Frustrating condensation

Two stories about the slope of the power-law curve; both drawn from a delightfully rich book about the suburbs that I’m reading.

First, steam engines.

Steam engine trains were slow to attain speed and then they were slow to decelerate. Cities in the Eastern United States developed railroad suburbs at one point in the 19th century. Developers would buy up land on the periphery, build a railroad line and then sell the fantasy of suburban living to the well to do. The nature of steam engines meant that the stations on these lines were pretty far apart; often 2-4 miles apart. Residents around each village would walk to the station so the developments appeared as beads along the line with gaps between that remained undeveloped.

Second, city size.

The largest city in the United States is … Anchorage Alaska!

The presumption in the 18th and 19th century was that the destiny of a successfully village was to become a city. That villages were seeds that grew into mighty cities. The states arranged their laws to enable this presumably natural evolution. As a village grew it would fill out some forms, petition the state, and mature to the next level of status. Each status brought with it more governance powers.

At the same time growing cities would absorb their peripheries. A thriving city would annex the periphery to provide additional space as the city expanded. The platform of services provided by the city (sewage, water, paved streets, police, education, economics…) provided an attractive force. A crisis in the service infrastructure of the peripheral communities might accelerate the condensation; riots on the periphery, water supply problems, etc. Sometimes the developers and their transportation overlays drove the process. They wanted the promise of city services in their brochure, so they would push for annexation.

Starting with Brookline in Boston this all changed. As the cities expanded they began to reach the railroad suburbs. The railroad suburbs were run by a very wealthy class. Since the wealthy needed support services and there was little alternative transportation the working class lived adjacent to their employers. For these communities the spreading urban periphery looked pretty threatening. They weren’t being offered union with the thriving downtown; they were being offered union with the rough unfinished edges.

So when the time came in the natural order of things for the city to annex these well off parts of the periphery these well connected communities declined. Brookline was the first. In many parts of the country that turned out to be reasonably easy to do. All they had to do was petition the state to move up a notch or two on the evolutionary ladder toward becoming a city.

The result was east coast cities were soon encircled by a choker of small incorporated villages. The cities stopped growing.

Historically annexation is the single largest means of increasing a city’s population. Cities in parts of the country that didn’t suffer this pattern have kept growing and thus a city like Houston has grown a lot while older cities like Boston haven’t. For reasons that I’m totally unaware of Anchorage is really vast, in land area.

I see this thru the lens of the power-law distribution. First that the technology of the steam engine frustrated condensation. Secondly that a happenstance of governance coupled with the legacy of the railroad suburbs frustrated the condensation of the cities.

The trade off made in these condensation stories is always between the efficiency of a unified standard versus the diversity of a mess of different standards. There is an interesting tail to tell about how these cities who’s growth was frustrated sought out means to work around the inefficiencies it created. Regional authorities began to emerge; for example regional water, school, trash, police districts. These are substitutes for city governance. In some cases the state became the locus for provisioning the platform of necessary services.

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