“Megalopolis” Comes of Age
Megalopolis” Comes of Age
By Neal Peirce
“Megalopolis” is a mouthful of a word. But the idea behind it — strings of major metro areas working together to plan their transportation futures and economic strategies — might just be a secret to the United States’ 21st century survival and success.
Over 200 million people, two-thirds the United States’ population, already live in 10 megapolitan regions — six east of the Mississippi, four west. And the “mega’s” are gaining population more rapidly than the U.S. as a whole — likely to add 85 million more people and a gargantuan $33 trillion in construction spending by 2040, Robert Lang of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute reported last week.
Most massive of these massive population agglomerations — now 50 million people strong — is the Northeast Corridor from New England to northern Virginia, the focus of geographer Jean Gottman’s seminal 1961 book “megalopolis.” But the Midwest mega (Pittsburgh-Detroit-Chicago) has 40 million people, the Southland (Los Angeles to Las Vegas) 22 million, and the Piedmont (Charlotte-Atlanta) 19 million.
Why focus on these super-regions now? It’s because of the massive decentralization, the “spread city” of U.S. growth since 1950, Lang insists. Suburbs at the fringe of existing metro regions have been racing toward one another. Once-distant cities have been transformed into galaxies and corridors of linked urban space, with accelerated movements of people and goods among them.
The six “smallest” mega’s are massive enough on their own: the I-35 corridor (San Antonio-Dallas-Kansas City)- 15 million people, the Florida Peninsula (Tampa-Orlando-Miami)- 14 million, the Gulf Coast (New Orleans-Houston) and NorCal (San Francisco and Central Valley)- 12 million each, Cascadia (Seattle-Portland)- 7 million and the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix)- 5 million.
All will pass the 10 million mark by 2040. But how will the massive projected growth be accommodated in metro regions already choking on highway congestion and approaching build-out under today’s low-density building patterns?
Robert Yaro, president of the New York Regional Plan Association, and Armando Carbonell, of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, have been posing that question, suggesting U.S. regions look to Europe. There it’s assumed that large-scale urbanized areas — the so-called “global integration zone” running from London to Hamburg to Munich to Milan to Paris and back to London, for example — are the primary units to integrate into the world economy.
So the Europeans have focused on planning that spans national borders, constructing a network of high-speed rail lines, even spanning the English Channel with the ambitious tunnel there. The new American “megalopitians” are thinking along the same track; a recent University of Pennsylvania School of Design report asserts the Northeast Corridor could reap immense long-term economic gain from improved rail service, even brand new high-speed service, notwithstanding the billions of dollars of up-front investment needed.
At Georgia Tech, researcher Catherine Ross is completing a parallel study on transportation, environmental and economic potentials of the Piedmont megalopolis; in the West, Ethan Selzer of Portland State University is working on a Cascadia analysis. All are looking at parallel opportunities to “bring along” lagging regions within or close to the megalopolises, just as the European Union’s investments have dramatically revived the economies of Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
The goal for the U.S., assert Yaro and Carbonell, should he nothing less than a true intermodal network — rail, highway, water and air links that relieve congested airports, divert some of the alarming rise of truck-born freight, and with increased flexibility make us less vulnerable to terrorist attacks and disasters.
From 19th Century canals and rails to 20th century interstates and airports, Americans pushed to create equal access and capacity across the continent. Now we’ve now moved from simple filling of land to the new imperatives of megapolitan growth, including remade ports and rail systems and reclamation of polluted lands and decrepit waterfronts.
“Yet for the first time in 200 years,” adds Yaro, “we have no vision, no plan — just when we should be looking over our shoulders at nimble, efficient foreign competition.”
The megapolitan crowd talks of some federal incentives and dollars. But given Washington’s increasingly empty cupboard, the suggestion is for far more dependence on public-private partnerships, private investors, congestion pricing, user fees and other ways to start the movement bottom-up, generating critical levels of investment in the great and wealthy megapolitan regions themselves.
With America’s “political class” embroiled in hot but tangential red-state/blue-state issues, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Center says the first priority must be on building “rich and robust networks across regions” sparked by leaders from all sectors — large employers and key entrepreneurs, university and hospital presidents, foundation heads, faith-based and union leaders, newspaper publishers and others.
It sounds tough, but a breath of fresh air: the idea of assembling the leadership needed to deal with the challenges — and geography — of the new century.