The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 divided most of the land west of Pennsylvania into 6-by-6 mile squares called "townships." You can see the physical effects of the Ordinance any time you fly over the Great Plains: uniform squares of roads linking towns about 9½ km apart.
The Ordinance established townships to allow rural residents to get to their centers of government and home in the same day. In the era of travel by horseback, this saved days or weeks of travel for farmers and townsfolk alike.
In the era of travel by car, however, we no longer need the redundancy. Chicago magazine recommends getting rid of them altogether:
It’s not just urban counties that find remnant townships burdensome. Some rural counties want to get rid of their townships, too. Last month, State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, passed a bill that would allow McHenry County townships to dissolve themselves.
“My goal is to reduce the number of governmental bodies — it’s one of the reasons our property taxes are so high,” McSweeney said. “Consolidation, I think, is the key to reducing property taxes and administrative fees.”
Like most Illinois counties, Cook was originally platted with a grid of townships. The townships now contained by Chicago, including Rogers Park, Hyde Park, and Lake View, passed out of existence upon annexation. In the suburbs, townships still exist, even if all their land has been incorporated. In Cook County, remnant unincorporated bits of township could be required to join the nearest municipality, which would then take over township duties, as Evanston did.
There’s a saying that bureaucracy perpetuates itself, and that’s certainly true of townships. They’re so hard to get rid of because they’re a juicy source of jobs, patronage, and double-dipping for elected officials.
The Daily Parker agrees. Time to move on from one of the best ideas of the 1780s.