Metropolitan sprawl is a well-studied, multidimensional phenomenon. Sprawling development patterns play a substantial role in taxing the resources and infrastructure of local governments, as well as contributing to global environmental externalities like climate change. Counties have become increasingly tasked with municipal-style public service delivery, including land-use planning. But how are they likely to perform this task, particularly in areas where populations are more fragmented between cities, unincorporated counties and special districts? My recent study in Urban Affairs Review looks at how counties adhere to their own long-range growth management plans and finds that “modernized” counties are more likely to approve incremental development increases when such fragmentation is greater. How does this occur, and what does it mean?
Counties present relatively abundant and cheap locational alternatives for development, which may exacerbate sprawl. Governmental fragmentation may fuel more leapfrog development patterns on the urban fringe as cities within counties channel development into the county arena. Increased horizontal fragmentation – which is the proliferation of general-purpose governments like cities or towns – encourages counties to compete for development with other localities within their borders but also increases the incentives for developers to locate county sites with relatively cheaper land prices. Vertical fragmentation, meanwhile, is the proliferation of special districts serving single purposes such as fire, water, economic development, environmental protection and education.
Florida is the organizational context of this study, and just over half of all 1,667 active special-districts play an economic development role. Vertical fragmentation facilitates development through provision of services, reducing private development costs, and reducing the pressure for public officeholders to raise taxes. In more vertically fragmented systems, public services can be offered from a tiered system of governments in a complimentary fashion rather than having individual departments within a single government competing for resources. While empirical evidence is mixed as to whether vertical fragmentation leads to higher or lower overall tax expenditures, it also presents a distinct driver for sprawling, leapfrog development patterns outside municipal boundaries.
But fragmentation is only part of the story. Internal capacities developed to comply with state regulations and respond to exploding growth also play a role in shaping these decisions. This analysis finds evidence that counties pursue incremental course corrections to their growth plans as a function of whether they had modernized mechanisms for responding to constituents’ land-use preferences.
While local governments may generally implement environmental protections specified in their plans, this result presents a normative planning paradox for urban areas confronting growth pressures.
Counties which have modernized their service-delivery processes should generally have more sophisticated, data-driven planning support systems and more capability for responding nimbly to development demanders. Thus, development patterns emblematic of sprawl – low-density, discontinuous, decentralized construction – may be a function of planning rather than a byproduct of its absence. From an urban sustainability perspective, if greater planning capacities amplify piecemeal development patterns, the flexibility of land-use plans may need to be reconsidered.
However, this increased responsiveness of modernized counties is moderated by executive and legislative institutional structure. County modernization via charter adoption is associated with increases in piecemeal development patterns, while form of government accounts for a moderating institutional effect. Professional managers appear to facilitate increases in incremental development, but are more insulated from development interests.
There are several practical points to take away from this study. Cities and counties may be offering similar services, but their experiences on the ground are quite different. Fragmentation may generate more competition for economic development between localities and development spillover into unincorporated areas. Professionalization or the adoption of more managerial-like government administrations has been frequently hailed as a superior model for efficient and effective service delivery. But under fragmented conditions, modernized governmental structures in growing counties may simply serve to positively moderate the push for more sprawling development patterns. For policy design, a normative case could be made for limitations or consolidation of special- districts within high-growth regions. Counties may also require the development of unique growth-management policies which recognize their distinctive, “spillover” role within metropolitan governance.
I work as an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. There, I direct the MGMT Lab.