Tthe jurisdiction of city governments has been limited to the built-up urban area although there are exceptions to this, as, for example, in Brazil and South Africa. A clear distinction between the city and the surrounding countryside no longer exists. The built-up central area extends without any sharp dividing line to the suburbs, then to the farther fringe composed of housing estates and villages for commuters, interspersed with small produce farms, recreational areas, industrial estates, and so forth, all of which may form a single area of interrelated activities. An army of commuters daily invades the main city, and at the close of the day they retreat to their homes in the suburbs or beyond. They and their families use the city for such purposes as recreation, trade, shopping, professional services, and higher or technical education. The city depends for its economic health on their services and their purchasing power. But commuters also have to be provided with costly daytime services such as police and fire protection, water supply, sewage, public health, highways, and public transport, although those who live outside the city limits usually contribute little or nothing to the municipal revenue.
Urban technology and the patterns of behaviour of contemporary life have made it difficult or impossible for municipalities to cope with the mounting problems of the city region, and particularly those of the metropolitan areas, unless drastic changes of structure and scope are carried out.
Certain functions must be performed in every city. Law and order must be maintained; there must be some regulation of building to ensure a minimum of safety and to ensure that houses or workshops are not constructed on public land or in improper places; there must be regular methods of preventing, controlling, and extinguishing fires; and there must be regulations and executive action to protect the health of the citizens. The services now provided by city governments are different in nature and wider in scope than in the past. Generalization is impossible, but the most widespread functions today are the environmental and personal health services, including clinics and hospitals; primary, secondary, and further education; water supply, sewage, refuse collection and disposal; construction, maintenance, and lighting of streets; public housing; welfare services for the old, destitute, physically and mentally handicapped, orphans and abandoned children, unemployed and disabled workers, and other categories needing help; cemeteries and crematoriums; markets and abattoirs. The traditional services have been transformed beyond recognition.
Many cities have had museums and art galleries for a century or more. Today such institutions are often part of extensive programs for recreation and culture sponsored by the municipality. Public parks and playgrounds are not a new feature of city life, but they too have become part of the comprehensive programs of outdoor recreation organized by the municipality.
A group of public-utility services comprising the supply of gas, electricity, water, and public transport are frequently provided by the city government itself, by a public corporation closely connected with it, or by a commercial company operating under a concession granted by the municipality. In some countries, municipal enterprise in the public utility field has been supplanted by larger regional or national schemes.