Six Californias!? What about the great states of Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia (maybe?)

While I don’t foresee California being divided into six new states quite yet (hey, who knows though), I do concede that I can’t help thinking that the plan proposed by Silicone Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper is on to something about the shape of US states: maybe bigger isn’t always better? His argument for splitting California into 6 new states is based on his belief that the state has become too big to govern properly and that sometimes it is better to let smaller regions and more homogenous social and economic ecosystems govern themselves in their own interests. Granted, his plan may just be a “silly con” for Silicone Valley’s benefit and it also raises a lot of questions about how state-wide structures in California would be governed post partition. (The water system, California high-speed rail–what happens to those?) Nonetheless, it makes for a dreamy vision of other parts of the country where political differences can cripple government and others  where multiple layers of government overlap to create a recipe for even more dysfunction.

Thus, I invite you all to imagine the great states of Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia! One of the things that intrigues me most about the United States compared to many Western peers is the noticeable lack of city-states as a political unit. With the exception of Washington, D.C. none exist here even though a number of urban regions throughout the country have populations and economies comparable with sovereign states. This is opposed to Spain, Germany, and France all of which have at least one provincial unit that is a city-state. Spain has Madrid, France has the Ile-de-France around Paris, and in Germany Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin are all clearly defined city-states. While in the case of Germany, Bremen and Hamburg are the historical remnants of the Hanseatic League, the Berlin city-state is similar to the Ile-de-France, Madrid, or Greater London in that it gives the nation’s capital and largest city a degree of autonomy to do as it wishes according to its needs. Inspired by a call for 6 Californias based on the same model it would seem prudent to add a few city states to the United States’ collection and call it a day.

So why Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City? For me, the city-state model seems most prudent when an urban region is divided into administrative levels which make it difficult to govern or creates a system in which competition becomes detrimental to the entire urban unit. Or in some instances prevents beneficial improvements across borders. In fact, the bickering of states might make it impossible for cities to compete on a larger stage. Of these three cities, the larger urban region sprawls across multiple state lines (in each case three).

An example of problems with this is in Chicagoland. With the exception of the single branch South Shore Line, there is almost zero mass transit between Cook County and the City of Chicago in Illinois to Northwest Indiana and more than 770,000 people living in LaPorte, Porter, and Lake counties. This is only one example of how policies on one side of a border make it difficult for a larger urban region to build an interconnected infrastructure network and a small nod to the barriers created by multiple political borders. Another is how Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gloated (once upon a time) about taking jobs from Illinois rather than seeing the potential in connecting the urban mega-region that includes Milwaukee, Chicago, Rockford, Madison, and Northwest Indiana. The cross-border changes and competition makes it impossible for the region to function as a whole. This is surprising given these are just states and yet in places like Scandinavia sovereign countries are looking to improve connectivity in mega-regions. So US states are hindering urban regions true potentials it seems.

While other cities straddle state lines (Omaha, Nebraska; Saint Louis, Missouri; or Kansas City, Missouri for example) the three mentioned above are by far the largest and most influential and could above all others benefit form a uniform government, which encompasses the entire region and can more directly address the needs of each region. It would also free these regions from the frequent tumult of state politics and the not-so-unfamiliar urban-rural conflict that seems to constantly plague states with large swaths or rural area and a domineering urban center. Indeed, calls for to separate Cook County in Illinois from the rest of the state have frequently come from Downstate politicians. This would be detrimental though in that it would add another layer of governance to Chicagoland.

This map shows the NFL teams that got the most Facebook 'likes' in each US county. Notice how the Bears did well into Indiana and even Michigan, well within Chicago's sphere of influence.

This map shows the NFL teams that got the most Facebook ‘likes’ in each US county. Notice how the Bears did well into Indiana and even Michigan, well within Chicago’s sphere of influence.

A city-state around Chicago would be better served by including Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, and Kane counties in Illinois, Kenosha County in Wisconsin and at least Lake and Porter counties in Indiana. Around Philadelphia it would make the most sense to cut out a chunk or northern Delaware including Wilmington, southwestern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania to create a new city-state, while the communities along the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York and southwestern Connecticut would make for appropriate additions to the city-state of New York.

The city-state isn’t an idea that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Yes, history and culture and identity and politics would play preventative roles (and reasonably so) in blocking such dramatic changes to the geopolitical map of the United States, but such changes could be hugely beneficial to cities and potentially make a balance of power that is more reasonable across the country. First, many major cities would be able to determine their own destiny better. They would be free from the conflicts of state politics and potentially have more money, because taxes produced in urban centers would no longer go to supporting rural areas. Additionally, three new cities states would add a number of new urban representatives in Congress. There would be 6 new senators all guaranteed to be representative of urban areas and depending on how congressional districts get redrawn potentially 30-40 House members would be from these states. This could make cities gain more influence in federal affairs to their benefit.

It is difficult to ignore how cities often don’t align with states and inevitable conflict seems to arise. Even from a sociocultural stand point it might make sense to establish city-states. Ironically, I think an argument for the importance of states based on maps from Aaron Renn’s blog/website Urbanophile shows more about how some areas just don’t belong together than do. In each three maps he shows, the sociocultural unity of the regions around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City are clearly expressed. Indeed, the sphere of influence for Chicago goes as far as Michigan in some instances. This again makes it seem plausible that city-states could succeed. If they are large enough to include a decently sized rural hinterland that if not politically is at least culturally connected enough to the urban core of such states to function well within it. This might make for states actually more similar to Massachusetts with a strong urban core in Boston, smaller urban centers like Springfield, but enough rural area to mix it up.

This map shows where the most county-to-county phone calls were made. Again notice how around certain cities with cross-boarder urban areas the calls stay within those regions.

This map shows where the most county-to-county phone calls were made. Again notice how around certain cities with cross-boarder urban areas the calls stay within those regions.

This map shows the same thing as the map above, but with county-to-county texts. Notice the same phenomenon and the indication that in some places, urban influence is significantly greater than state influence. While Renn manages to show how some states are closely connected as a community, he also gives evidence to where urban regions might be better independent communities.

This map shows the same thing as the map above, but with county-to-county texts. Notice the same phenomenon and the indication that in some places, urban influence is significantly greater than state influence. While Renn manages to show how some states are closely connected as a community, he also gives evidence to where urban regions might be better independent communities.

These maps also show why some places, like Chicago or New York City, might be better fit for city-state status than say Atlanta. The capital of Georgia is more closely linked to the state politically and culturally than Chicago is to Illinois or New York City   to the Empire State (neither are state capitals and relatively isolated geographically in corners of the state). Growing up in Chicago for example, I can say I almost never met somebody who was from northeastern Illinois and identified with the state–we all identified with the city. Even people from Kenosha, Wisconsin identified more with Chicago than their home state. On the other hand, Atlantans seem proud of their city and state, and looking at some of the above maps, the spheres of influence that include Atlanta and Georgia seem to go much beyond urban boundaries and indeed include multiple states. Indeed, just thinking about Atlanta as I write this I can’t help but think about Georgia.

There is still the problem that states matter to some extent and even in places like Illinois, where urban-rural conflict is high some projects might benefit from the presence of large cities in the state. This includes high-speed rail. Or what about the instate tuition Chicagoans get to pay at the University of Illinois? While this might create conflict as to the benefits of building high-speed rail through Illinois from a Chicago city-state or access to higher education it doesn’t necessarily mean those cons outweigh the potential benefits. However, this is based on unfounded evidence and it may be that a stronger city-state in the heart of the Midwest would create an economic output strong enough to benefit the entire region and give it more leverage region wide. It shouldn’t even be assumed rural states would be unwilling to work with city-states. Either way, it shouldn’t be assumed that it is just the states that keep these projects together.

States are incubators for experimentation and perhaps that’s the best thing that is coming out of the proposal to divide California. No matter what happens it is an opportunity to critically think about how we divide and unite ourselves at different levels. None of this will likely happen, but thinking about it can produce new methods of improving how urban regions function and how they relate to the federal and states’ governments. In the case of Chicago a more appropriate option may be establishing a port authority similar to that in New York that crosses boarders and operates the region’s complex infrastructure in a more uniform way. On the other hand, maybe a Silicone Valley like city(ish)-state will be so successful that there is no other option but to join that bandwagon and enjoy the ride. Hey, Chicago missed out on its opportunity to add a fifth star with the 2016 Olympics, maybe this is the next best chance.