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CommonCensus and the Megalopolis

commoncensus.jpgThe CommonCensus Map Project asks a simple question: which city in your general region do you most identify with, culturally? From that question -- answered by over 16,000 people, and counting -- CommonCensus is building a cultural footprint map of the United States. The results are both fascinating and not terribly surprising: culture has much more to do with major cities than with political boundaries. Cities like Boise, Idaho, Denver, Colorado, and Minneapolis, Minnesota dominate cultural lives well outside of their home states; regions with multiple big cities in close proximity, such as along the northern east coast of the US, find that their footprints are much smaller, even if the populations are far larger.

I have two major observations about the resulting map. The first is that, for the most part, the "cultural influence" regions more-or-less map to television coverage. That is to say, the sizes of the cultural regions are roughly equivalent to the area likely to receive the television stations of the "core" city. The second is that there's an interesting parallel here to the "megapolitan" areas demographers and sociologists have identified in the US.

(What's a "megapolitan" area? From the above link: The term megalopolis was coined in 1961 by Jean Gottmann, referring to massive agglomerations of population centers across a region. ...A megalopolis covers multiple metropolitan and "micropolitan" areas, yet has a distinct economic and historical identity. ...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.)

It's this echo of the megalopolis that makes this cultural footprint map interesting, from a WorldChanging perspective, as it could serve as an early-indicator of where new megapolitan regions may emerge. The map produced by Virginia Tech's Robert Lang (PDF) shows ten current megapolitan regions, most of which have a rough correlation to cultural footprint regions generated by the CommonCensus site. Lang's map has more empty space than megapolitan space; as the population grows and moves over the coming decades, that empty space will fill in with emerging megalopolises. Given the cultural pull the cities on the CommonCensus map already demonstrate, it seems likely that they would be the seeds of new megapolitan areas.

As interesting as this map is, I think one of Europe could be more surprising. There, the political boundaries are traditionally seen as roughly aligning with cultural boundaries. But is that really so? Do border communities identify more with the major cities of neighboring countries than with their own? How fractured are the European nations, internally? Do cultural footprints map to language, or is economics a greater pull?

I wonder what politics would be like if representation was based on the CommonCensus regions, rather than on state boundaries.

(FutureWire also links to the CommonCensus project, and has its own useful observations.)

Comments (12)


This is fascinating, and it would be interesting to do the same exercise for Europe.

Even more interesting might be to create such a map for the post-colonial diasporas which are scattered all over the world (do third generation Indians in Suriname keep a cultural affinity with their city of origin in India? do these loyalties change now that India's coming more into focus? How about the diaspora's in modern megacities?, etc...).

Finally, there are quite some interesting anthropological studies out there about the "geography of desire", which show how certain communities (mainly in ex-colonies) create imaginary maps of places where they want to be. E.g. the Congolese in Kinshasa are furiously engaged with Paris, Brussels, New York and Montréal, even though they know they will never get there, and they create entire lexicons of new words and references pointing to those imaginary places. Streetkids in Kinshasa are called Shègè, coming from the "Schengen zone" in Europe, meaning that they cruise freely (mentally) from European city to city.

Pace Arko:

It would interesting to see how this would look as a cartogram where area represents population density. Sort of like the famous 2004 election cartogram.


A good while back I was in such a study and it was full of holes. They only had a small list of cities to chose from in my area and didnt have non of the above as an answer and did even have any cities in my area.

So the results depend a great deal n the limits of the study itself.

TV is the root of all problems here in the US.


If it wasnt for tv id have to talk to people and that would be bad!


They have also have maps showing athletic team identification. Check out all the Green Bay Packers fans in upper Mississippi (around Brett Favre's hometown). Also notice the Albany area is full of N.E. fans (Patriots and Red Sox). Probably also has to do with TV coverage. The suggestions above to study other regions and topics using this methodology sound very interesting.


Wow. When I look at that, all I can think of is real-time strategy games that account for 'cultural influence' factors in races/societies.

And the influencers in those games... arenas, museums, cultural morale. In those games, those influencers all attract population from other civilizations to join your own.

In contrast, it's interesting how local leaders in fact try to build 'cultual influence' as policy. Tax breaks for employers, arts, cheap sprawling suburbia, expensive urban decadance, crime policy, all as techniques for drawing the 'right' population.


Just a side-note: apparently the world is experiencing American cultural hegemony so much so that the 190 member-states of the UNESCO are now in the process of ratifying the landmark "Cultural Diversity Convention". Check it out, here:

"Countries turn backs on Hollywood"

Unesco member states have formally voted to support their own film and music industries against globalisation.

This is of course "culture" narrowly defined. But still, the vision of American urban culture has penetrated our collective global imaginaire to such an extent that it feels threatening...

What I find most interesting about this map are the important cities that DON'T have large surrounding areas--for some places this makes sense, like San Jose being an island surrounded by San Francisco, because not much happens culturally in San Jose.

But Austin, for instance, is a tiny bubble in Texas. Even though it's the state's capitol, the people in the nearby areas identify more with cities much farther away. ...I guess we knew that already, but it's impressive to see it come out in a map.

The influence of geography on this map is particularly interesting in the West, where state lines have only vague resemblance to the landforms they overlay. San Francisco is clearly the center of gravity for northern California and Nevada, but Sacramento gets its own area of influence in the northern Central Valley and the Sierra, covering the area where you would have to drive through Sacramento to get to San Francisco. If there were no Coast Range, I'll bet Sacramento would look like Las Vegas: a bubble on the edge of SF's area of influence, with a little bit of hinterland stretching up to the Sierras in its shadow.

Three interesting Western cases are Spokane, Reno, and Las Vegas: each of these cities has its own area of influence, but the city itself lives in the shadow of some larger city: Spokane looks to Seattle, Reno looks to Sacramento, and Las Vegas looks to Los Angeles.

Jon Foley:

I find it interesting that some of these cities are fairly small, but have a fairly large cultural influence. My home town of Madison, Wisconsin, is one. Austin is another. I'm surprised that Boulder, Colorado isn't there -- separate from Denver.

The flip-side, of course, is the list of larger cities that didn't make it on the map.

Perhaps, as was suggested above regarding cartograms, it would be cool to figure out the "cultural impact per capita" of some these cities? Which ones have a larger impact for their size, and why? What makes a city a cultural magnet, and what doesn't?

There's obvioulsy been a lot of discussion of this lately. But how are cultural hubs good for development? Here in Madison, people talk about the need for the three "Ts": talent, technology and tolerance.

Damn. Think of Civ 3 or maybe even Civ 4! Very much like the game!


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