Tuesday, November 27

To annex or not to annex

Often in life the boundaries between things are pretty gray, but when it comes to defining the political boundaries of a city you just have to put a line on the map. There's no way around it. And they change.

Like other citizens across the country, Missoulians have been debating annexation for a long time. Now some of these perennial questions are being pushed back into the foreground. The Missoulian has just published a two-part series on some current annexation battles, as well as an Op-ed (not online) yesterday from the Orchard Homes Neighborhood Association arguing against being annexed into the city. This is all in preparation for a December 3rd council meeting.

Kenneth Jackson, in his book Crabgrass Frontier, gives an interesting account of the history of municipal annexation in America. In the 19th century, city limits would inevitably expand to accommodate population growth, swallowing up any smaller townships in its path. Almost everyone wanted this. Those living on the outskirts begged the city to come and provide modern amenities. Being identified with the city was a source of civic pride, and it brought with it notions of progress and sophistication. The legal grounds for forced annexation were never seriously questioned.

However, in the 20th century the boundary growth of many municipal governments ground to a halt. Much of it was result of an identity shift. Suburban dwellers began to socially distance themselves from downtown, as socio-economic disparities between the two were forming. Basic services were becoming available to them without need for the city government. Urban and suburban philosophies were diverging, and the legal precedent for forced annexation was being challenged in several cases. One of the main consequences, especially in industrial eastern and mid-western cities, was that suburbanites were able to politically isolate themselves from the deteriorating inner-cities, thus accelerating their deterioration.

I'm not sure whether cities in the west like Missoula are going down this road exactly, but you can see some of these same dynamics at work. The bottom line is that all of those who share the often intangible benefits of a city ought to also share the responsibility of caring for the city. Where precisely this line ought to be drawn is a tougher question.

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