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The Morphing Megalopolis

In the 1950s, the urban corridor from Boston to Washington looked like a radical innovation in human settlement.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing.

Fifty years ago this summer, in an obscure journal called Economic Geography, a social scientist named Jean Gottmann changed the mindset of American demographers for a generation to come. He did it by inventing a word -- or more precisely, resurrecting a word: megalopolis.

As you might guess, megalopolis goes back to the ancient Greeks. It was a city that the ruler of Thebes envisioned as the grandest in the world, with thick walls extending 5 miles around. That city was never finished; there's a town of Megalopolis on the site today, but it has a population of barely 5,000.

Gottmann was using the term to describe something entirely different, something he considered a radical innovation in modern human settlement. He was talking about the eastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington all the way up to Boston, which he saw as the first continuous urban agglomeration on such a large scale anywhere in the world. The 20th-century version of megalopolis, Gottmann declared, "heralds a new era in the distribution of habitat and economic activities."

He wasn't just amazed by this: He liked it. A French refugee from Nazi tyranny, he saw this stretch of 500 miles of American territory as a bastion of innovation and human freedom -- in his words, "a laboratory for a new experiment in social living."

Four years later, Gottmann expanded his ideas into a book, appropriately entitled "Megalopolis". By that time, he was envisioning a whole series of smaller megalopoli around the country that would complement the first one. And he was coining clever new names for each of them. He referred to the original, somewhat inelegantly, as BosWash. A second, snaking around the Great Lakes from Chicago through Detroit and Cleveland to Pittsburgh, he decided to called ChiPitts. A third, on the West Coast, he labeled SanSan. I will leave it to you to deduce boundaries of that one.

The megalopolitan idea generated resentment as well as praise: It wasn't much of a comfort to people in Maine or Kansas to learn that they were gradually going to become appendages in a nation dominated by a limited number of huge urban clusters. Nor were scholarly geographers entirely convinced. Urban and suburban territory might be expanding along these linear stretches, but all one had to do was take the train from Boston to Washington -- let alone San Francisco to San Diego -- to realize just how many millions of acres of undeveloped land still existed even in the heart of a megalopolis.

Nevertheless, the whole idea became part of the vocabulary of urban planning in America, and it has remained there ever since. It is fair to say, however, that the idea has endured an up-and-down career.

For BosWash, at any rate, the years immediately following publication of Gottmann's book were perhaps the most discouraging of the 20th century. By 1967, urban rioting had devastated Washington, New York and Newark. The closing and migration of factories had dramatically altered -- and largely weakened -- the industrial economy that Gottmann had seen as a continuing staple in the megalopolitan future. The manufacturing sector that had represented one-third of the BosWash economy in 1957 was declining every year. The Eastern Seaboard train trip that revealed so much open land in the 1950s had become a depressing showcase for abandoned, boarded-up and graffiti-strewn factories and warehouses. In 1975, New York City faced bankruptcy. Five years later, the federal budget director suggested publicly that Philadelphia might not even serve a useful purpose in the coming decades. It wasn't that Gottmann's megalopolis didn't exist anymore; it just seemed to be a declining rather than an advancing entity.

Kevin Phillips introduced the idea of the Sun Belt in 1969, and to many this seemed to be the logical successor to the eastern megalopolis that had fallen on hard times. Certainly it was the part of the country people were moving to: BosWash had 25 percent of the U.S. population when Gottmann wrote his seminal article; it began declining almost immediately after that, on its way down to 17 percent by the end of the 1980s.

But demography, perhaps even more than most social sciences, is a creature of cyclical fashion, and in the past decade and a half, the image of megalopolis has begun to recover. This is the subject of a provocative new book, "Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast," by John Rennie Short, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Short is by no means an uncritical disciple of Gottmann, but he possesses the same curiosity about Megalopolis, its shape and future.

Short exudes Gottmann's sense of wonder at the size and mystery of it all. But unlike Gottmann, who saw megalopolis as an entity with clear borders and stable boundaries, Short sees it as a loose, ever-changing, unpredictably flowing stream of urbanism: a liquid city. Whatever it looks like today, tomorrow it will morph into something else. "The liquid metropolis has oozed beyond our ken," Short writes at one point. It is "a giant urban region larger than our capacity to humanize it."

This argument ventures deeper into the realm of science fiction than I personally wish to go. Mostly, however, Short presents facts, and deals fairly with controversial and unsettled issues. He concedes that megalopolis today is a far different entity than it was in Gottmann's day. As he acknowledges, "the region neither dominates the national economy nor shapes the national identity to the extent that it did in 1950." Obviously not.

But for those still immersed in the intricacies of Sun-Belt theory, Short has a few details to point out. Even with its declining industrial economy, BosWash still holds the largest concentration of population in the United States -- 49 million in 2000, compared with 32 million in 1950. Its economy is larger than that of France or the United Kingdom.

Then there are some simple realities of geopolitics, common knowledge but worth restating. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington D.C. has been the capital of the world's only superpower. It is the home of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. New York is the home of the United Nations and Wall Street, and they are not going away. More than half of the people in the country who work in finance and insurance still work somewhere in the BosWash corridor. It might have been plausible to suggest in 1990 that the eastern megalopolis was a declining entity. It is not plausible now.

But if Short is more cautious than Gottmann in some ways, he is bolder in others. He believes not only that megalopolis is an oozing liquid giant, but that its parts are moving closer to each other all the time, forced together by their location in one small sector of the global economy. On a single day in 2006, he notes, there were 69 scheduled airline flights between Boston and New York and 129 between New York and Washington. This is a symbol, he suggests, of a megalopolitan connectivity that Gottmann could never have envisioned. "As the region coheres and coalesces," he writes of Washington and New York, "the two cities meld and mingleÉ polis and market are, at last, combined in a single globalizing city region."

I'm not sure I'm quite ready to buy that one. If the cities in the BosWash corridor have grown closer in some respects, they have grown apart in others. Immigration, to take perhaps the most important example, has changed them in dramatically different ways. In 1950, most of the big Eastern cities had roughly similar ethnic populations, based on patterns of immigration to this country early in the 20th century. Since then, they have diverged dramatically. New York is again an immigrant magnet: In 2000, 35 percent of its population was foreign born, nearly all from Asia and Latin America. Boston and Washington have seen smaller waves of immigration, but still significant ones. By comparison, Philadelphia and Baltimore have been much less affected by immigration -- a major reason why they have been losing population at a much more alarming rate than the other major BosWash cities. In part because they haven't been attracting foreign immigrants, Philadelphia and Baltimore both still have big swaths of abandoned housing. Washington, Boston and New York have essentially escaped that curse.

That's just one example of how the cities in Gottmann's original megalopolitan scheme have grown apart, rather than together, in the half-century since his article was published. There are others I could cite. They don't refute Short's argument that we are entering an era of enhanced connectivity along the old megalopolis corridor, but they warn against sweeping conclusions.

There's one issue, however on which it's hard to quarrel either with Gottmann in 1957 or Short in 2007. Gottmann wrote 50 years ago that local government was "inadequately set to answer the present needs of the huge cities and their quickly expanding suburbs." Short writes now that the 21st-century megalopolis "is an economic unit that lacks political representation," and that "without more regional cooperation, the failing will affect the economic competitiveness of the region in the national and global economy."

Megalopolis may be a liquid, ever-evolving creature, but when it comes to governance, it remains stuck in the 1950s. A 21st-century critic sees the megalopolis as a loose, ever-changing, unpredictably flowing stream of urbanism: a liquid city.

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