Saturday, February 5, 2011

Megaregions! Is this our Future?

This map, created by the Regional Plan Association, illustrates eleven metropolitan areas that are growing into megaregions
(Thanks, Kristen Grady, for the map link!)

Megaregions!  Is this our Future?
Back in the 1960’s, it was called Megalopolis.  Of course, that mainly referred to the large conglomeration of cities that more or less merged into each other on their march from Boston down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. as far as Washington, DC.  Jean Gottmann’s seminal book, Megalopolis (1961), was the first exposure many people had to the idea, and it was certainly shocking at that time to contemplate a seemingly endless city, stretching for hundreds of miles.  The term “megalopolis,” however, dates back at least to Lewis Mumford’s 1938 book “The Culture of Cities. (Mumford was no fan of the megalopolis, by the way.)  And anyone who has ever seen the night time lights map is visually familiar with the concept of megalopolis. 
The U.S. historically has had an anti-urban bias: we need cities, they are our economic, cultural, innovation, and intellectual engines, in many ways, but since the country was founded (and before) the American ideal has always been the rural idyll, the gentleman farmer, even, translated over the past 100 years or so to the suburban ¼ acre.  We love to hate the city, it is the root of all things fearful and harsh (the concrete jungle) and at the same time, tempting (sin city).  It stands in stark opposition to the “pure, clean country living” and the small town where everyone knows your name (although not many of us live like that anymore! The Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the Grover’s Corners of “Our Town,” are nowhere to be found in the present day, if they ever really existed like this at all, outside of the silver screen and in our wishful thinking about the past).  Aside from the perceived negative things about the city - the crowdedness, the noisiness, the dirtiness, the otherness of the city – even the positive things can themselves be frightening to non-urbanites and non-urbanophiles – its urbanity, its diversity, its freedom, it openness, its anonymity, its vibrancy, liveliness, cosmopolitanism, its opportunities.  It’s not for nothing that in mediaeval Germany there was an expression “Stadtluft macht frei” - “City air makes you free.”  In the case of mediaeval European serf economies, city air literally made you free. 
In any event, fifty years after Megolopolis was published, it is instructive to see what happened to the old megalopolis idea, and to revisit how people feel about the concept of an endless urb.  The Regional Plan Association (RPA) in NYC developed a new set of megalopoli, but now they are called “megaregions.”  The Northeast Megaregion, by the way, has expanded under the RPA’s new definition, and now reaches from Portland ME to Norfolk/Virginia Beach, VA. 

The RPA recognizes/predicts 11 emerging megaregions:
·         Arizona Sun Corridor Megaregion
·         Cascadia Megaregion
·         Florida Megaregion
·         Front Range Megaregion
·         Great Lakes Megaregion
·         Gulf Coast Megaregion
·         Northeast Megaregion
·         Northern California Megaregion
·         Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion
·         Southern California Megaregion
·         Texas Triangle Megaregion

Some of these are rather unexpected – the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion, for instance, deep in the interior Appalachian/Smokey/Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont area of the Carolinas, plus the large city parts of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi.  Historically, most of our metropolitan areas have been coastal cities.  RPA predicts several other inland megaregions, as well.  And the differences amongst the megaregions are huge.  For instance, the Northeast has the highest GDP, followed closely by the Great Lakes, and with Southern California a distant third (at about 50% of the GDP of the Great Lakes), while the Arizona Sun Corridor’s GDP is 92% less than the Northeast’s GDP.  The Northeast megaregion has, as of the 2000 census, a population density of 800 per square mile, whereas the Arizona Sun Corridor has a density of only 93 per square mile.  Both, however, are considerably higher than the rest of the US outside the megaregions, which has a pop density of only 33 per square mile.  The megaregions account for barely 26% of the land mass of the country, but over 74% of its population.  So it seems likely that most of us in the U.S. will be living in a megaregion by 2025, if we aren’t already, according to the RPA’s analysis. 
So how did the RPA predict where these megaregions are likely to form?  They used a methodology that assigned points to each county based on whether:
·         It was part of a core based statistical area;
·         Its population density exceeded 200 people per square mile as of the 2000 census;
·         The projected population growth rate was expected to be greater than 15 percent and total   increased population was expected to exceed 1,000 people by 2025;
·         The population density was expected to increase by 50 or more people per square mile between 2000 and 2025; and
·         The projected employment growth rate was expected to be greater than 15 percent and total growth in jobs was expected to exceed 20,000 by 2025.
(source: Hagler, Yoav, 2009.  "Defining U.S. Megaregions," New York, NY: RPA)

The RPA’s main raison d’etre is to promote the ideals and benefits of regional planning, which of course will be vitally important in the future world of the megaregions (and is already a vital, if mainly ignored, objective, in metro areas that span multiple counties and states).  The concept of regional planning entails the integration of transportation, infrastructure, energy, open space, industry, economic strategies, environmental management and planning, across municipal, county, and state lines, and avoids fragmentation of decision-making and duplication of efforts, and possible overlaps and gaps in planning.  Some say it would also benefit environmental justice efforts because it would result in a more equitable distribution of society’s goods and bads, and make it less easy to shift noxious things “somewhere else,” if planning was more regionalized.  One of the stumbling blocks is determining just exactly what constitutes a “region,” for the purposes of regional planning. 
Other megaregions around the world are getting a head start on this, and the US lags far behind.  We don’t even have a national land use policy.  Heck, we don’t even have state-wide planning, in most places!  Planning in most states consists of a hodge-podge of municipal decision-making that ends abruptly at each city’s borders, with no or minimal coordination with other townships, leading to a free-for-all of NIMBY-ism, enabled by this fiefdom mentality. 

Map of the Pearl River Delta Megaregion (The Telegraph, January 24, 2011)

Things are done differently in China!  China now has 160 of the 400 cities in the world with over 1 million people.  It has 6 of the 20 most populous cities in the world, and 18 of the 100 most populous metropolitan areas, according to the United Nation’s World Urbanization Prospects, 2009.  In just one example of megaregional planning, the Chinese are attempting to join 9 separate mega-cities around the Pearl River Delta in southern China to form the largest functional city in the world.  If combined, the city core would contain 42 million people!  With the immediately surrounding area, it would total 120 million.  Yowza!  And it is close by Hong Kong and Macau, which aren’t even considered part of the core city of 42 million. 
Regional planning in the U.S. is sometimes criticized as not being in keeping with the rugged individualism of the American way and the virtues of self-rule, and of smacking of too much centralized government.  The U.S. (at least certain factions of it, which are now being followed by the policy-makers and legislators) already seems headed in the direction of wanting (and likely getting) less government interference, less regulation, more insularity, and less consideration of the common good, which does not bode well for the advent of real regional planning (or ANY planning, for that matter!).  
It’s something to think about: the pros and cons of living in a megaregion.  Even just the environmental implications of megaregions are unknown.  It is conventional wisdom that city living leaves a lower per capita ecological footprint than the suburban alternative, but will that hold true in a core city of 42 million?  Is this our future?  And if it is, how do we propose to plan for it?
United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, 2009 (on-line data):

Also, check out e-Geopolis at

PS – in the interests of full disclosure, the Map Monkey used to work at the RPA.  When I was there, many moons ago, RPA was involved in a project about the so-called “mega-cities” of more than 10 million inhabitants each.  In the intervening almost 20 years, cities of 10 million are nothing special anymore.  Now I believe the cut-off criteria for a super-large metro area is probably more like 25 million. 
When Kristen sent me this link to the RPA map yesterday, I remembered having seen the map before, probably when RPA first released it a year or two ago.  I believe I even sent it around on the GISc ListServ to many of you.  It is a beautifully-designed map, very attractive and clear, albeit using an unusual projection!  It makes the U.S. look very dynamic, like it is swirling quickly to the east. I forgot all about the map until she sent me the link, which is what got me started thinking about the concept of megaregions, and how it has evolved from megalopolis and mega-cities. And then, of course, there is the whole notion of “global cities,” which are defined by more than just population and pop density,  implying another suite of characteristics about influence, "importance," and interconnectedness of place.


  1. I think this is already happening in the USA - consider that 90% +/- of Americans live within 100 miles of a coastline, and that food generation (farming etc) that takes place within these less-settled interior regions is requiring less and less manpower to actually do the farming.

    Then you add in the interesting thing I've noticed in my lifetime - people strongly identify themselves not by the state they were born, but by the part of the country. There seems to be a growing identity around that. Partly because most people have to leave their home towns (suburbs, etc) to find adult work, and partly because they don't really go too far - 30, 100, 200 miles. They meet other people who had to do the same. A fair amount of identity is shared (I believe).