Sometime this fall, a group of mayors from metropolitan Chicago will do something unusual by local custom. They will talk to one another.
Presiding over this "summit" will be Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who told suburban leaders last month that it was time for communities across Chicagoland to stop quarreling and start addressing regional challenges together.
A decade ago, Mr. Daley's invitation would have been viewed with extreme suspicion. To suburbanites, Chicago was the kind of neighbor who only showed up when he needed to borrow something from your toolshed.
But these days, the roles are changing. Across the nation, cities like Chicago are marching back, while their closest suburbs are showing signs of decay. Civic leaders are warming to the notion that problems like crime, congestion, pollution, shrinking budgets, and changing labor markets might benefit from a regional focus.
For America's metropolitan areas, it's a crucial moment. Unless cities and suburbs learn to manage their growth in a cooperative fashion, experts say, the forces of suburban sprawl will continue to spread their resources to the breaking point.
"Over the last 25 years, it has become clear that cities of all sizes can't function as isolated economic entities," says Carl Abbott, an urbanologist at Portland State University in Oregon.
Today's national economy, Mr. Abbot says, is driven by competition between a new breed of "city-states" that encircle urban centers. Rather than compete against one another for outside investment, he argues, neighboring communities ought to search for ways to pool their resources.
"It's not Detroit vs. Livonia or Auburn Hills or Grosse Pointe," says Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who has worked to improve ties between his city and the 239 municipalities that surround it. "It's Detroit vs. Cleveland, so it's in our best interests to come together collectively."
By all accounts, this is not a simple process. Here in Chicago, some suburban leaders still resent the city's decision to annex the land that now includes O'Hare airport. Continuing noise complaints prompted Daley to create a commission last year dedicated to hearing these grievances.
"In the past when the mayor said he wanted to work on problems, it meant the city wanted to dump its problems on the suburbs," says Rita Athas, a former suburban leader heading Daley's summit team. "Today, the city is in really good shape, and the suburbs view it as a potential ally."
Cities and suburbs nationwide have identified a common enemy: sprawl. As developers continue to build on once-empty land miles from downtowns, many "first-ring" suburbs are experiencing the decline and desertion cities have endured for years. These communities are now clamoring to form political alliances.
'Smart growth' laws
One of the best examples of this changing climate can be found in Maryland, where last year legislators passed the nation's first "smart growth" law. The legislation seeks to prevent expansion beyond existing suburbs by restricting the bulk of state infrastructure spending and tax incentives to areas that are already developed. Maryland is one of several states, including Oregon, Washington, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey, that have adopted some form of growth-control legislation.
"All across the country, edge cities have exterminated open space and gobbled up land for more suburbs while older neighborhoods are discarded in their wake," says Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson. "Development of open land has displaced not only wildlife, but also the clean air, clean water, and countryside Americans moved farther out to find."
It has also placed enormous burdens on infrastructure. Here in Chicago, for example, transit officials estimate that the number of reverse commuters is now roughly equal to the number of suburbanites who work downtown. Moreover, they say, an equal number of people commute each day between suburbs.
These new patterns, experts say, will require many years and millions of dollars to accommodate. They also demonstrate the growing connection between municipalities here, and the need for a new kind of regional planning.
"It's rare now that anybody lives, works, shops, and entertains themselves in one jurisdiction," says David Rusk, an urban consultant and former mayor of Albuquerque. "These connections are vital to the health of regions."
Borderline in Charlotte
Indeed, Mr. Rusk notes, some up-and-coming cities are going to great lengths to maintain control over their growth. In the face of rapid expansion in recent years, civic leaders in Charlotte, N.C., have engaged in an aggressive campaign of annexation. As a result, the city has expanded from 30 to 225 square miles and captured a full 50 percent of the region's population growth.
Unlike most cities its size, the average income of Charlotte residents is 22 percent higher than those who live in the suburbs. By contrast, the incomes of Chicago's suburbanites are 33 percent higher than city dwellers.
As leaders throughout Chicago prepare to take the first steps toward regionalism, most observers are optimistic. If nothing else, they say, the conversations among mayors will send an important political message.
"There's a sense that the winds are finally shifting," Athas says. "We can't prevent people from moving farther out, but we can make it clear that we're not going to subsidize it."