The Government of Metropolitan Areas in the United States

By Paul Studenski; Frank H. Sommer et al. | Go to book overview
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The political organization of metropolitan areas may best be described as no organization at all, but a mere conglomeration of political divisions of various kinds, established at various times, and not bound together in any way. This lack of proper organization is in part due to the way in which our traditional institutions of local government have been applied to the needs of rapidly increasing population.

Our colonial ancestors knew three kinds of local government. First, the county, a division of the colony primarily for judicial, military and other purposes of general concern, and secondarily a unit for the satisfaction of certain local needs. Second, the municipal corporation, sometimes called "city" and sometimes "borough," a unit calculated to serve the special interests of urban communities. Third, the town or township, a unit used in New England for either urban or rural local administration and elsewhere, if employed at all, to meet the more intimate needs of the rural community. Later generations have displayed in many directions a marvelous power of innovation, but they have added nothing to this scheme of local government.

The population being sparse at the outset, the first counties were sometimes of enormous extent. Wayne County, for example, as first set up by an order of the territorial government of the Northwest territory in 1796, embraced the whole southern peninsula of Michigan, portions of northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and the eastern portion of Wisconsin. With the incoming of population, reasons of state convenience and local advantage dictated the subdivision and re-subdivision of these huge areas until counties have achieved something like a standard size of 300 to 750 square miles--somewhat smaller in the thickly settled regions east of the Alleghenies than in the West. In the older parts of the country no material change in the size of county units has taken place for several generations and it is only in the extreme West and Southwest that counties of extraordinary size now occur.1

It is interesting to observe that with the depopulation of the "copper country" of northern Michigan, it is now proposed to merge several of the existing counties into one.


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