Economic Development

The Rise of the Megaregion

The idea of "megaregions" is getting a bit too much mega-hype.
by | January 2010
 

Several years ago, I wrote a column marking the 50th anniversary of a famous essay by the geographer Jean Gottmann, in which he introduced the word "megalopolis" to describe the huge urban conglomerations that he thought represented America's economic and demographic destiny. As Gottmann saw it, the future belonged not to individual cities, or even their metropolitan areas, but to extended regional corridors of population and development that could stretch as far as 500 miles or more, from Washington, D.C., to Boston, or Chicago to Pittsburgh. He even came up with colorful names for them: Besides "BosWash" and "ChiPitts," he coined "SanSan" for the stretch of land running north from San Diego to San Francisco.

My point back then was that, unfortunately for Gottmann, the ensuing decades hadn't been kind to his megalopolitan vision. Especially in the Northeast and Midwest, central cities had become so dilapidated and economically stagnant that not everyone believed in their survival, let alone their membership in a regionwide power center.

But in the past couple of years, the situation has changed. Megalopolis is back on the agenda for planners and urban scholars. It has a new name -- "megaregion." But the idea is similar to the one Gottmann posited more than half a century ago: Cities and metro areas are losing their relevance; increasingly, the most productive way to look at urban life is to focus on much larger units of territory comprising hundreds of miles of land and holding tens of millions of residents.

The Regional Plan Association, which used to concentrate its attention on the New York City metro area, has branched out and identified 11 megaregions in the United States -- not just those Gottmann saw but a bunch of new entries. There's a region covering virtually the entire state of Florida; a "Texas Triangle" including Dallas, Houston and Austin; and a region following the I-85 corridor in the Southeast that is sometimes called, in Gottmann-esque fashion, "Charlanta," even though it technically extends all the way from Raleigh to Birmingham.

The RPA was instrumental in creating a new organization, America 2050, that describes itself as "a clearinghouse for research on the emergence of megaregions and a resource for megaregion planning efforts nationwide." Both of these groups hold regular conferences at which public officials gather in search of ways to rearrange economic policy on a megaregional basis. Earlier this year, Island Press published a compendium of the latest thinking on the subject entitled MegaRegions: Planning for Global Competitiveness.

Not every enthusiast describes these regions in exactly the same way. But this definition from America 2050 is pretty typical: A megaregion is "a large, connected network of metropolitan areas joined together by environmental, cultural, infrastructural and functional characteristics."

Richard Florida, the geographer famous for coining the term "creative class," has gone megaregional in a big way. "Megaregions," he wrote a few months ago, "are the underlying driving forces of the world economy." Florida and his colleagues have even come up with a new method for identifying these places using aerial nighttime photography that shows contiguous patterns of artificial light.

It seems pretty clear that the idea of megaregions has moved from obscurity back to the center of debate in a strikingly short time. But I think it's pertinent to ask the same question people asked when Gottmann first came up with it back in 1957: Other than as an intellectual exercise, does it really serve much purpose?

I respect Richard Florida and agree with many of his ideas, but I don't understand what light bulbs have to do with community or economic power. Suppose the lights are glowing at night all the way from Jacksonville down to Miami. That doesn't suggest a coherent economic region with a distinct identity. It suggests a state that has been victimized by vast amounts of energy-consuming urban sprawl. To paraphrase a well-known psychiatrist, sometimes a light bulb is really just a light bulb.

But let's leave the illumination issue aside for now. What might constitute real evidence that megaregions are coherent, powerful units of economic activity? Well, they might be gradually shedding some of their small-scale units of government and moving toward comprehensive public institutions that can make policy for the entire megaregion. We all know that isn't taking place. It's hard enough -- impossible so far, as a matter of fact -- for Atlanta and the counties around it to get together and decide much of anything. Can we really expect that these jurisdictions will simply skip the step of cooperating with each other and turn to the larger question of sharing power with Charlotte? That seems extremely unlikely, to say the least.

Well, then, maybe there are changes that might take place short of formal megaregional power sharing. Aaron Renn, the urbanist who is probably the most incisive critic of megaregions, has suggested some. Elected leaders from cities within a megaregion might join together informally and decide on a policy of specialization. Within a region that included the old-fashioned metropolises of Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville (Gottmann would probably call this "CindiLou"), it might be agreed that Cincinnati would be the corporate headquarters town, Indianapolis would be a health and science center, and Louisville would focus on tourism. Could this happen? Theoretically, yes. Is there any evidence that it is even beginning to happen, in any identifiable megaregion in America? No. As Renn writes, "None of these cities is giving up an inch in fighting for all three items."

The further down the scale of cosmic importance one is willing to go, the easier it is to think of ways in which megaregions might gain themselves some economic leverage. They could work out joint purchasing agreements that could lower their procurement costs. They could join forces to help each other in the event of natural or man-made disasters. They might even, as proposed by the megaregionalist Richard Longworth, offer reciprocal tuition benefits to anyone living within the boundaries.

But this is pretty thin soup compared with the grandiose claims of those who see megaregions as some sort of new world order. If, having accepted the existence of these regions, you ask yourself what practical policies they might deploy as a demonstration of their growing clout, you can't come up with many. As Renn asks, "Other than holding conferences, what is it that cities and states . . . are actually supposed to do to implement this strategy? What does a megaregional solution allow a city to do that it couldn't do on its own?"

In fact, though, there is one area of public policy for which a megaregional approach really does make sense. That one area is transportation. In an era of rapidly rising gas prices and expensive jet fuel, there is going to be a genuine need for inter-city train travel. People will want to (or feel they have to) use public ground transportation for trips of 500 miles or less. We will need trains from Charlotte to Atlanta, from Austin to Houston, from Chicago to Cleveland. They needn't be the high-speed bullet trains that many urbanists, including some within the Obama administration, are currently promoting. They just have to run at a decent speed, on reliable schedules, and with the level of safety we now get from air travel.

When you think of megaregions not as coherent economic juggernauts but less grandly as transportation corridors, the concept finally begins to look plausible. If the Southeastern cities along the I-85 corridor want decent train connections, they are going to have to join together to create them. The federal government can't do all the work or provide all the money. This seems to me to be megaregionalism in its one significant practical sense.

And I think many of the current promoters of the megaregion idea realize this. If you go the Web site of America 2050, perhaps the most active institutional promoter of megaregionalism currently on the scene, you will find as much news about developments in rail transportation as you will about the larger vision. I don't think this is a coincidence. Touting megaregions as the key to America's economic future, even if false, may represent a useful step toward establishing transportation policies that our dense concentrations of light bulbs really do need.

Richard Florida argues that "the more two megaregions -- regardless of their physical distance or historical relationship -- have in common in terms of their economic output, the more likely they are to develop similar social mores, cultural tastes, and even political leanings."

I think this is wildly off base. The truth is that megaregions will not be, and cannot ever be, communities with a strong sense of identity and personal loyalty. Community bonds inevitably grow thinner and weaker as the area in question expands. A neighborhood can offer them. A successful city has an opportunity to do it. A few states have managed to maintain clear identities even amid the turmoil of recent years. But "ChiPitts Forever"? "Raise the Flag for BosWash?" "My Old Charlanta Home?" I'm afraid that's asking a bit too much of the hard-pressed ordinary citizen. On the other hand, if we can get some decent train service out of all this megaregional hype, it may be an acceptable bargain in the end.

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