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The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy

The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy

Richardson Dilworth

ISBN 9780674015319

Publication date: 02/28/2005

Using the urbanized area that spreads across northern New Jersey and around New York City as a case study, this book presents a convincing explanation of metropolitan fragmentation—the process by which suburban communities remain as is or break off and form separate political entities. The process has important and deleterious consequences for a range of urban issues, including the weakening of public finance and school integration. The explanation centers on the independent effect of urban infrastructure, specifically sewers, roads, waterworks, gas, and electricity networks. The book argues that the development of such infrastructure in the late nineteenth century not only permitted cities to expand by annexing adjacent municipalities, but also further enhanced the ability of these suburban entities to remain or break away and form independent municipalities. The process was crucial in creating a proliferation of municipalities within metropolitan regions.

The book thus shows that the roots of the urban crisis can be found in the interplay between technology, politics, and public works in the American city.


  • Richardson Dilworth takes the familiar argument that cities use development policy to compete for residents in our fragmented metropolitan areas and flips it on its head. In Dilworth’s account, development policy is an important causal factor in the creation of the fragmented metropolitan areas in which this competition occurs. His detailed historical accounts of how communities in New York and New Jersey in the late 1800s dealt with issues of incorporation, consolidation, and annexation speak to current interest among urban polities scholars in patterns of suburbanization and the polities of regional coordination. By providing interesting accounts of how a good goes from being defined as private to public (e.g., water, gas), this book may also interest public policy scholars more generally.

    —Juliet F. Gainsborough, Perspectives on Politics


  • 2006, Joint winner of the Best Book Award in Urban Politics


  • Richardson Dilworth is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University.

Book Details

  • 280 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press