Is the Age of Megaregions Finally Coming?
Advocates argue that cities and their connecting swaths of territory make an economic unit, despite the absence of real cultural affinities between distant metros.
It’s been more than a century since the urban scholar Patrick Geddes popularized the idea of “conurbations” — swaths of territory connecting two major cities, even hundreds of miles apart, that make an economic and cultural unit. Geddes believed that the corridor from New York to Boston, for example, was a conurbation. It was a clever idea, but it didn’t exactly revolutionize urban thinking.
Still, it never died. More than 40 years later, the geographer Jean Gottmann took it a good deal further, positing conurbations all over the American map and referring to each one as a megalopolis. Soon a cadre of clever urbanists was using catchy names for them: BosWash, from New England all the way down to D.C.; ChiPitts, running past the Great Lakes from Chicago to Pittsburgh; SanSan, the strip between San Francisco and San Diego; Charlanta, connecting Charlotte with Atlanta, 245 miles away.
The thought was that these megalopolitan clusters, or megaregions, would soon replace individual cities as the primary units of civic life. Marshall McLuhan signed onto this, in his usual cryptic way. He proclaimed that “the circuited city of the future will not be the huge hunk of concentrated real estate created by the railway. …. It will be an information megalopolis.”
It was an interesting idea that re-emerged at the wrong time. Cities themselves were in decline for most of the last third of the 20th century. The idea of fusing two struggling urban places together, hundreds of miles apart, didn’t seem to make much sense.
But it didn’t disappear, either. In 2008, the urbanist Richard Florida noticed something interesting. If you took aerial nighttime photographs of large, highly populated areas, you could see lights turned on from one big city to another. Illumination from New York to Washington, for example, or from Charlotte to Atlanta. This, Florida felt, was documented evidence of the existence of megaregions. Others weren’t so sure. A string of bright lights, they said, doesn’t signify the presence of economic or cultural unity. Sometimes a light bulb is nothing more than a light bulb.
But megaregional advocates have never stopped promoting the idea. Robert Yaro is perhaps the most distinguished of them. Over a long career as an urban planner and head of the Regional Plan Association, he has never stopped arguing that megaregions are the key to the American urban future. Now, in a book called Megaregions and America’s Future, written with Ming Zhang and Frederick R. Steiner, Yaro has produced the most forceful account so far of the longstanding idea. “Megaregions,” he writes, “have the potential to become the most powerful and quite possibly the most resilient urban and economic structures of our time.”
IT HELPS TO HAVE A DEFINITION of just what a megaregion is. Yaro likes to say that it’s the fusing of two or more metropolitan areas and their hinterlands. I prefer a slightly different one: a large connected network of metro areas joined together by environmental, cultural, infrastructural and functional characteristics. What’s crucial is that the cities in the megaregion share fundamental interests, not just boundaries.
Yaro and his colleagues posit 13 of these regions, spread pretty much all over the country. Some 44 states have at least part of one within their borders. The region that stands out is the one in the Northeast, from New England down past the D.C. suburbs. The book calls it “an economic powerhouse for the United States.”
But parsing out the country Yaro’s way yields up fresh ideas about other regions as well. Arizona’s Sun Corridor is growing the fastest, doubling in population between 1990 and 2020. The Rocky Mountain-based Front Range and Pacific Northwest Cascadia have the largest share of millennials; the Florida region has the smallest share.
All 13 regions have shared in the nationwide shift from manufacturing jobs to service jobs, but Cascadia and the Sun Corridor have made the most dramatic transition. The Great Lakes region leads in manufacturing, although this may be a dubious distinction.
Income inequality and poverty are highest in the Gulf Coast region, which runs from south Texas to the Florida Panhandle. They are lowest in the Basin and Range region, covering parts of Utah, Oregon and Idaho.
HISTORY TELLS US that America has actually dealt with some crucial issues on a megaregional, or at least a multistate, basis. The New Deal of the 1930s gave us the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration. Yaro believes that a similar approach might be used to establish effective broadband connections across the country.
The past few years have seen the establishment of a limited number of new interstate or regional problem-solving entities. The most familiar one is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, signed by 11 eastern states in 2008. Thirteen states across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions have also signed on to a climate change compact, aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent. This has had less success. California has established what it calls “enhanced infrastructure financing districts,” with the authority to float revenue bonds to pay for its enterprises.
But the core of the megaregional idea is transportation, especially rail transportation. And in the view of Megaregions’ authors’, that starts with transportation in the Northeast region, which is responsible for 22 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Yaro, Zhang and Steiner call for high-speed rail for the entire Northeast, “connecting every mid-size city and its hinterland to each other and to major metro centers” and “giving these smaller cities equal access to the innovative economies that are now concentrated in only a handful of dense urban centers.”
The cost of this network, according to the authors, would be about $105 billion over 20 years. It would be financed in large part by selling bonds in foreign markets. In effect, the book says, “the rest of the world would rebuild New England.” Then we would move on to building and enhancing the other regions of the country.
ALL OF THIS IS INTERESTING. But are these regions meaningful categories, or just a clever attempt to give new names to familiar places? That depends, in large part, on what sort of work the regions, their cities and metro areas are supposed to do, rather than just looking good on a map.
Yaro and his colleagues offer some suggestions. Localities are to deal with traffic issues. Metros will handle land use, housing and economic development. What megaregions would do, first and foremost, is manage intercity transportation, especially the high-speed rail connections that the authors see as vital to the nation’s future. They also would make decisions about climate and the environment.
This seems an arguably sensible distribution of power. But the authors have a disquieting habit of creating ambitious nicknames for programs and institutions whose viability remains to be demonstrated. Megaregions talks about a Green Megadeal for environmental policy, WPA 2.0 for infrastructure and, in its most grandiose burst of imagination, a brand-new American Century: “Whether the 21st century becomes the second great American century will be determined by the success of the nation’s megaregions,” they write. Maybe I’m quibbling, but this seems a bit over the top. A nickname is not an achievement.
In any case, there are more immediate concerns. If we are really on the way to an age of megaregions, one would expect to see consolidations and cooperation breaking out in conspicuous corners of urban America. Clearly there are some of these, but the dominant mode right now in most metro areas is not consolidation but fragmentation. Metropolitan Boston, as the authors concede, has more than 100 municipalities, with nearly equal political representation in the current metropolitan planning district. St. Louis, with less than half the population, has 91. Not a good foundation for the megaregional crusade.
Not only that, but the large jurisdictions in most metro areas have consistently had trouble getting along with the central city and with each other. Atlanta and its large adjoining counties have been arguing for a full generation over how and whether to extend public rail transportation across their combined territory. They may be getting somewhere now, but the whole experience doesn’t offer much hope for Charlotte and Atlanta coming together in one big happy Charlanta.
THIS EXPOSES WHAT TO ME IS THE WEAKEST LINK in the whole project: the absence of real cultural affinities among rather distant metro areas that are being placed within the same region. A few years ago, I wrote that “megaregions will not be, and cannot be, communities with a strong sense of identity and personal loyalty. Community bonds grow thinner and weaker as the area in question expands.” I still believe that.
All of this being said, there are elements of practicality and common sense in the megaregion idea. Atlanta and Charlotte may never come together as blood brothers, but they should be able to create a high-speed rail connection that links them. So should Dallas and Houston, and the cities of northern and southern California. All of that seems doable. It has been for quite a while.
And there is one important new wrinkle. We are seeing a worrisome increase in natural disasters — hurricanes, floods, and who knows what else may come along. Our Gulf Coast and Texas cities, and parts of the Eastern Seaboard, have shown themselves to be extremely vulnerable. The climate disasters of the 21st century aren’t plagues that can best be fought by cities alone, or even by metro areas. They may be a problem that calls for strategy on a larger scale, perhaps the scale of a megaregion.
That wouldn’t exactly be the start of a new American Century. But it would be a graphic demonstration of practical problem-solving, and right now we are in conspicuous need of one.