William H. Frey photo

Metropolitan Areas as Functional Communities: A Proposal for a New Definition

Publication Abstract

Frey, William H., and Alden Speare. "Metropolitan Areas as Functional Communities: A Proposal for a New Definition." PSC Research Report No. 92-245. 7 1992.

We propose defining the metropolitan area as a Functional Community Area (FCA) as distinct from a physically-defined entity or a broader economic region. When the original Standard Metropolitan Area (SMA) concept was formulated, there was a high degree of correspondence between the region's labor market area, its housing market area, and local activity space. This area also tended to take on a common physical form where a highly dense core area served both integrative and distributive functions for a less dense, largely residential hinterland.

Changes in transportation, communication, and production technologies, in the organization of production, as well as nationwide industrial and demographic shifts, have led to a decoupling of these functional and physical spaces. Regional economic areas are now much broader than local labor markt areas and local activity spaces. Over the years, the expansion of existing areas and creation of new areas in a low density mode have led to a diversity of physical configurations for the daily activity space of community residents -- including areas that have no discernible cores. Since the original concept was definded, the country's rural territory has become more strongly integrated into the national economy. Some portions of this nonmetropolitan space have become closely tied to specific metropolitan areas, while others stand relatively isolated from metropolitan influence.

We propose a new system which views the metropolitan area as a Functional Community Area, consistent with Amos Hawley's concept of an "enlarged area of local life." These FCA areas will be defined on the basis of high commuting density, as an indicator of the community's activity space. They will employ building blocks that consist of incorporated places, minor civil divisions, and census designated places, and may or may not contain a single highly dense place or employed node. Where adjacent FCAs are closely linked, they will be combined to form a broader Metropolitan Economic Region (MER). The criteria used to define these regions will include both commuting and non-commuting considerations. However, MERs will be defined on the basis of a "bottom-up" aggregation of FCAs. The building blocks for MERs will be larger units such as counties and New England towns.

Territory within FCAs and MERs will be classed according to place or minor civil division attributes. Urban centers, primarily residential areas, and primarily employment areas will be among the several categories used to classify territory within Functional Community Areas. These categories can be cross-classified with the traditional rural-urban concept. However, this classification will be developed solely to distinguish analytically meaningful types of territory. It will not form the basis for defining the boundaries of the FCAs or MERs.

Because of the Functional Community Areas are defined on the basis of commuting clusters, rather than linkages to a large or highly dense central place, FCAs will cover most of the nation's territory--both urban and rural. As with many metropolitan areas under the present system, several FCAs will comprise mixed urban and rural territory. Other FCAs will be totally urban or totally rural. Some portions of the country with weak commuting links to other areas will lie outside any FCA. Such areas will be grouped by proximity and given a different name to indicate that they are not included in an FCA. We have not adopted any a priori criteria with respect to minimum population densities, or population sizes, for FCAs.

Because our definition of FCAs and MERs are heavily dependent on commuting data, we do not advocate updating the system between census enumerations unless reliable commuting data can be obtained elsewhere. We also recommend the development of a county-counterpart system of FCAs to facilitate analyses with data that are available only at the county level. Finally, we end our proposal with several research questions that we believe need to be answered to further refine the FCA concept, and facilitate its implementation.

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