Annexation: A tool to boost Chicago’s population, yes, but efficiency and integration are more important

Unless Chicago can stem its population losses, there is likely only one way for the city to beef it up and that is annexation. In a commentary published by the Chicago Tribune, author Edward McClelland (bio) argues it is time the city annex smaller suburbs to raise its population and those suburbs fortunes. Lower taxes and improved services makes this process worthwhile. Nevertheless, this approach to population growth fails to address the more ingrained problems stalling Chicago’s and the surrounding region’s growth. Annexation has its place in the box of tools for bettering the region and maintaining its place in the nation and world, but this has to be done hand-in-hand with a larger program of transformational reform.

The benefit of annexation is surprisingly compelling. Many of the region’s inner-ring suburbs are struggling with the same plight as some of the city neighborhoods–crime, joblessness, de-industrialization, crumbling infrastructure are all issues in Dolton or Burnham as they are in South Chicago or Englewood. The difference though is Chicago neighborhoods benefit directly from wealthier neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Due to their size, small suburbs are on their own to address many ingrained issues. To stay afloat they must exploit whatever revenue sources possible, even beyond economically sustainable levels: Taxes go up more, residents and businesses move, and infrastructure never gets better, thus producing a nearly impossible to reverse cycle.

That is until Chicago comes in and saves the day. With lower property taxes and a larger arsenal of resources, annexation by the city could be a the much-needed booster shot for communities at the city’s edge. According to Curbed Chicago, annexation of just a handful of suburbs would likely push Chicago’s population over the 3 million mark for the first time in decades. Such an increase (a growth of about 300,000 individuals, the size of Anchorage or Cincinnati) would also raise Chicago’s clout in Springfield and Washington by an expanding legislative and congressional contingents from the city. This alone would be a boon for the city, since it could push for more city-friendly legislation.

And, of course, it would also allow new Chicago residents to finally tell off snarky Chicagoans (this blogger included) to shut up about whether they can say they’re from Chicago or not. (Ah ha! One of the great divides between city and suburb is slowly dissolved).

Nevertheless, this is far from a sure-fire solution. Considering the state is mired in unending political gridlock, it seems unlike an annexation program would find itself high on the agenda in the statehouse. Annexation and consolidation could be boons for the communities that embrace it, however. This mostly has to do with how annexation fits in with local and state tax policy.

Government in Illinois is not efficient. Period. And, this is in part to its fractured nature and many layers. (Although the obvious corruption does nothing to help.) There are simply too many layers of government and services provision, often at too small as scale, to be fiscally sustainable. This means lots of layers of administration, which adds up. These costs then gets funneled away from actual services.

Plus, in Chicagoland, there is the problem of the many small suburbs. Here, it is not the replication of services by unnecessary layers of government that is straining the breadth of tax dollars (keep reading for that), rather it is an unnecessary number of governments. Regardless of size or wealth, most Chicago suburbs provide the same services (police, parks, libraries, fire safety). While it might make sense for a town of 5,000 residents to provide all these if it is isolated in a rural Downstate Illinois, one has to ask if it makes sense for Park Ridge (population 37,608), Rosemont (4,305), and Des Plaines (58,390), all adjacent to pay for three sets each of libraries, police and fire?



Fig. 1: This shows the proportion of Los Angeles County residents who live in Los Angeles (city). Although more Los Angeles County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Los Angeles) they are split between fewer municipalities than Cook County.


Fig. 2: This shows the proportion of Cook County residents who live in Chicago. Although a smaller proportion of Cook County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Chicago) than in Los Angeles County they are split up in a larger number of municipalities.

Thus, there are two issues at play here, both of which are affecting how far every Illinois and municipal tax dollar can stretch. First, the statewide problem of layered governments mean costs are skyrocketing, because of the replication of administrative services as well. At the local level in Chicagoland, the sheer number of government mean residents are paying for the same services more than 200 times over, because of the number of municipalities in the region. In Cook County specifically, that means the 2.5 million residents who live outside Chicago pay for the same kinds of services provided in the city, just 130 some odd times over for each municipality in the county. Los Angeles County has only 88 municipalities including the City of Los Angeles and a population of close to 10 million. (See Fig. 1 & 2.)



The prime example of the limitations posed on the Illinois tax dollar is education. A recent report from the Metropolitan Planning Council targeted the state’s incredible number of school districts. Their numbers result in huge administrative costs that funnel funds away from classrooms; per pupil, Illinois spends more than twice the national average on administration to a tune of over $1 billion annually. If this amount were brought down to the national average an incredible amount of funding could be returned to where it’s needed the most: the classroom. The savings produced by lowering the administrative costs would release $4.6 billion over the next decade without at current taxing rates. This is more than the $3.5 billion in funding needs identified by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission.

As MPC explains, there are “more than 850 public school districts in Illinois…not including regional and special education districts…On top of that, nearly 100 high school districts covered the same geographic areas served by more than 370 elementary school districts. In those areas, residents were served by (and paid taxes for) two school districts.” Merging school districts so high schools and the elementary schools that feed them are in the same district is one way to eliminate this administrative largess. It also stands as an example of how consolidation (read: plus annexation) is an economically sustainable option.

Addressing how school districts are determined is practical and necessary. It will only go so far though if the many other layers of government and administrative divisions that restrict the efficiency of Illinois tax dollars stay in place. This includes contending with the ramifications of the hundreds of municipalities in Chicagoland. Thus, the push for annexation, which would lower the number of municipalities, and according to McClelland make service provision more efficient where it occurs.

Take tiny Hometown. Wedged between Chicago, Oak Lawn, and Evergreen Park in the Southwest Suburbs, it has a population of just over 4,400 and median household income just shy of $45,500, which is lower than Chicago’s. Nonetheless, the city provides many of the same services as Chicago. Annexation into Chicago along with two dozen other communities would roll these services into the city’s larger infrastructure. Although this would increase the area covered by each service, it would also mean more residents paying for the services, ideally taking the pressure of each tax dollar coming out of the annexed communities. Additionally, the median household income in Chicago would increase after the annexation, resulting in more wealth to pay for these now shared services.

Suggesting Chicago annex anything more than a handful of suburbs is doubtless a gigantic no-go for most. Indeed, there are other ways the county could make government and service provision more efficient without annexation: consolidating services between municipalities or taking on a greater role as a service provider for larger services (like roads) would achieve many of the same ends as annexation. It still leaves well over a hundred communities though and the many sets of administration it takes to run them. This does not mean annexation is dead on arrival. While a community may be averse to annexation by Chicago it may not be averse to annexation, rather consolidation, with other surrounding communities.



While it might make the most sense for Hometown to join Chicago, residents in a village like Lincolnwood would probably balk at the idea. I live near and have worked in Lincolnwood (for the village for that matter) and I am confident in this assertion. The reason Lincolnwood attracts families is the proximity to the city without the “problems” of city (schools *cough*). And it is significantly wealthier than many surrounding communities. Residents would likely use that wealth to fight annexation. But, what about consolidation with Skokie, Niles, and Morton Grove?

A new city created out of the consolidation of these four municipalities seems more realistic due to their proximity and similarities. They would benefit from the consolidation of services paid for by a larger, more diverse tax base. Moreover, a city the size of one formed out of this consolidation would also be large enough to fully support a single school district serving that city alone, as is the case in Chicago. Finally, like Chicago, it would have greater political clout.


Fig. 3: Chicago and its suburbs shown after a series of annexations and consolidations to reduce the number of municipalities in Cook County.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 142 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities to around 30 as well, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serve residents better.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 135 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities by the same amount, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serving residents better.

School districts, for example, could be reorganized around municipal divisions and not archaic township boundaries, as they currently are. There is still wiggle room to for making government run more efficiently. Certain services could still be provided exclusively by the county, like public health services. It would also result in a more uniform tax policy, regardless of measures taken by the county or state, simply because more people and businesses would be paying the same municipal taxes.

This is an area where fewer municipal voices would also help the county and region. Tax policy is a big driver behind the region’s sprawl and economically unsustainable competition. It is also making the region an undesirable location for investment, because more taxes go to fewer and worse services. While the smaller number of municipal voices would make it easier to design unifying policies, the increased size of the different municipalities would also each more clout. While Chicago’s population would increase as well post-annexation, Lincolnwood would no longer be a village trying to make its voice heard, rather it would be part of a city of almost 130,000.



A major fault of McClelland’s (and many others’) argument that Chicago’s dropping population is a sign of the city’s decline is that it focuses just on the city’s population and not that of the region, which has a population greater than 9.4 million. This number puts it ahead of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston (the two largest metros after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) by more than 3 million people. That difference is the equivalent of metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma or the Twin Cities.

It also ignores the city and region’s resources. Chicago is lucky to be flush with major cultural and educational institutions and (by American standards) amazing infrastructure, that put it well ahead of cities like Dallas or Atlanta in terms of global influence. And in any event a metropolitan region’s size has little correlation with the quality of its resources. Metropolitan Vienna and Berlin are both smaller than metropolitan Dallas and Atlanta, but both are known globally for a number of things the latter two cities are unlikely to be known for any time in the near future. Chicago has the same positive things working for it.

While annexation may not have any direct impact on the future of something like the Lyric Opera or Art Institute, it should be approached and implemented in a way that makes the region function better. This is not to say the region should be deprived of its uniqueness, nerve, and talent, rather that the way it works should not deprive its uniqueness, nerve, and talent from reaching its potential. What McClelland misses in his initial argument about annexation is that there are reasons the population is dropping. (Although I would be shocked if he was unaware what these reasons are.) Some of the reasons are the product of externalities out of the city and/or state’s control. Those that are within the control of regional government, however, need to be addressed, so that in spite of the city’s tough winters, people still feel ready, willing, and happy to stay and invest their time, money, and well-being in this city and region.



The last two metropolitan areas mentioned (Seattle-Tacoma and Minneapolis-St. Paul) have shown greater regional cooperation than experienced in Chicagoland. The lack of this is one of the fundamental ailments afflicting the region. McClelland’s proposal for annexation to be used again should be to address this as a root problem hurting the region and not as vain way to make the city look amazing on paper. Population is ultimately merely a number and it does not really matter if the individuals who make up that number are unable to flourish and create more vibrant and interesting places.

Personally, I say bring on annexation, consolidation, and regional government in Chicagoland. The impracticality of how the region is governed needs to end. (Figures 4 and 5 show this perfectly, but showing the incomprehensible number of administrative, government, and municipal boundaries in the region.) And while I hope that the improvements I think can come from such efforts and policy changes would both encourage people to stay and come to the region, if the end game is just increasing the population than the whole point of improving the city and region gets missed, because if the city and region focused more on quality of services and quality of life and number just numbers then the outcome would be what makes headlines: population increases and not those that come from changing lines on a map.

The chart below outlines which municipalities would be merged through a program of annexations and consolidations in Cook County. It includes theoretical new names (usually based off the largest municipality in the merger process or the township name) as well as the populations after the merger. 

Evanston, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Northfield, Wilmette, Winnetka North Shore 130,955
Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Skokie Skokie 128,225
Glenview, Golf, Northbrook Glenbrook 75,735
Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Rosemont Des Plaines 100,720
Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Wheeling Prospect 183,875
Inverness, Palatine, Rolling Meadows Palatine 96,830
Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg Schaumburg 159,610
Bellwood, Berkeley, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, Northlake, Stone Park, Westchester Proviso 126,190
Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest Oak Park 78,850
Lyons, Summit, North Riverside, Riverside Riverside 36,475
Brookfield, La Grange, La Grange Park, Western Springs La Grange 60,480
Countryside, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, McCook, Willow Springs Willow Springs 17,090
Hickory Hills, Justice, Palos Hills, Palos Park Palos Hills Park 48,475
Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Crestwood, Palos Heights, Robbins, Worth Chicago Ridge 74,045
Orland Hills, Orland Park, Tinley Park Orland Hills Park 106,260
Country Club Hills, Hazel Crest, Markham, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Posen Oak Forest 90,700
Homewood, Flossmoor Homewood 28,845
Park Forest, Olympia Fields, Matteson Park Forest 41,125
Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Glenwood, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, Steger Chicago Heights 69,295
Calumet City, Lansing, Lynwood Calumet City 74,780
Dixmoor, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Phoenix, South Holland, Thronton Harvey 62,430
Chicago, Bedford Park, Berwyn, Blue Island, Bridgeview, Burbank, Burnham, Calumet Park, Cicero, Dolton, Elmwood Park, Evergreen Park, Forest View, Franklin Park, Hometown, Merrionette Park, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, River Grove, Schiller Park, Stickney Chicago 3,313,095


The Midwest City: Sprawl is killing it

Utter the term “Rust Belt” and visions of a struggling Midwest and Great Lakes region comes to mind. The region’s many midsize cities are in an especially precarious place. Once part of the vast network of industrial cities, they lost out during the period of deindustrialization and were left on their own to find new means of economy. Some places are thriving like Grand Rapids while others like Madison or Ann Arbor survive because of ideal socio-economic and geographic circumstances in their favors. In many places though, like Lansing-East Lansing or South Bend the struggle is more pronounced. Ideas and solutions to these cities’ woes have been thrown around and although many aren’t without merit, none have traction, because a serious discussion to tackling the sprawl is consistently left out of the bigger discussions.

Visit South Bend or Lansing-East Lansing and one of the most apparent things about these places is the lack of people. While both towns host major universities and have other helpful socio-economic or geographic characteristics one that is noticeably missing from these cities is dense vibrant communities. Sprawl isn’t the culprit behind the decline of these cities. Lack of investment, serious industrial loses, and competition with the booming South and West all played into their decline. However, sprawl is a planning technique that has perpetuated the decline of these cities and prevented their long-term sustainability. For many places their heydays are long gone and won’t be coming back, but that isn’t to say they shouldn’t maintain certain levels of economic and social vivacity.

I think it goes without saying that sprawl is certainly affecting midsize Midwestern cities. Sprawl became so widespread in the second half of the 20th century few places in the United States escaped it. As people fled cities of all sizes so did businesses and with the rise of malls and office parks we created a whole new kind of sprawl. Just take a look at these graphics of sprawl and population growth in Buffalo and Cleveland:

Growth of metropolitan Buffalo. The population has remained relatively the same since 1950.

Growth of metropolitan Buffalo. The population has remained relatively the same since 1950.

Urban growth in metropolitan Cleveland. Although there has been population growth since the late 1940s, it has been small and as seen in the graph below stagnated after a high in the 1970s and is beginning to fall. Despite this the region is easily three times the size it was 60 plus years ago.

Urban growth in metropolitan Cleveland. Although there has been population growth since the late 1940s, it has been small and as seen in the graph below stagnated after a high in the 1970s and is beginning to fall. Despite this the region is easily three times the size it was 60 plus years ago.

Cleveland Metro Population Change

In an article by Chuck Banas on Urbanophile it is clarified how sprawl is a costly development model. It not only creates environmentally unsustainable environments, but also socially and economically unsustainable cities. It decreases overall metropolitan density and makes it ever more difficult to develop other programs to encourage economic growth or help sustain economy already existent.

Streetcars and rail systems, and BRT; tapping the resources and benefits of universities; developing strong commercial centers and people oriented communities all require a relatively high population density and interconnected communities or non-car centric planning. Sprawl works against all this. It also makes financing such projects more difficult. It costs municipalities a lot of money. When you have to pay for huge amounts of infrastructure for relatively few people there is simply less money in municipal coffers to built new parks, provide grants to local businesses, or improve transit.

Sprawl exists all across the country and although places like Houston or Atlanta may be more well known for their sprawl (and the issue needs to be tackled there too and this is certainly an argument against sprawl in general) the tenuous state of the midsized cities in the Midwest demands sprawl move to the top of the list of issues needing resolution here. If a system of urban development that encourages sprawl and car-centric models of living persists in the Midwest it may become increasingly difficult to provide the incentives that drive economic growth and attract new residents—or perhaps even former residents who moved to ‘greener pastures’.

Like cities all across the country, Midwestern cities are beginning to tackle sprawl in different ways. Minneapolis-St. Paul is rapidly expanding urban transit system, Chicago recently adopted a Transit Oriented Development ordinance (TOD), and Madison, WI is consistently ranked one of the more bike-friendly cities in the US. These are exceptions though. Chicago has a competitive edge because of its global status, Minneapolis-St. Paul are incredibly livable and progressive, and Madison is also a progressive city with a strong economic base in the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state government.

Take South Bend for example. As of now, the city’s population density is about 2,440 people per square mile. The city’s population is just over 100,000 residents. Close to the downtown and south of the city center there is tons of room for growth and infill development. Even in the neighborhoods, the low-density housing spreads people across the landscape increasing distances to commercial areas and transit. A population increase of 25,000 people would put the population density at 3,000 per square mile, which is similar to Madison. At its peak, the city had a population over 130,000 people and a population density of only about 3,500 people per square mile.

Increased densities in cities like South Bend could be the small impetus that makes investing in activities or projects meant to increase economic vitality reasonable. In a recent article I wrote about reclaiming our passenger rail stations as an important part of reinventing the American passenger rail system I used South Bend as an example. The station could potentially serve a dozen (or many more) trains a day to Chicago and the East Coast. Now though the station is in relatively barren landscape. Although its only a ten minute walk from the center of Downtown South Bend to empty and dead neighborhood that surrounds it would make for an unbearable walk. Density around the station would help it thrive and hopefully give more reason to reinvest in it and by extension South Bend.

Additionally, it would add to the city’s tax base, helping support the costs of new development projects. In older cities in the Midwest, another plus is the fact that increasing density in the cities requires little new infrastructure, because it already exists. On so many levels, density in cities and tackling sprawl in the suburbs is a tool that could help Midwest cities, especially midsized ones, tackle their economic problems. Not only does it help sustain alternative transportation, but local businesses, municipal finances, and prevents the loss of green fields around smaller cities (a quality that can be very attractive to many people looking for an urban life closer to the country).

I don’t foresee places like South Bend increasing density based on people moving in. Population distribution will have to be controlled in the Midwest to achieve urban densities that are more sustainable in midsized cities. This will require a huge effort on the part of state and municipal governments to recognize the importance of controlling sprawl and increasing even slightly the density. This will not only save communities money that is now swindled on expanding and maintaining excessively large infrastructure, it will help to sustain other projects that increase economy, support environmentally sustainable living, and support socially mixed communities.

In the same manner that states in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada banded together to work on improving the ecology and health of the lakes, the states of the American Midwest should band together to create programs and incentives that decrease sprawl. Expecting this to just happen because of the goodwill of governments would be insane. For this to successfully happen there needs to be increased cooperation in the Midwest and less competition. The culture wars between suburb and city need to be resolved. This could include matching programs to reward communities saving money by not developing new sprawl infrastructure. Perhaps even a sister cities program could be established connected smaller cities with each other as well as smaller cities with larger cities. Communication and understanding that we have a common interest in regional health is significant.

The health of the American city, but especially the tenuous existence of midsized cities in the Midwest, is continent tackling sprawl. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the easy solution is a streetcar or famer’s market. But that relationship between such projects and density isn’t a fable. It wouldn’t be prudent to risk developing programs and projects for urban development if the density doesn’t’ exist to support them yet. We’ll just be chasing our tails trying to force projects for economic development in areas that aren’t fit for them if sprawl just keeps going unabated. The other tools will follow. Tackling sprawl and creating a system of smart and sustainable population distribution is the most valuable tool we have in reinvigorating midsized cities in the Midwest, make them viable, and hopefully someday be able to built killer streetcar systems in them.