Part 2. Are city boundaries the right way to measure inclusion?

Municipal boundaries produce a myopic and distorted view of inclusion; the boundaries themselves were often drawn to create exclusion

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series examining a recent Urban Institute report that attempts to measure and rank the inclusiveness of U.S. cities. Be sure to read Part I, here, for a description of that report, and an overview of the issues it raises).

The Urban Institute report “Measuring Inclusion” uses data for the nation’s cities, i.e. following municipal boundaries to define and measure economic and racial inclusion and economic performance. In our view this is a critical, and problematic choice, especially if we want to compare and rank different cities on these measures, which is the central premise of the Urban Institute report. For very good reason, the standard for most scholarship looking at issues of segregation, for example, is to look an entire metropolitan areas, because they are defined in a relatively consistent fashion.

Cities are incommensurable units, especially when it comes to describing their inclusiveness and economic performance. Some cities are the core of an urban area, while others are largely or entirely suburban. So for example, Atlanta and Austin are both cities, but so, too are Overland Park, Kansas, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Bellevue, Washington (all much wealthier and whiter suburban cities than the central cities in their metro areas). Some cities are isolated and rural while others are a small part of a much larger metropolitan area. Older central cities tend to be landlocked on all sides by surrounding suburbs.

A big part of the problem is that city boundaries are just the wrong units for assessing whether a region is achieving inclusive outcomes. We know that many cities–especially suburban ones–were formed and had their boundaries drawn specifically to achieve exclusionary ends. They include some people and exclude others. Looking only within city boundaries to assess inclusion means that you are effectively blinded to the way these boundaries themselves are a cause or contributor to racial and economic exclusion.

While much of the race and class gerrymandering of municipal boundaries is a settled historic fact, it remains a current topic. For example, consider the drama currently being played out in suburban Atlanta, where the wealthy neighborhood of Eagle’s Landing is looking to hive off into a separate city from Stockbridge, of which it is currently a part. Incomes in Eagle’s Landing average $126,000, almost double the rest of the current city of Stockbridge.

The Urban Institute’s measures look only at the racial and economic composition of a city, and not at all at the larger metro area in which it may be situated. Segregation indexes are constructed so that they aren’t influenced by the variations in the racial ethnic composition of different jurisdictions.

Metro areas, particularly when confined to specific size ranges, make better (though not perfect) units for comparison.  Their boundaries are set using a common rubric (tied to the commuting patterns of workers and the size of the labor market), and so they encompass entire functional regional economic units, rather than varied fragments of a regional economy.

A key part of the trouble with cities is that people are sorted among cities within a metropolitan area, not randomly, but by a combination of economic and political factors and personal choices. If rich people opt out of distressed central city neighborhoods, and only poor people remain, the measured inclusion of the central city increases, according to the Urban Institute methodology because the remaining residents are statistically more equal.

The bottom line is that using city boundaries as a lens for measuring inclusion will almost certainly produce a distorted picture. The pattern of city boundaries is an intrinsic aspect of the way exclusion is achieved and maintained in the US, and it is the sorting of people of different races, ethnicities and incomes into a region’s different cities that is a principal manifestation of exclusion and segregation. Municipal measures blind us to these fundamental facts.