.  The way that Mike Bowers investigation was terminated, makes one wonder about the ethics of county leaders and what they were afraid he might uncover. How else do we express our disgust with the status quo and our desire for change.Report

  10. Burroughston Broch April 19, 2016 2:07 pm

    @ mikeleeph12
    “I see nothing positive from all these new cities incorporating within Fulton and DeKalb.”

    I can speak only for Dunwoody, but I can speak with authority on this subject since I have lived in Dunwoody before it was incorporated. Our combined city + county tax bill is lower than a county-only tax bill would be had we not incorporated. Our self-provided services, particularly police, public works, and parks/recreation, are much better than DeKalb formerly provided. As an illustration, when DeKalb provided police protection there was often only one car in Dunwoody while the others were deployed elsewhere; that’s one car to protect 6.5% of the population plus the largest commercial area in DeKalb. At the time DeKalb had 860 sworn officers. Under the City department we have 54 sworn officers to protect the City and seven cars on duty.Report

  11. Herman Lorenz May 9, 2016 11:14 am

    I hate to be a bearer of bad news to the writer, but there are actually facts he could check on.  City opponents always seem to come back to the evil racism of people who want their own government.  I haven’t analyzed other situations, but the ARC provided me with racial/ ethnic demographic info on two proposed cities — Briarcliff and LaVista Hills.  Both of those proposed cities were more ethnically diverse than DeKalb County.Report

  12. Ryan February 19, 2021 6:21 pm

    Pickering NewcastleReport


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