A recent Michigan headline was enough to make a Memphis reader homesick: “The Height of Foolishness: Sprawl Without Growth.” The article told how Detroit treated sprawl as the engine of economic development, and as a result, the city is hollowed out and it has the highest rate of brain drain in the nation.

It is a cautionary tale for Memphis and Shelby County, where the term, “growth,” is often used to describe the migration of Memphians out of the city. It is a misnomer, of course. In fact, the population increase for Shelby County as a whole is a simple equation — births over deaths. There is no large influx of people to swell our workforce, the so-called in-migration that is the brass ring for urban areas.

Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws tend to mask the issue for Memphis. Its population continues to grow slightly, but only because of annexation. The former city limits pre-Hickory Hill, for example, are recording net population loss. The masking of population loss through annexation is expected to end in 20 years, when it is predicted that Memphis will have annexed all of the land that it is gets under the annexation reserve agreements with Shelby County’s other municipalities. Whenever that day comes, there will only be 49 square miles of the county’s 785 square miles that will not be within a city – extreme northeastern Shelby County and the Shelby Forest area.

When this happens, it will transform Memphis and Shelby County Governments as we know them. Gone from county government will be the urban level services that it mistakenly delivered 20 years ago — fire services, stepped up sheriff’s patrols, ambulances and land use planning and zoning. These are services that cities normally provide. When areas are annexed, then people are supposed to receive an urban level of services, not before. They have fueled sprawl, resulting in Memphis being named 34th of all U.S. cities for worst sprawl. As for City of Memphis, full annexation will result in it facing the reality of population loss that is occurring and heading to first-ring suburbs. Not to mention that it will also have to contend with governing an area larger than Los Angeles or New York City.

At the time when all of the annexations are completed, Memphis will have 489 square miles of area, up from 317 square miles; Millington will have 74 square miles, up from 32; Collierville will have 51 square miles, up from 29; Bartlett will have 44 square miles, up from 21; Arlington will have 34 square miles, up from 24; Lakeland will have 24 square miles, up from 20; and Germantown will remain built-out at its present 20 square miles.

Projections by each city predict population of 848,451 in Memphis in 2020; 60,000 in Bartlett; 49,200 in Collierville; 46,500 in Germantown; 32,000 in Arlington; 28,000 in Millington; 25,000 in Lakeland, and only 17,459 in the 49 square miles of unincorporated area. The eastern edge of Shelby County which had 6.6 percent of the county’s population in 2000 is predicted to have twice that amount by 2026. The people making the move will come largely from Frayser, the Quince area, Oakhaven, Whitehaven and the Defense Depot district. (Desoto County is expected to grow from 87,000 in 2000, a 58 percent increase from 1990, to 200,000 by 2026.)

The ultimate question is whether local governments can afford this vision of the future. Clearly, current sprawl is not sustainable, and there was actually a minuscule drop in population for Shelby County between 2000 and 2001. These are trends that will change the face of local government. Hopefully, somebody is planning for that day now.