On Satellite Cities

First, thanks to all who recently found this site due to a shout-out from Richard Florida on my piece on black urbanism.  This blog is just three months old but got its greatest viewership right after the Richard Florida Twitter mention.  I’m glad you found this and I hope you find information here that will be enriching and enlightening.  I also greatly appreciate your feedback in everything I’ve written about so far; this is definitely intended to be a dialogue and not a monologue.  Today, I’ll revert back to my oingoingand occasional series on midsize Midwest cities by discussing perhaps the most intriguing midsize Midwest city type to me – so-called “satellite cities”.
First, let me start with a little discussion on my impression of late 19th Century urban development that leads to an understanding of the satellite city term and usage.  During the post-Civil War era, the Midwest contained a number of large cities that were primed to explode into industrial dynamos.  Anyone who pays any attention to cities is usually quite familiar with them – Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago being perhaps the biggest.  In many cases, however, particularly in the Lower Great Lakes and Heartland subregions of the Midwest, there were also independent cities, usually some 10-50 miles outside of the major cities, which were poised to grow in their own right.  Many of them had been established as farming trade centers or stopping points along old trails and trade routes, but the spread of railroads was making them much closer to large cities than they ever had been before. 
These are what I’ve called satellite cities.  They experienced a period of growth during an independent phase of development, but soon found themselves being attracted to the gravitational pull of the larger nearby metro area.  Some have been fully captured by the larger metro’s pull, others haven’t fully made the transition.
(One parenthetical note: I find this to be almost exclusively a Midwestern phenomenon, with a few exceptions.  Similar satellite cities exist in California, whose settlement owes a lot to the Midwest.  The East Coast may have once had satellite cities similar to the Midwest, but a case could be made that amalgamation began occurring there even before industrialization really took off, so the region’s cities began evolving into the more familiar Megalopolis.  No similar cities appear to exist in the South.)
I’ve identified 19 such satellite cities in the Midwest using the following criteria:
·         It is a city that is a county seat or largest city in a county.
·         It is a city that is part of or adjacent to a metro area with a population over one million.
·         It is a city that is NOT the primary city in a metro area with a population over one million.
·         It is a city that is within 60 miles of the primary city of a metro area with a population over one million.
And I’ve categorized satellite cities in the following fashion:
·         They’ve been “captured”, meaning that the larger metro area has grown to include them.
·         They are “emerging”, meaning that the larger metro’s sprawl has not quite reached the boundaries of the satellite city.
Lastly, despite many differences between the cities, they typically share two things in common:
·         They have a strong sense of being a city and not a suburb (at least in the conventional bedroom community sense).
·         They have a long-held perception of having their own local economy.
Here’s my table of satellite cities:
Satellite City Types
Satellite Cities
Captured Satellite City (11)
Aurora, IL; Joliet, IL; Kansas City, KS; Independence, MO; Elgin, IL; Kenosha, WI; Waukegan, IL; Gary, IN; Lorain, OH; Hamilton, OH; Pontiac, MI
Emerging Satellite City (6)
Akron, OH; Dayton, OH; Flint, MI; Racine, WI; Springfield, OH; Anderson, IN
Emerging Satellite City AND College Town (2)
Ann Arbor, MI; Bloomington, IN
Here’s another way to view the satellite cities, by looking at them with their included or adjacent metro area.  I used the broadest definition of metropolitan area provided by the U.S. Census, the Combined Statistical Area, to rank the metros with more than one million in population:

Large Metropolitan Regions
Associated Satellite Cities
Aurora, IL; Elgin, IL; Joliet, IL; Waukegan, IL; Gary, IN; Kenosha, WI
Ann Arbor, MI; Flint, MI; Pontiac, MI
Minneapolis/St. Paul
Akron, OH; Lorain, OH
St. Louis
Hamilton, OH; Dayton, OH
Kansas City
Independence, MO; Kansas City, KS
Anderson, IN; Bloomington, IN
Racine, WI
Grand Rapids
Springfield, OH
What is intriguing to me is how satellite cities can – or are willing to – adjust their perceptions about their cities, and accept a new position in the hierarchy of cities in the Midwest.  While many may not view it in this way, satellite cities are fortunate in that they have proximity to major metros, providing them with opportunities that other cities of similar size simply don’t enjoy.  They have a chance to participate in and contribute to the global economy that the larger metros are already seeking to join.
I see four possible outcomes for satellite cities in their near and mid-term economic futures:
Link – They can develop stronger ties to larger metros that can lead to better economic opportunities for residents.  This seems to be what’s happening with the satellites surrounding Chicago.
Cog – Their unique position between large metros means they can work in concert with them to create multiregional economies.  Three satellites stand out in this regard, both in Ohio – Dayton, Springfield and Akron.  Dayton (itself a large metro; note that it is listed twice above) is in a unique position to link, possibly through Springfield, the Cincinnati and Columbus metro areas.  Akron could likely do the same, uniting Cleveland and Pittsburgh by way of Youngstown. 
Catalyst – These satellites have another layer of economic production that could contribute to the growth of the adjacent larger metro.  Ann Arbor, MI and Bloomington, IN, two college towns not far from large metros, may have a much stronger future role in the economies of Detroit and Indianapolis, respectively. 
Stasis – These satellites appear to be in a holding pattern, waiting on economic circumstances to return to previous levels.  While waiting, decline settles in.  This may be the case for Pontiac, MI; Lorain, OH; Hamilton, OH; Kansas City, KS; and Anderson, IN.
I’ll be writing more on this in the future, but I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on this.

3 thoughts on “On Satellite Cities

  1. There are certainly East Coast examples of this as well. Frederick and Annapolis in Maryland (satellites to both DC and Baltimore) come to mind. They're both county seats (Annapolis is also the state capital) and despite being gobbled up by the larger Baltimore/Washington area continue to have their own local economies and strong local identity as well.

    By the way, I really appreciate this blog after stumbling on your “Regarding Black Urbanism” post. This is definitely an important topic and I look forward to reading more about it!


  2. Dan, thanks for your comment. I must admit I don't know either coast as well as I know the Midwest, but Frederick and Annapolis would seem to qualify as satellite cities in Maryland. Other East Coast versions I can think of: Worcester and Lowell, MA, and Manchester, NH (near Boston); Bridgeport and New Haven, CT, and Newark, NJ (New York); and Trenton, NJ and Wilmington, DE (Philadelphia). However I've always believed those cities have been linked closely with the major metros for at least a century, unlike their Midwestern cohorts. Or am I wrong?


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