The 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.)