Megapolitan America

Chicago skyline
Chicago. [Photo by Trey Ratcliff]

In a space as large as France and the Low Countries, the Netherlands and Belgium — considered some of the world’s most densely settled regions — America’s “megapolitan” areas house more than 2.5 times as many people. In fact, although they occupy only 17 percent of the contiguous 48 states’ land base, America’s megapolitan areas are more densely settled than Europe as a whole. Or the United Kingdom. Or Japan. Or India. The table below lists the 10 megapolitan regions we define in our work, the principal cities in each, and comparably dense industrialized countries. The 10 megaregions we propose would, as a group, form the world’s third most populous country, behind China and India. The sooner the United States recognizes that it has evolved into a nation of 20-some very densely settled economic engines, the better able it will be to sustain long-term economic development to mid-century and beyond.

The population of ten American megaclusters in 2010 and 2040 (projected) is compared to the population of industrialized countries in Europe, held constant at 2010 levels. The signs < and > indicate that megapolitan area density is within 50-200 persons per square mile of the comparable country, while no sign indicates the density is within 50 persons per square mile. [Table by the authors]

The New Kid in Town: Megapolitan Areas and Clusters

A common misconception about the United States is that it has low population density. This view is held even by some public policy experts, who argue that because we are so spread out, the country cannot support European-style passenger rail. Economic reporter Robert J. Samuelson is one such expert; his 2009 Washington Post op-ed captures this view:

What works in Europe and Asia won’t in the United States. Even abroad, passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.

Densities [abroad] are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it’s 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can’t pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.

We disagree. Certainly, the overall average population density of the United States — about 100 persons per square mile — is roughly half that of Western European countries, but the comparison is misguided. The contiguous 48 states extend about 3,000 miles east-west and about 1,000 miles north-south, for about 3 million square miles total. If federally owned land is excluded, as well as the sparsely populated states of the northern plains, the population density would rival Western Europe’s. We need to target many long-range planning and public policy efforts to where people live, not where they don’t. As we show in our research, two-thirds of the U.S. population lives on less than 20 percent of the privately owned land. The United States is not so much a collection of 50 states, more than 3,000 counties, or more than 30,000 cities and places as it is a federation of 23 megapolitan areas composed of networks of multiple large metropolitan areas. This is America’s new economic geography.

As early as the 1880s, geographers and demographers understood there were two Americas, one as densely settled as Europe and the other open frontier. As Deborah Popper, Robert Lang and Frank Popper have shown, the 1870 Census imposed the concept of the “frontier” to remove the vast American wilderness from any calculation of how settled or developed the nation had become. 1 Henry Gannett, the census’s original geographer, is the first social scientist to explicitly argue that only the developed parts of the United States should be used in determining infrastructure demand and type, and for urban comparisons with Western Europe. He even showed an explicit disdain for those who failed to recognize this fact:

I was asked not long ago, by a foreigner, “What is the density of settlement in your country?” to which I was obliged [to give] the true Yankee rejoinder, “What portion of my country?” The average density of settlement of such a country as this, some parts of which are peopled as fully as the oldest parts of Europe, while great stretches, empires in extent are as yet almost without inhabitants, means nothing, and the question of my friend implied an ignorance. 2

Gannett might as well have been speaking directly to Samuelson, who, despite not being foreign, nonetheless misses this basic point: the settled parts of America are often as densely built as Europe. A big difference, however, is that Europe has stopped growing, while the United States is on track to gain 90 million more residents between 2010 and 2040. That is the equivalent of adding a nation more populous than Germany — and the vast majority of the increase will be in megapolitan areas. Thus, in the spirit of Henry Gannett, one of the most insightful geographers of the 19th century, we propose to look at the parts of the United States that are as settled as Europe and seek solutions that may in fact borrow from Germany or France.

Left: Census geographer Henry Gannett. [Via Wikipedia] Right: Taking census, 1920. [Courtesy of The Library of Congress]

From Megalopolis to Megapolitan

The Megapolitan concept seems to have popularized the idea that the modern cities are better reviewed not in isolation, as centers of a restricted area only, but rather as parts of “city-systems,” as participants in urban networks revolving in widening orbits.
— Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis Revisited

Geographer Jean Gottmann, writing more than two decades after publishing his influential 1961 book, Megalopolis, understood the impact his thinking had on urban theory. 3 Today, two decades later still, a new transmetropolitan geography is emerging that advances many of Gottmann’s ideas. Researchers in the U.S. and Europe are proposing new methods for classifying and tracking the megalopolis. 4 And while Gottmann was specifically referring to the northeastern U.S., the latest research extends the concept to clusters of networked metropolitan areas around the world. For example, European researchers argue that large-scale urbanized areas are the primary geographic unit for integration into the world economy. 5 The European Union currently has one well defined “global integration zone” — the area inside the “Pentagon” that runs from London to Hamburg to Munich to Milan to Paris, and back to London. 6

Our work expands on Gottmann’s megalopolis themes and insights to account for trends in American transmetropolitan development. 7 Gottmann’s original study of the Northeastern megalopolis held that the region was unique in several ways, including its large size and commercial inventiveness. When Gottmann revisited the megalopolis idea in the late 1980s, he acknowledged that several other U.S. regions could qualify as megapolitan — in particular the Midwest and West Coast, but also the nascent megalopolis forming in the South around Atlanta. 8 Our study identifies 10 megapolitan areas across the country, not just in the Northeast.

The 10 megapolitan clusters and 23 megapolitan areas of the contiguous 48 states by 2040. [Adapted from map by Grace Bjarnson, Metropolitan Research Center, University of Utah / Brookings Mountain West]

Gottmann’s work influenced academics but had no impact on the way the U.S. Census Bureau defines space, probably in part because his 1961 work discussed a single, unique region. But today the idea of a functional transmetropolitan geography is one that warrants the Census Bureau’s attention. Regional economies now clearly extend beyond individual metropolitan areas. The megapolitan concept recognizes this fact and suggests a new geography to show which regional economies are linked.

A geographic concept, once formally recognized by the Census Bureau, gains power. For example, rural development advocates lobbied the Census Bureau for years to redefine more heavily settled rural areas as quasi-metropolitan places. 9 In 2003 the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the Census Bureau, responded with the designation “Micropolitan Area” — and as a result micropolitans are literally on the map. Businesses, government agencies and planners have a new kind of geography to work with, and publications took notice — Site Selection Magazine, for instance, started a list of “Top Micropolitans” in which to locate businesses. 10

Megapolitan areas have a similar potential. Once megapolitan areas are officially recognized, private industries and government agencies will embrace them. 11 And clearly the megapolitan scale is the most logical one at which to address certain problems. A good example is a recent debate over the fate of Amtrak during the George W. Bush administration, which in 2006 wanted to eliminate all funding for America’s National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Defending this action, former U.S. secretary of transportation Norman Mineta wrote in the February 23, 2005, New York Times, “The problem is not that Americans don’t use trains; it is that Amtrak has failed to keep up with the times, stubbornly sticking to routes and services, even as they lose money and attract few users.” Amtrak is a national rail system with one profitable line — in the northeast — which offsets losses on service to remote rural areas. But as shown in the megapolitan clusters diagram, megapolitan areas have two key qualities, concentrated populations and (often) corridor form, which make them excellent geographic units around which Amtrak could be reorganized.

Amtrak in Philadelphia and Chicago
Top: Schuylkill Expressway alongside the rail lines for 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. [Photo by Robot Brainz] Bottom: Amtrak station, Chicago. [Photo by Jerry Huddleston]

The Evolving Megapolitan Idea

The concept of a large-scale, transmetropolitan urban structure has been debated among planners since the early 20th century. The idea can be traced to a famous exchange in summer 1932 in The New Republic between noted theorist and critic Lewis Mumford and Thomas Adams, director of the Region Plan of New York and Environs (now the Regional Plan Association, or RPA). 12 The debate pitted what historian Robert Fishman calls “regionalists” (led by Mumford) against “metropolitanists” (led by Adams). 13 Metropolitanists believed that 20th-century cities would maintain their 19th-century form even as they grew to 10 or 20 million residents and extended 50 or more miles from the center. 14 They also argued that most investment should therefore go to fixing the metropolitan core. In contrast, regionalists saw a radical shift in metropolitan structure, away from a monocentric metropolis and toward a more dispersed network of cities and villages arrayed across a vast — although integrated — space they called the “urban region.” 15 After the mid-20th century, most new urban growth occurred outside the regional core, which fueled the development of sprawling and often connected metropolitan areas. The proposed urban region concept is thus the progenitor of the megapolitan area.

Megapolitan Convergence

Regionalism is too often thought to require government initiative. As a result, progress is associated with full-on structural reform — and so the controversy (and usually frustration) begins. Look to the Intermountain West, however, and it becomes immediately clear that regionalism need not require top-down government overhaul, and especially need not require it at the “super­regional” scale of the “megapolitan” spaces.
— Mark Muro, The New Republic 16

How shall we manage our emerging megapolitan areas, which by our definition are composed of multiple large metropolitan areas, some crossing state lines? There is a rich literature, especially since the mid-20th century, calling for the formation of general-purpose regional governments to address metropolitan-scale issues. 17 Yet so far only one metropolitan area has a regionally elected governing body — the Metro Council of Portland, Oregon, created in the early 1980s. How many regions will likely follow the Portland model? In our view, this key question has now been answered — none. Yet even as formal regional government failed to take hold across the U.S., a less formal and more voluntary form of regionalism has emerged. It, too, is “functionally” based — that is, selected megapolitan-scale issues are addressed through various governance structures. Few if any of these structures require the direct election of public officials to administer their functions. 18 We believe this trend will accelerate as we move to the megapolitan scale. Here we review our arguments relating to key governance functions.

Portland Active Transportation Council, an initiative of the Metro Council. [Photo by npGREENWAY]

Soft-Nosed, Self-Organized Planning

We are guided in our view of the future of metropolitan-scale governance by the work of Deborah Popper and Frank Popper, who argue for an alternative direction for regional, large-scale governance. 19 Old-style bureaucracies, they hold, are not really needed because a new paradigm has emerged that can produce effective planning without an official structure. Popper and Popper call the new paradigm “soft-nosed planning,” in contrast to the “hardnosed planning” of some state agencies and selected federal agencies tasked with regional management, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Poppers see the soft-nosed planning model as emerging when people in the Great Plains states took up the Buffalo Commons idea at the grassroots level. In their original 1987 proposal for the commons, the Poppers assumed that the federal government would organize the complex process of transforming the vast agricultural lands that were being abandoned into national grasslands. But to their surprise, the real energy for planning the Commons came from creative and entrepreneurial efforts at the local level.

Another key dimension of soft-nosed planning is the use of language — in particular, metaphor and storytelling. The reason why the Buffalo Commons idea gained traction at the grassroots level is that it captured in a single and flexible concept a notion that most local residents understood intuitively. Anyone living for decades on the western Great Plains understood the basic disconnect between the way the land was settled (as an eastern-style farming region) and the realities of the landscape and nature. The Poppers used the buffalo as a metaphor — a hardy creature well adapted to the plains that had nearly been eradicated to make way for far less adaptive cattle. The core of the idea was a rebalancing between nature and land use, with the goal of long-term sustainability.

Can a form of soft-nosed planning work for megapolitans? We think so, but we also expect that the results will vary widely. Some places will see a good deal of effective soft-nosed planning efforts, while other regions will have little success. Perhaps the most important criterion for success will be the extent to which these regions are organic places. Large-scale metropolitan areas today are so gigantic that at first glance they seem anything but organic. Simply comprehending a place like Southern California as a unit seems impossible. Yet there clearly is a distinct region that runs along the California coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Any traveler on the Pacific Coast Highway can see it — and can distinguish Northern California from Southern California in the process. Partly it’s environment, partly it’s mood, but there is a visible, distinct place that local residents also refer to as the “Southland.” Thus Southern California begins with an advantage. It is a place in the public mind and not merely a statistical artifact cooked up by government analysts running numbers in a dark room at the Census Bureau office in Suitland, Maryland.

Satellite image of Dallas–Fort Worth. [Courtesy of NASA]

This is not to say that a sense of place per se will guarantee good soft-nosed planning results. But it is a good starting point because it will enable public acceptance of the idea that an extensive area of varied terrain that crosses jurisdictional boundaries can forms one distinct region; the public (and business leadership) can more easily accept that an identifiable region exists if it constitutes a reasonable extension of a well-established place. An example is the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. Census data showed that as early as the 1970s, Dallas and Fort Worth had merged into a unified region; but at first local residents would have none of it. The two anchor cities had a long history of mutual distaste, which statistics did little to ameliorate. But with federal aid formulas forcing a single airport on the region, there began a process of eventual acceptance and later celebration of metropolitan integration. Area residents even devised a cool name that conjured up an expansive, Texas-sized metropolis: in booster parlance, “metroplex.” Today a Google search for “metroplex” yields nearly four million hits, with almost all referring to Dallas–Fort Worth. What was once a public-relations tag — developed to offset the more generic moniker “North Texas” — is now fully embedded in the public mentality.

Other parts of the United States could follow the Metroplex example. The Arizona Sun Corridor, for example, seems poised for such a merger of cities. In the spring of 2006, while team-teaching a public policy studio course at Arizona State University, Robert Lang and John Hall devised the name “Sun Corridor” to refer to the urban complex of Phoenix and Tucson. The label built upon the existing local name for metro Phoenix, “Valley of the Sun”; and given the regional climate, it made sense. Pairing this older and common term for Phoenix with the word “corridor” to connote urban form made the proposed new region distinct from the state’s largest metropolitan area; the Sun Corridor is bigger than any single valley (in fact, it contains parts of a dozen valleys); and since the sun shines brightly in Tucson and throughout urban Arizona, why not apply it to the megapolitan area? Interestingly, while not every resident bought the concept of the Sun Corridor, no one has specifically challenged the name, even those outside the original Valley of the Sun.

The Sun Corridor concept was launched by a 2008 ASU publication, and since then the name seems to have taken hold. 20 There are now more 75,000 Google references to the region; the majority of these do not link specifically to the original report, which suggests the concept has legs. In addition, there is now an economic development initiative, Arizona Sun Corridor: Open for Business, which is marketing the megapolitan area. And there’s yet another potential value to the name. One key business sector that the region hopes to develop is solar energy; thus sun may be more important as economic metaphor (as silicon is to the San Francisco Bay Area) than as designator of a historical place. The soft-nosed planning prospects for the Sun Corridor seem bright because the region makes sense, and its acceptance as a unit facilitates regionwide economic development efforts.

We believe that what holds true for the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex and the Phoenix–Tucson Sun Corridor applies to the megapolitan areas writ large. Places with an organic basis, where a case for unified action is manifest and compelling, will see a boom in soft-nosed planning efforts. On Colorado’s Front Range, for instance, there is a growing sense that the entire region from Denver north to the Wyoming border is now increasingly unified economically (this is in fact the operating assumption of Metro Denver, the nonprofit organization charged with economic development on the Front Range). Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, in an article in The New Republic, refers to these efforts as regional “governance” as opposed to “government.” Muro’s point, like the Poppers,’ is that we do not need official, full-rigged, Portland-style government to get effective regional governance. Voluntary action based on self-interest will suffice — at least in places where these interests are well understood and where there is a history of cooperation. Muro refers to these efforts as “self-organizing.”

Los Angeles. [Photo by Erik Nielsen]

The New Metropolitan Governance: Tied to Federal Formula

Unfortunately, the United States is also replete with places that see little cooperation, even when all parties would benefit. We do not advocate developing command-and-control mechanisms that would force such places to plan at the regional scale. Given the structure of land-use regulation in the United States — a federal republic comprised of states — there is no European-style central government that can make regions do the right thing and eat their planning spinach. As Americans, we think that is a good thing. Yet at the same time, the federal government has an obligation to see that taxpayer money is well spent on infrastructure improvements in sprawling regions where divided government may produce inefficient outcomes.

This obligation has produced significant federal legislation. By the 1990s, transportation experts recognized that some funding for metropolitan areas was going to waste because localities were not coordinating transportation plans. Regional mobility transcends any single city or suburb, especially for metropolitan-sale economies. Work commutes, goods flows and shopping may cross multiple local boundaries, and without coordination, the region could face greater congestion, increased energy consumption and lower productivity. For this reason, starting with the landmark 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, local governments were required to form regional transportation councils to receive their full share of federal transportation funding. And while metropolitan planning organizations were first required in 1962 for all “urbanized areas,” these entities had virtually no power or purpose; with the passage of ISTEA for a very specific power and purpose, the MPOs revived and flourished. Thus metropolitan planning today owes less to the inspiration of places like Portland and more to the charge given to transportation organizations by Congress.

There is wide variation in how regional transportation councils have been organized across the United States, but the general impact on metropolitan planning has been significant. We think that the limited scope of these councils has been essential in softening the sting of what some might see as an intrusive federal edict via ISTEA. They have encouraged a form of soft-nosed planning that allows local innovation and interpretation, while being backed by a hard-nosed federal funding requirement. The manifest purpose of these councils was the implementation of regional transportation plans. Yet in many regions, they have come to represent much more. In some cases, the ISTEA process was the first time that cities, suburbs and counties convened together about regional problems and solutions, and the dialogue led to improved cooperation on other issues such as land preservation, resource management and economic development.

From the experience of existing metropolitan areas, we see the megapolitan future. The governance of metropolitan areas should follow and extend the existing pattern of soft-nosed planning practices, spurred on by federal funding requirements. In fact, a main reason why we based our criteria for megapolitan areas on the census definition of Combined Statistical Areas was to link them to federal funding policies — especially those concerned with transportation and infrastructure investment. The megapolitan areas are really a reasonable estimate of the CSAs at mid-century. All Congress need do is insert the term CSA for MSA (or Metropolitan Statistical Area) in a transportation authorization bill, and we will have the basic framework for 21st-century megapolitan planning in America. As with metropolitan planning, wide variants will emerge in the actual structures developed; some locales will go through the motions, while others will begin a much broader effort at region planning. It is up to each region what to make of it.

Phoenix Tucson Sun Corridor
The Sun Corridor. [Map by the Joint Planning Advisory Council]

The Business of Megapolitans: Cooperating on Economic Development

Another key basis for mid-century megapolitan planning is the realization that megapolitans are the zones by which the United States integrates into the global economy. Megapolitans contain every major land, sea and air link in the nation, including every international hub airport. 21 If, as the Brookings Institution predicts, the United States shifts from a consumer-led economy to one that emphasizes exports and innovation, megapolitan areas with the most efficient infrastructure and research capacity will be advantaged. 22 We expect much greater regional cooperation as some regions move beyond local differences to access the global economy. Such a transformation is occurring in the Sun Corridor as Phoenix and Tucson work together on common economic development strategies that seek to position the megapolitan area as a global leader in solar technology.

Like Dallas and Fort Worth, Tucson and Phoenix are not natural partners. The two regions have a history of rivalry dating to territorial days. Tucson sees Phoenix as illegitimate, a human-made world constructed in defiance of the climate — a “Disney Desert” that is over-stylized, over-planted and over-watered. And Phoenix sees Tucson as a dusty cow town too laid back for its own good. Yet to outsiders, the rivalry can seem silly. In the global scheme of things, the two desert metropolises share the same state and the same landscape and ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert. And as with the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, many of these antagonisms may fade as a common stake in economic development emerges.

Phoenix and Tucson have ample reason to cooperate. Their collective assets and markets can produce a synergistic rise to world city and global gateway status. Phoenix is a large-scale region with an international airport that is a domestic hub and has high potential for enhanced global links; aptly named Sky Harbor, the airport is this inland region’s port to the world. Tucson had the good fortune to receive the state’s original land grant university, the University of Arizona, which has a strong research capacity in space science and optics. The university is also home to the main branch of Arizona’s only medical school. Phoenix and the entire Sun Corridor are seeking opportunities for diversification away from tourism and home construction and toward an export economy based on emerging technologies. Roughly speaking, Phoenix has the global access and Tucson has the technology. …

The Sun Corridor is well along the path toward a megapolitan-level economic development strategy, and other areas are following a similar pattern. A case in point is the Florida Corridor of Orlando–Tampa. Orlando’s regional economy is far too reliant on tourism; a Brookings Institution report estimates that after Las Vegas, Orlando is the second major metro area where growth depended heavily upon a mix of tourism and real estate construction. The city took a hard fall in the recent recession, when housing collapsed and discretionary income decreased. Tampa fared somewhat better; the city benefits from a major port, and industries tied to logistics softened the blow of the crash. Yet it is home of Disney World, with its tourist trade, that has the globally connected airport. Thus if Orlando’s internationa airport were paired with Tampa’s ocean port in a coordinated Florida Corridor, the possibilities for a larger share of trade are significant ….

Phoenix. [Photo by Doc Searls]

The Megapolitan Footprint: Managing Land and Water

Megapolitan areas are expansive regions. As urban zones converge, the loss of farmland and degradation of natural resources accelerate. The old notion of a regional greenbelt becomes moot as one metropolitan region’s open space blurs into another’s exurbs. Thus a key area for potential cooperation concerns environmental impact — habitat conservation, open-space preservation, watershed resource management, air quality monitoring and recreation planning.

The need to preserve habitats for endangered species inevitably influences metropolitan development. Reports such as Endangered by Sprawl, from Smart Growth America and the National Wildlife Federation, show that the largest urban counties are home to many endangered species. 23 The Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives the federal government broad power to preserve habitats, and a 1978 amendment created an Endangered Species Committee, comprising officials such as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the committee has been dubbed the “God Squad” because of its power to halt new development to save species from extinction. Because there is great likelihood that endangered species will be found in megapolitan areas, regional leaders have a clear self-interest in coordinating planning to avoid the wrath of the God Squad. In this regard the current pattern of urban growth, in which decentralization leads to dispersal, is a major problem. To reverse this trend, megapolitan regions can promote more focused peripheral development practices: instead of sprawl there could be nodal development, with decentralized growth refocused in urban villages. This tactic would reduce the risk of running afoul of federal laws protecting habitats.

The pressure to develop in megapolitan areas might also lead to regional (including multistate) approaches to protecting habitats. Planner Robert Mason, for instance, has identified regional habitat and landscape preservation initiatives that affect large shares, if not all the land, in several megapolitans. 24 These include the Everglades Restoration Plan in the Florida–Atlanta megapolitan area; habitat preservation plans in Southern California; the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania/Connecticut highlands preservation efforts in the New York–Philadelphia megapolitan; and the Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration initiatives.

The Everglades Restoration Plan aims to redirect water flow in southern Florida from the current state (left) to a future state (right) that more closely approximates the historic flow. [Courtesy of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan]

Cooperation on water resource management within and between megapolitan areas will also prove beneficial. The major U.S. watersheds are massive in scale; water supply and quality are critical concerns in most large, fast-growing U.S. cities. Systems nationwide are under stress, and in some areas scarcity may limit future growth. And the concerns are no longer limited to the arid West; major challenges are now confronting Eastern regions, in particular the Atlanta megapolitan. In its March 19, 2007 edition, Fortune magazine argued that water would be the oil of the 21st century — “the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”

Indeed, water clearly transcends the old model of the independent metropolis. Atlanta’s demand can affect large parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Likewise the entire Southwest is integrated into a common system dependent on the Colorado River. The Sun Corridor’s water capacity thus requires coordination with cities like Las Vegas. The problems that Las Vegas now faces in developing new water resources will determine its ability to compete with the Sun Corridor. The key point is that these two regions have an imperative to cooperate on water policy (the good news is that they are now doing so). Water is inevitably a megaregional, even national, issue. 25

Atlanta. [Photo by Matt Lemmon]

The State and the Megapolitan: Conflict and Convergence

Megapolitan areas have complex and often combative relationship with states, and some megapolitans reach into multiple states. The link between the nation’s biggest regions and their home states will determine to a large degree how growth is managed and supported. Large-scale urbanization has challenged planning models and produced an evolution in land-use regulation. In our recent Urban Land Institute publicaiton, The New Politics of Planning, we describe a “convergence” or a “common ground” emerging on key issues of metropolitan growth. 26 We describe a movement toward the kind of soft-nosed planning described above. States with formal planning structures, like Oregon, have seen challenges in recent years, while places with a history of light regulation, such as Georgia, now mandate some forms of comprehensive planning. The idea of convergence refers to the midpoint in regulation: More states now require planning, but leave the structures open to local interpretation and negotiation. Here the main tools for promoting good planning are incentives tied to aid formulas. 27

While the convergence of state and local planning efforts is a positive development, there remains a problems in the relationship between megapolitans and states. The biggest concern is state legislatures, which often have very different agendas from the practical need to fix megapolitan areas. In Boomburbs, Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy found that in many places local officials — Democrats and Republicans alike — were frustrated with legislatures that focused on wedge issues rather than critical urban needs. The divide is mostly between those elected on the basis of how well they deliver local services (typically, mayors and council members) and those elected on the basis of how effectively they can fire up a partisan base (usually, state assembly persons and senators). While local officials seek state partnership and support for (among other things) infrastructure improvement, the legislatures might instead debates topics such as gay marriage and gun rights. This dynamic has persisted even during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. While our global competitors invest in new ports, improved airports and high-speed rail, American megapolitan areas choke on congestion. The problems facing our largest metropolitan areas are not even part of a national discussion — and yet the megapolitans account for more than 70 percent of gross domestic product, almost all our exports and a large share of national innovation. 28

The United States is an urban nation with a frontier ethos. This observation has been made by many observers and is perhaps best characterized in the 1995 book, The Urban Wilderness, by Sam Bass Warner, Jr. Warner argues that despite a parallel legacy of urbanization, the logic and imagery for American development has long been inspired by the wilderness. Yet as Warner and others show, even the West began as an urban society, and it remains to this day the region with the highest percentage of urban residents. But somehow the national project to build great cities and now megapolitan areas seems less quintessentially American than does the yeoman family farm. Nations need myths, but it would be helpful if these did not endure at the expense of solving problems and improving conditions in our cities, where most of us live.

Editors' Note

This article is adapted from Megapolitan America: A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography, published this month by APA Planners Press. It appears here courtesy of the publisher and authors.

  1. Deborah E. Popper, Robert E. Lang and Frank J. Popper, “From Maps to Myth: The Census, Turner, and the Idea of the Frontier,” Journal of American and Comparative Popular Cultures, vol. 23, no. 1 (2001), 91–92; and Robert E. Lang, Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, “Is There Still a Frontier? The 1890 Census and the Modern West,” Journal of Rural Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 377–386.
  2. Henry Gannett, “Settled Area and the Density of Our Population,” International Review, vol. 12, no. 1, 1882, 70–77.
  3. According to Elizabeth Baigent, the term megalopolis, “meaning a large city, was in general press by the 1820s.” The first scholarly use of “megalopolis” was by the English urban planner Patrick Geddes in 1927. The word was originally a pejorative term for over-grown cities. See Elizabeth Baigent, “Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Jean Gottmann: Divisions Over Megalopolis,” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 28, no. 6 (2004), 687–700.
  4. See Andreas Faludi, ed., European Spatial Planning (Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2002); Robert D. Yaro and Armando Carbonell, Toward an American Spatial Development Perspective (Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Regional Plan Association, 2004); Robert D. Yaro, Armando Carbonell, and Jonathan Barnett, Planning for America in a Global Economy, Planning Studio Report (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania School of Design, 2004); and Armando Carbonell and Robert D. Yaro, “American Spatial Development and the New Megalopolis,” Land Lines, vol. 17, no. 2, 1–4.
  5. Andreas Faludi, op cit.
  6. See K. P. Schon, Map in European Spatial Planning, ed. Andreas Faludi (Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2002), 28.
  7. Gottman used the term megapolitan as an adjectival from of megalopolis, as he does in the epigraph at the start of this section.
  8. See Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis Revisited: 25 Years Later (College Park: University of Maryland, Institute for Urban Studies, 1987) and Jean Gottmann and Robert A. Harper, Since Megalopolis: The Urban Writings of Jean Gottmann (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
  9. See Robert E. Lang and Dawn Dhavale, “Micropolitan America: A Brand New Geography,” Census Note 04:01 (Alexandria, VA: Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, 2005).
  10. See Ron Starner, “Top Micropolitans,” Site Selection Magazine, March 2005.
  11. Even if the Census Bureau does not designate megapolitans in the short term, the use of existing census categories as basic building blocks would create a census-compatible geography that planning agencies could adopt.
  12. The authors thank Robert Yaro, the current Regional Plan Association president, for suggesting a history of megapolitan thinking and providing guidance on the recent evolution of the idea.
  13. See Robert Fishman, “The American Planning Tradition,” The American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy, ed. Robert Fishman (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2000), 1–29.
  14. See John L. Thomas, “Holding the Middle Ground,” The American Planning Tradition.
  15. See Robert Fishman, op cit.
  16. Mark Muro, “Self Organizing Sun Corridor,” The New Republic, February 19, 2010.
  17. See David K. Hamilton and Patricia S. Atkins, eds., Urban and Regional Policies for Metropolitan Livability (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008).
  18. See Judith E. Innes, David E. Booher and Sarah Di Vittorio, “Strategies for Megaregion Governance: Collaborative Dialogue, Networks, and Self-Organization,” JAPA 77, no. 1 (2010), 55–67.
  19. See Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Storytellers,” Planning, October 1996, 7–10.
  20. See Grady Gammage, Jr., John Stuart Hall, Robert E. Lang, Rob Melnick and Nancy Welch, Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor (Phoenix: Morrison Institute, Arizona State University, 2008).
  21. See Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer, Expect Delays :An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2009).
  22. See Bruce Katz, Reflections on Regionalism (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2000).
  23. Reid Ewing, John Kostyack, Don Chen, Bruce Stein and Michelle Ernst, Endangered by Sprawl: How Runaway Development Threatens America’s Wildlife (Washington, D.C.: National Wildlife Federation and Smart Growth America, 2005).
  24. See Robert J. Mason, Collaborative Land-Use Managemet: The Quieter Revolution in Places-Based Planning (Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).
  25. Even with inreasing cooperation, some megapolitan areas, such as Las Vegas, face the prospect of running out of water. In contrast, there are places with abundant rainfall where water management is so poor and infrastructure investment so minimal that they are simply wet versions of Las Vegas. Here the federal government needs to mediate among the many interests that now compete for water; its policy efforts may include a decision to redirect large-scale agriculture to regions with sufficient rainfall so that the water supply of urban populations is not imperiled. But that is only one dimension of the need for federal action. Another major concern is the need for direct, national-level investment in water systems that have not kept up with population growth. Megapolitan clusters and megapolitan areas are the right scale for this investment. The federal hand is also needed in incentivizing governance structure to match this investment.
  26. Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang, The New Politics of Planning (Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2009).
  27.  In The New Politics of Planning, we assessed states according to the rigor and content of planning enabled by or required of local governments by state statutes. Our assessment was based on the Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, published by the American Planning Association. The APA guidebook includes a compendium of state planning legislation, focusing on planning rigor (such as whether plans were mandatory and included state-level review) and content (such as mandatory or optional planning elements). We developed the Nelson-Lang Planning Index and ranked states based on overall planning commitment. The index is useful for appreciating the kinds of planning efforts local governments may undertake in megapolitan areas, but it is not a definitive predictor of outcomes. For instance, Georgia ranked third when evaluated according to the Nelson-Lang Planning Index because of its planning mandates, state oversight, internal consistency and required planning elements. Yet as a practical matter it is difficult to see tangible outcomes for the landscape since the Georgia Planning Act was adopted in 1989 because the state or its metropolitan areas have among the nation’s highest levels of vehicular-based air pollution, water limitations have not been addressed, and the state is a leader in losing farmland to urban sprawl. On the other hand, Texas, at 49th, has seen little change in farmland among its megapolitan areas — indeed, it has seen an increase in the largest one (Greater Metroplex), while New Mexico, at 47th place, has ensured that its largest metropolitan area, Albuquerque, is among the nation’s most contained as a result of local planning policies.
  28. Most states also seem to have a rural-urban divide that may reduce the resources directed to megapolitan areas. In some cases the political gap between the big city and the small town is stark. There may be no better example of this divide than in Nevada. Even though the Las Vegas metropolitan area drives the state’s economy and is home to nearly 73 percent of Nevada’s population, it is on the short end of multiple political decisions that involve allocating state resources. The region’s schools receive less funding per capita than the rest of the state, even though it has greater costs from providing instruction in multiple languages and teaching low-income students. Northern Nevada’s branch of the state university — the University of Nevada, Reno — also receives far more funding per capita than the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The list goes on and on, and every item on it is buttressed by a rationale that somehow justifies the differential expenditures, yet the net effect is the same: The state’s emerging megapolitan area must do with less than its fair share even as it seeks to diversify Nevada’s economy. The same process, with perhaps a bit less dramatically skewed results, is occurring in much of the United States.
Robert E. Lang & Arthur C. Nelson, “Megapolitan America,” Places Journal, November 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 11.16.2011 at 13:04

    Concerning your Sierra Pacific Region,

    San Jose, The 3rd largest city on the west coast of the US, was NOT listed as a principle city. San Jose is the Capitol of Silicon Valley, one of the nations most critical business centers. San Jose has over 1 million persons, that is almost 300,000 more people than San Francisco.

    The top 50 San José area companies had sales of more than $500 billion in 2010 and have facilities worldwide!

    Even The US census bureau list San Jose as The principle city in its Combined Statistical Area (CSA) San Jose - San Francisco -Oakland. (nine county Bay Area Region).

    Please correct this. I am sure if you investigate this omission you will correct it.

    Thank you.

  • 11.16.2011 at 16:00

    From Kansas City, looks like a bad case of regional prejudice.

  • 11.16.2011 at 17:12

    Agree with Cindy Frewen... how does the Wasatch Range trump the Manhattan, KS-Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City-Columbia-St. Louis Corridor? Also, "Mountains" should be changed to "Front Range" running from Cheyenne, Wy through Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo down to Albuquerque, NM.

  • 11.30.2011 at 01:41

    @discophil, there is no need to add San Jose in the list of principal cities of Sierra Pacific simply because it is widely known that San Francisco would cover the entire Bay Area, of which San Jose is a part.

  • 01.14.2013 at 23:52

    @discophil: Although San Jose is a key part of Sierra Pacific, San Jose is sort of a joke. I moved there from the east coast 5 years ago, and left after a year. It has no culture and no energy whatsoever. It's nothing but a bedroom community for Silicon Valley.

    The only people who make a stink, like you, about San Jose are the small number of natives who have a giant inferiority complex about San Francisco.

    I quickly left San Jose for SF - and love SF. It's a true World City, has been a World City for almost two centuries, and is rapidly outpacing Silicon Valley in technology growth. Our start-up has hired 200 people in the last year, most of whom are excited to have left the south bay for a far, far, better place.