Daniels, T. 1999.  When City and Country Collide: Managing Growth in the Metropolitan Fringe


Tom Daniels’ book, When City and Country Collide: Managing Growth in the Metropolitan Fringe, provides a comprehensive examination of the far-reaching and complex issues fueling land use development out past the farthest edges of suburbia and into what has been coined “the fringe.” First, Daniels starts by explaining what “the fringe” is in terms of where it is and why it is important. Next, Daniels weaves in a wide variety of topics in order to show how these different issues have collectively fueled growth and development out into the fringe. Finally, Daniels concludes with recommended counteractive measures to help fringe communities preserve their small-town character while facing challenges associated with absorbing a larger population and the commercial development that comes along with that growth.

Analysis of Content

Definition of The Fringe

Simply defined, the fringe is a geographical “…region of middle ground between wide-open rural lands…and expanding suburban residential and commercial development.” (Daniels, 1999:10) Just beyond the suburbs and edge cities, but before the farm and rural lands that lie beyond the major metropolitan regions, fringe areas (also known as exurbia) make up a large percentage of land surrounding major metropolitan areas. Fringe areas are the less developed regions of metropolitan cities and many nonmetropolitan counties that border metropolitan areas, have low population density rates, and have specific attributes that qualify the areas as “fringe” communities.

For example, the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Service Area (Austin-RR MSA) is a free-standing metropolitan area composed of five counties, and bordered by another 9 counties, as defined by the Texas Comptroller. (http://comptroller.texas.gov/taxinfo/staxqtr/stxqtr_info.html)

In the map below, the Austin-RR MSA area is shown surrounded by the red border. Inside the Austin-RR MSA resides 5 counties with 8 large cities, 16 medium sized cities (suburbs), 23 small towns (edge cities), 15 fringe cities (exurbs), and 32 unincorporated areas. The population distribution is shown in the chart below. In this example, the 47 areas that make up the fringe cities and the unincorporated areas tend to lie on the outskirts of the area inside the red boundary line, and some of the smaller towns were even identified as residing in two different counties. These areas qualify as the fringe communities surrounding the Austin-RR MSA.

(table not included)

However, population distribution and proximity to the major city centers is only one way to identify potential fringe communities. It is possible for a fringe community to reside even as close as 10 miles away from the city center. When considering if an area is located in the fringe the following attributes can be considered:

  • The population density in the fringe is generally less than 1000 people per square mile, although this is not a hard and fast rule.
  • Fringe areas can lie a few miles beyond small cities to forty or more miles outside of major urban centers. Distance from city center can vary greatly in the fringe.
  • Housing development will appear scattered, and the fringe will have low-density settlement patterns, and homeowners will generally own one or more acres of land.
  • Most fringe areas utilize on-site sewage systems whereas suburban development will have mass-developed neighborhoods tied into the city sewer system.
  • Fringe areas are not generally connected to major highway areas; farm to market roads and smaller highways are more common in the fringe.
  • Agriculture, forestry, mineral mines, and other such industries often reside in fringe areas; however, they will be in decline as population growth and development is encroaching on these areas.
  • Fringe areas are often described as having open space, a slower pace, and a sense of safety; commuters travel more than 25 miles to work and back each day, passing through the easily identifiable suburban communities on their way to work and back each day.

Fringe History

Fringe areas have been recognized as early as the 1800s, as the term “rural estate” was an object of envy. Where the city was crowded, noisy, filthy, and crime-riddled, the countryside offered a quiet, safe, and clean way of living. However, due to limited means of travel, owning property out in the country was often achieved by those who had the financial means to do so. At the beginning of the 19th century, the city center was the hub of industry and commerce, and since most transportation was still limited to horse drawn carriages and walking, settlements were densely built so a person would have a means by which to reasonably live and work.

But transportation would advance and as people became more mobile, the exodus from the cities became achievable goals. In the late 1850’s the first suburban community was born in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, to meet the aesthetics of well-to-do elitists who wanted out of the hustle and bustle of New York City. Some thirteen miles from city center, Llewellyn Park offered a direct access to the railroad which allowed residents to commute daily to New York City. Large homes built on spacious lots, planned green space, and a ban against commercial development, the Llewellyn Park suburb offered a “quiet, bucolic place to live” and other “railroad suburbs” started taking shape. (Daniels, 1999: 20)

The next boom came about with the invention of the streetcar at the turn of the century. This allowed much more people to commute to a job from the suburbs to downtown and cities experienced a surge in residential housing that appealed to the middle-class worker. Commonly referred to as “row houses” (houses that were built on uniform long and narrow lots), these streetcar suburbs gave commuters a clear separate of work and home life. The evolution of land use laws originated out of the introduction of the street car which was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court in 1926. The end result was a ruling that set the precedent for “zoning to be the primary land-use control in America” and by 1928 the Standard Zoning Enabling Act was imposed on all the states.

By the 1920’s the personal automobile was the preferred mode of transportation and the 1916 Federal Road Act paved the way for urban sprawl. No longer confined to trains or streetcars, the middle-class worker could now drive him or herself to and from their own office, in their own car, and every single day. By the 1950’s the suburbs were almost completely residential: work and commerce were in the city, home life was for the suburbs.

Cities were booming, suburbs were humming along, and the construction of interstate highways started opening up the countryside for commuter travel. By the 1970’s the nonmetropolitan counties grew faster than the metropolitan counties. Between 1977 and 1997, the suburban population grew by 30 million residents, the fringe area expanded to include 20 million people and more than 700 counties, while the 39 major metropolitan areas of the time saw less than 1 million new residents. (Daniels, 1999:40) For many, the cities were out, and the suburbs and fringe areas were in.

Problems & Solutions for Fringe Development

Growing pains facing rural-fringe areas is a relatively new problem that emerged from poor land-use planning practices as suburbs and edge-cities pushed out into the fringe. In essence, fringe communities are quickly becoming the suburbs of the suburbs. Eighty percent of Americans reside in and around 273 major metropolitan regions. Inside those regions lie 25% of all counties in the United States. While big cities and suburbs are the focus of city planners, state oversight, and federal bureaucrats, the fringe is struggling to keep up with explosive growth.

With the fringe taking up this growth trend isn’t going to reverse anytime soon (Daniels, 1999:40). City planners, managers, and leaders are feeling the stress of this growth as they struggle to manage growth while supporting concerned long-term residents, enthusiastic new neighbors, and eager developers. The biggest challenge, Daniels says, is in balancing growth while maintaining the essence, or community small-town feel, of a fringe city while safely absorbing increased population and the commercial development that comes along with growth. Daniels identifies eight complex obstacles, that are often interrelated, that encumber organized, sustainable, and successful growth management in the metro fringe:

  1. Fragmented and overlapping governments, authorities, and special districts that influence development in the fringe (state agencies, school districts, medical districts, economic development boards, etc.).
  2. The large size of fringe areas that include fringe cities and unincorporated areas that must be considered when planning city resources and basic emergency services.
  3. Lack of a community, county, or regional vision given the private and independent nature of the residents in the fringe.
  4. Lack of a sense of place and identity due to the vast settlement patterns exhibited in the fringe.
  5. Conflicts between the newcomers who might want to see more commercial development in their new areas, and the long-term residents who want everyone to leave.
  6. The spread of scattered new development which can result in a large sprawling rural town with too few residents to support city services.
  7. Too few planning resources available for the area leaders.
  8. Outdated planning and zoning techniques that lead to poorly designed communities with many unforeseen consequences.

Success for these communities depends on a thorough and proactive growth management plan to address the issues listed above and prepare the community for future growth. A successful growth management plan is exhaustive but when done properly will provide planners and community members with both a vision for their city and a direction in which to move. Community planning efforts that follow the formula below will reach tremendous milestones in their development and address many of the complex issues listed above.

Daniels Steps for Growth Management Planning

  1. First: start with the end in mind. A successful growth management plan will rely on solid population estimations for the next ten to twenty years.
  2. Next: compile the data. The plan must inventory, analyze, and identify existing and future needs. The region must be mapped out to show the current and future capabilities for housing, commercial, industrial, transportation, schools, water resources, parks, natural areas, farmland, etc. Each area must be mapped out for both current and future needs. For example, knowing that the population of the area will double in twenty years, how can the city ensure adequate fire, police, and ems services for its citizens? Does the city adopt a new residential housing plan to help wrangle in the community? Does the city build ten combined safety centers spread across the region? Each fringe area will answer these questions differently. This data collection and mapping exercise will provide the legal basis for the zoning ordinance as the foundation for the comprehensive plan.
  3. Finally: collect the taxes. Once there is a legal basis for zoning in place, planners can begin to assess the financials, collect taxes, and move the comprehensive plan forward.

In all fringe cities, Daniels says there is a common sense of urgency to hurry up and solve the problem of growth – as if it is a one-time solution simply needs to be voted on. When, in reality, managing growth in fringe cities is an active exercise in “the search for and implementation of effective public policy solutions.” (Daniels, 1999:259) These policies boil down to three options: pro-growth, balanced growth, or no/slow growth. Pro-growth strategies allow development to take off and turn a fringe city into another suburb, or an edge city. The balanced growth strategy places an emphasis on pacing growth to allow for environmental preservation. Balanced growth works well in areas where there is a lot of agriculture, mining, forestry, or other natural environmental areas worth protecting. Balanced growth sees the environment as an asset worth protecting and will slow growth down to do so as needed. Lastly, no/slow growth strategy makes development difficult and expensive as a way to keep change to a minimum. These fringe communities are protective of their space, their tax base, and their quality of life.

Federal, State, and Local Governments + the Fringe

Proactive growth management in the fringe should be a collective responsibility between the federal, state, and local governments. Daniels suggests local and state governments should handle most of their own planning, and should actively improve coordination of efforts amongst each other, via open communication between local and state government – to help efficiently meet their community needs. Ideally, more transparent and open communication between local and state government will result in solid growth management policies that will face minimal risk of being overturned by the federal government. Regional planning between city and country, village, and townships is simply a necessity. In fact, he states that the “…emergency of regional metro governments with, at minimum, jurisdiction over planning & transportation, is the wave of the future” and the only way to ensure successful growth management in the fringe regions. (Daniels, 1999:208)

Furthermore, the federal government should be an active participant in managing growth in the metropolitan fringe. The federal government has the means and the ability to assist in a wide variety of ways. From helping communities with grants for infrastructure development (such as helping a large fringe area put in a regional water treatment system to replace or eliminate single-home septic systems), to protecting agricultural space & endangered species, and passing laws to protect the environment (such as the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act), the federal government can play a big role in driving the vision for fringe development.

A Sustainable Solution

Daniels concludes his work by outlining sustainable principles for land use with the goal being that current development can meet the present needs while affording future generations the ability to meet their needs. Daniels suggest the following:

  • Compact, transit-oriented development will help reduce fringe dwellers reliance on personal transportation to get around fringe areas.
  • A mixed-use development that emphasizes walking and biking in town, and between fringe towns, will help preserve the small town feel within these fringe areas.
  • In-fill development to help fill-in vacant lots and open spaces in clustered fringe cities will help to minimize fringe-sprawl.
  • Low-density zoning in the countryside can be leverage to reduce and discourage sprawl.
  • Financial incentives to encourage rural landowners to keep their land open and not sell to developers.

Balancing these sustainable growth principles alongside a no growth, slow growth, or fast growth plan of action can help communities successfully manage growth in the fringe, but it will require the communities to work together in an open and transparent manner to develop both regional and community growth action plans.


Daniels book provides the reader a comprehensive understanding of what defines a fringe city, how fringe cities evolved into the fastest growing land area today, how the federal, state and local governments can prepare and manage the growth. Developing a growth strategy, managing long term land use and planning, designing for a sustainable, nurturing economy, and overseeing responsible stewardship of natural resources, requires careful consideration to many different details. Full of valuable information and insight for communities struggling to deal with the influx of residents and development, taking the steps to pull together a thoughtful and comprehensive plan for growth management will serve the community, the state, and has the potential to influence federal policies. Longevity and sustainability are the end game, and a successful end game requires a vision, takes careful planning, and requires work to implement. But Daniels suggests all these things are not lofty goals, but achievable gains when the foundation is prepared and the communities are committed.