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megalopolis.jpgIs the city obsolete?

In the sense of being the locus of work, life and culture, obviously not. But when it comes to economics, transportation and planning, thinking purely in terms of urban centers and peripheries is often too limiting. Even state or nation level has limits, as financial and vehicular flows very often cross the quaint borders assigned decades or centuries ago. As a result, a growing number of urban analysts are starting to look at a new level: the megalopolis.

The term megalopolis was coined in 1961 by Jean Gottmann, referring to massive agglomerations of population centers across a region; for people in the United States, perhaps the most visible is the "Bowash" corridor stretching from Boston, through New York, and down to Washington, DC. A megalopolis covers multiple metropolitan and "micropolitan" areas, yet has a distinct economic and historical identity. As the Bowash example shows, megalopolises (the awkward plural) need not be within the borders of a single political entity; indeed, urban planners in the European Union are starting to look at cross-national megalopolises in their strategies.

In the United States, Virginia Tech urban studies professor Robert Lang argues (PDF) that there are 10 megalopolises (or, as he refers to them, "megapolitan areas"), with a total population of well over 200 million people -- two-thirds of the US population. Six are east of the continental divide, four are west, and they comprise both familiar regional agglomerations (e.g., "Cascadia," stretching from Portland, Oregon through to Seattle, Washington; "Northeast," something of an expansion of the "Bowash" corridor) and relatively new ones ("1-35 Corridor," from San Antonio and Dallas, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri; "Peninsula," encompassing Tampa through Miami, Florida).

According to Lang:

A megapolitan area as defined here has the following characteristics:
  • Combines at least two existing metropolitan areas, but may include dozens of them
  • Totals more than 10 million projected residents by 2040
  • Derives from contiguous metropolitan and micropolitan areas
  • Constitutes an organic cultural region with a distinct history and identity
  • Occupies a roughly similar physical environment
  • Links large centers through major transportation infrastructure
  • Forms a functional urban network via goods and service flows
  • Creates a usable geography that is suitable for large-scale regional planning
  • Lies within the U.S.
  • Consists of counties as the most basic unit
  • The "lies within the US" appears to be an artifact of Lang's academic work; there's no reason that the megapolitan concept should be limited to the United States. In fact, there are good arguments that some of the identified American megapolitan areas actually encompass parts of Canada (e.g, Vancouver in Cascadia) or Mexico (e.g, Matamoros in the "Gulf Coast" megalopolis).

    Thinking in terms of megapolitan areas leads to somewhat different conclusions about some key planning issues -- sprawl, transit -- than does the traditional core-periphery metropolitan model. Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce summarized the various US approaches to megalopolis planning in an essay this week; he notes that the handful of groups in the US looking at megapolitan models see "immense" economic improvement from regional cooperation and co-planning, especially around transportation.

    One of the differences between megapolitan and core-periphery metropolitan planning is the interpretation of sprawl. Over time, suburban areas have the potential to become micropolitan areas as they grow more populous and dense; in a megalopolis, micropolitan infill between core metropolises adds to the "polycentric" character of the megalopolis. This evolution suggests that planning models that assume suburbs remain static in nature (even as they grow in size) are incorrect.. Groups like the UK's Young Foundation are starting to construct new models for sustainable management of these polycentric regions.


    Our hypothesis is that falling costs of transportation and (more particularly) communication, combined with new informational agglomeration economies, lead to the emergence of a highly complex “space of flows” (Castells 1989) at the level of the “Global Mega-City-Region”, reconfiguring previous geographical relationships. This follows a “Christaller rule”: lower-level service functions may be performed at lower levels of the urban hierarchy (Christaller 1966 (1933)). These new urban regions achieve major agglomeration economies through clustering of activities, not in any one centre, but in a complex of centres with some degree of functional differentiation between them.

    At this scale “sustainable concentrated deconcentration” suggests that growth should be guided on to selected development corridors along strong public transport links, including high-speed "regional metros" such as proposed for London, or even along true high-speed lines such as London-Ashford, Amsterdam-Antwerp or Frankfurt-Limburg (Ipenburg et al 2002). These would not represent continuous urbanisation, but clusters of urban developments around train stations and key motorway interchanges up to 150 kilometres, from the central city, thus reducing the probability of long-distance commuting and assisting remoter areas.

    (With terms like "concentrated deconcentration," it's clear that the Young Foundation is primarily academic in character.)

    There's an interesting dichotomy at work: study of planning based on cross-national regions is more advanced in Europe, but even the Europeans argue (PDF) that such agglomerations (which they term Global Integration Zones) are more common in the US than in the EU. The Global Integration Zone (GIZ) concept is somewhat broader than Lang's "megapolitan areas" -- the single West Coast GIZ encompasses Lang's Southland, NorCal and Cascadia megalopolises, for example -- but the underlying concept is the same. The big difference is that Europe has a transnational agency devoted to analysis of megapolitan/GIZ/polycentric metropolitan issues. ESPON -- the European Spatial Planning Observation Network -- seeks to better understand the planning implications of the expanded European Union, with a focus on these cross-border zones. Their March 2005 report (PDF) covers the finest details of how polycentric planning is accomplished. It's nearly 350 pages, and does not appear to be beach reading.

    Megapolitan planning is still in its infancy compared to traditional urban planning, and it's likely that much of what holds true for individual cities will apply to trans-metropolitan groupings. But it's already clear that reexamining economic and transportation scenarios in a megapolitan context can lead to different choices. What is still in question is how to integrate the strategies developed at the megapolitan level with the day-to-day decisions of city leaders.


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    Comments (10)

    Fascinating article ... I know that e.g. London is swallowing up smaller towns slowly but surely (we lived near Kingston-upon-Thames for almost 6 months), as I'm sure other European cities are. Not sure if there's unbroken suburbia all the way to Scotland though ... :)

    Incidentally, in Greek, the plural of polis was "poleis" (according to Google/Wikipedia:
    ) - so "megalopoleis"? :)

    (Only gets 60 hits from Google, but again on Wikipedia:
    which also mentions Tokyo, Osaka and Johannesburg. Surely there'd be some in China as well - e.g. centred on Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing ... ?)

    In addition to the existing I-35 corridor, including the currently building Texas 130 toll road, there's a much bigger plan for something called the Trans-Texas Corridor:


    Multiple roads of the size of I-35 and SH 130 going in more or less near I-35, plus a new Interstate from east Texas into Louisiana, called I-69.

    As you can see by their web pages, population growth is explicitly linked as a cause of the project and as something the project is intended t attract.

    Funding for this project comes from a Spanish company, to the tune of several billion dollars, in exchange for which they get to keep the toll revenues for 50 years.

    I have to wonder what all this new concrete will do to rainfall patterns.


    Stefan Jones:

    I remember being fascinated by the megalopolis idea as a little sci-fi weenie kid.

    Now that I've travelled a bit, specifically all over "Boshwash," a bit in "Cascadia," I think megalopolis-level planning could be a really bad idea.

    The problem is that we really aren't dealing with a contiguous anything. There are *huge* swaths of rural land between Philly and New York, and New York and Boston. If you chunk these together, the interests of the urban areas will overwhelm those of the rural.

    Thanks to development this is already happening in some respects, but glomming these diverse areas together politically as well as emergent- economically could turn rural areas into watersheds and dumping grounds.

    This is nit-picky, but shouldn't that be "Six (or five and a half) are east of the Mississippi river?"

    Indeed, Martey. I've changed the phrasing to "continental divide," which is more accurate.

    Stefan, a megapolitan distinction doesn't mean uninterrupted concrete; one value of planning at that level, in fact, would be to coordinate greenspaces, allowing for larger stretches of undeveloped land.

    Could we dismantle megalopolis re a flu pandemic? Doesn't sound realistic - more like sci fi - but sci fi authors might lend a hand at the fluwikie.com - please do (at Scenarios.Positive). Thanks!

    Speaking of the I35 corridor, there's a Digital Convergence Initiative brewing in Texas that defines the corridor from Waco south through Austin to San Antonio as an ideal region for convergence supercluster development. The way we've been discussing this development, it would be pretty much what's described above as a megapolitan area.

    The map shows the geographic extent of the urban/suburban development. Another map would be interesting: a map of the "footprint" of these areas. For example, most of the upper Midwest is outside "Megalopolis," but it isn't really, because that's where the food comes from. Most of my state, Maine, is outside Megalopolis, but not really; the northern two-thirds of the state is a "paper plantation" and most of the rest is where city-dwellers go to rusticate. It's the rural and forested areas of Northern California that help provide the water piped over the Tehachapi and Altamont Passes to Southern California.

    Adam Burke:

    Echoes of "Autonomous Regions" here, the very first pattern in "A Pattern Language". There's also echoes at a larger scale the way great large cities have multiple centres of specialisation rather than one main area.


    Yeah, actully, I was going to mention the same thing.

    This idea is interesting because people are realizing that there's another level to the fractal structure of cities & transportation. Individual bus stops scatter around neighborhood transit hubs, which feed to city-level hubs, which go to metropolitan-area centers, and now realizing you have to also consider megalopolis-level centers as well.
    It appears the same design decisions are roughly optimal at all these levels, like the Goa Rurbanism model, or Alexander's Pattern Language.

    So how long will it take before people think it's necessary to consider transportation flows on continent-wide and global levels? (much much cheaper & common transportation, I guess.)


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