Let’s get to the heart of the matter: Greater Hartford has a lot of problems and is not thriving as several similarly sized communities around the country. Greater Hartford must change if it is going to have a vibrant future.
One major impediment to the success of greater Hartford is that its governance is fundamentally different from, and less effective than, the governance of similar metropolitan areas around the country. For example, the populations of greater Hartford and greater New Orleans are approximately the same – about 1.2 million people. The city of New Orleans, the core of the metropolitan area, has 350,000 people and is surrounded by suburban towns with another 900,000 people; Hartford and its seven contiguous towns, the core of the metropolitan area, have 370,000 people, and is surrounded by towns with another 900,000 people. Statistically, they look the same.
However, Hartford and New Orleans are dramatically different in how they govern themselves – the 350,000 people in New Orleans are governed by one city government, while Hartford and its seven contiguous towns have eight distinct governments. Hartford is different not just from New Orleans; as shown below, the core cities of virtually all of the similarly sized metropolitan areas in the country have one government like New Orleans, and none are like Hartford. Hartford is an outlier; in terms of governance, Hartford is practically on another planet.
First, the disclaimer. The data are messy. It’s difficult to know when you’re comparing apples to apples and when you’re comparing apples to motor scooters. And every city is unique – each city has unique geography, unique history, unique accounting systems. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the dramatic statistical differences – in terms of governance – between greater Hartford and every other similar area in the country.
The most useful, accessible data come from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau reports data about “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” or “MSAs.” The definition of MSA has its flaws. MSAs are not necessarily the same as what the residents might call the metropolitan area of a city. In particular, the Census Bureau defines the Hartford MSA as all of Hartford, Middlesex and Litchfield Counties. Very few of us thinks that Stafford or Putnam is part of greater Hartford, so in a sense the Census Bureau’s data overstates the size of metropolitan Hartford. Still, I believe the MSA data is reasonably comparable, in part because it’s likely that data about other areas is infected with similar problems. Additionally, I’m working with averages, so I suspect the averages tend to smooth out these definitional problems.
Look at the ten metropolitan areas just larger than the Hartford MSA and the ten just smaller. They range from Indianapolis, with 1.7 million people, through Hartford, with 1.2 million people, down to the Bridgeport MSA (all of Fairfield County) with 900,000 people. In terms of MSA population, clustered around Hartford are Raleigh, Louisville, Richmond, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Salt Lake City and my hometown, Buffalo, New York.
So we’re looking at 20 urban/suburban communities of roughly similar populations. What about their core cities, the cities that are the hubs of each area? Even if you know something about this subject, the numbers probably will surprise you. By population, Hartford is the smallest core city in the group, with about 125,000 people. The average population of the core cities in the group is 430,000, more than three times larger than Hartford.
How can all the other MSAs have such large core cities? Simple. Geographically, Hartford is 18 square miles; the average of the core cities in this group of twenty is 346 square miles. The average core city is 15 times larger (in area) than Hartford.
Hartford is tiny compared to the others, but that is the wrong way to look at it. The metropolitan areas are similar; what’s different is that several hundred thousand people who live outside the city limits of Hartford would be living inside the city limits in any of the other core cities.
It’s not a difference in kind; it’s just a difference in where the communities choose to draw lines on maps to define legal jurisdictions. (I should note that the only city in the group similar to Hartford is Providence. Small town governance is a vestige of early New England; thus Providence looks a little like Hartford.)
Imagine a Hypothetical Hartford, one that would be created by merging into the City of Hartford the seven contiguous towns of South Windsor, East Hartford, Wethersfield, Newington, West Hartford, Bloomfield and Windsor. The size of the Hartford MSA hasn’t changed, but the core city would be considerably different.
Hypothetical Hartford would have 370,000 people and 166 square miles, still smaller than the average core city in the group of twenty, but at least within shouting distance of the averages. Throw Glastonbury and Farmington into my Hypothetical Hartford and we would fall even closer to the averages.
What does this tell us? It tells us that every metropolitan area in the U.S. that is similar in size to greater Hartford has a political governance structure that is dramatically different from Hartford. The core population of the Hartford MSA is governed by eight different governments completely independent of one another. The core population of each of the similarly sized MSAs is governed by one government. In Hartford, that’s eight boards of education, eight fire departments, eight police departments, eight building departments, eight, eight, eight. Every place else it’s one. One, one, one.
We can consider the consequences of eight versus one in detail at another time, but for now consider two fundamental points that we can accept almost as given: First, running eight governments costs more, much more, than running one. Second, a community of 350,000 people can plan for and build its future better with one unified government than with eight separate town councils, each protecting its turf.
There’s more data, endless data, and I expect to discuss more of it at another time. However, these numbers alone, even taking into account some statistical anomalies, demonstrate just how far from the path of modern U.S. urban governance Hartford has strayed. They’re just numbers, of course, and some might say they really don’t mean much, except for this: Among these 21 MSAs, since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, Hartford is the only MSA that has negative population growth and negative income growth. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but I doubt it.
Greater Hartford needs to move forward, and to do that greater Hartford must change. We should start by by Hartford and the surrounding towns becoming one city.