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America 2050: Planning Megalopolis

Worldchanging ally Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). He also contributed to the Worldchanging book.

Somewhere on the list of reasons that American cities are so un-bright-green—so sprawling, so car-dependent, so socially segregated—is the fact that the scale of our political institutions has no relationship to the scale of real urbanization. We have well-tested ways to make decisions at the scale of the neighborhood or municipality. But the functional unit of the urban economy is the metropolitan region, which is usually made up of hundreds of independent cities, along with an assortment of single-purpose government agencies that do specific tasks.

Recent trends show that the scale of most urbanized regions is, in fact, expanding. Metropolitan areas are spreading out to make contact with other metropolitan areas, forming “megaregions” of overlapping commute sheds. This is, intuitively, what we all see from airplanes when we look at the front range of the Rocky Mountains, Southern California, or the Northeast corridor from Boston to Baltimore. In other cases, the metropolitan regions are not literally touching each other, but are increasingly integrated—for example the Cascadia region including Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.

America is projected to grow by 40% between 2000 and 2050. And the vast majority of this growth will be concentrated inside 8-10 megaregions. What will this do to the country? What form will it take? What tools exist for influencing the trendline patterns of urbanization?

An emerging network of organizations trying to plan at this scale. America 2050 is being coordinated by the Regional Plan Association (a non-profit that works on the New York region). For at least some of the project organizers, the ambition is nothing less than the creation of a national growth plan that can guide this country’s physical evolution over the next century.

The work began with quantitative research to try to define the shape of the emerging super-cities— mostly, planning professors sitting down with the smart people at the census bureau. (For a very accessible look behind the curtain of the census definitions of regions, check out Beyond Metropolis: Exploring America’s new ‘Megapolitan’ Geography. [PDF]).

Where is this heading? We need a new kind of infrastructure investment to enable the next century of growth. The interstate highway system represents the last serious effort by the federal government to shape urbanization. What we need now is not just a shift from road-building to transit, but the right investments in transit. Transit planning is hobbled by the same jurisdictional fragmentation that mars all city planning in America. But some of the most important transit investments will be those that integrate networks of cities across county, state, and in some cases national boundaries. The opening paragraphs of Ecolopolis: Making the Case for a Cascadian SuperCity [PDF] call for a strategic investment in high speed rail to link Cascadia’s three principle cities:

Imagine boarding a high-speed rail train in downtown Portland. Your coffee steams while you sit down to open your laptop. As the train’s speed increases, rivers and snowy volcanic peaks come in and out of view. The city vanishes into a mossy haze of temperate rainforest.
This is Cascadia, the distinct region known to the world as the Pacific Northwest. It encompasses two states (Oregon and Washington), one province (British Columbia) and an international border (USA/Canada). After just over two hours, the train pulls up amidst the sleek high-rise towers of Vancouver. Roundtrip your travel tops 600 miles, but high-speed rail will allow you to return to Portland after your meeting in time for dinner.
Fact or fiction? Currently, air connections make it possible. However, for this tale to become true, the fundamental underpinnings of Cascadia, and the identity of the region as a place, would need to become much stronger, and more carefully articulated From the outside, we are one region. From the inside, it’s difficult to get the citizens of the Portland metropolitan region today to embrace the issues (let alone the professional sports teams) of the Seattle and Vancouver, BC metropolitan areas as their own.

Currently, the only U.S. megaregion that benefits from this kind of rail linkage is the northeast corridor, tied together by the Amtrak Acela line. But this framework for growth is desperately needed by the other regions. In fact, almost all of the regions being studied as megaregions are the locations for proposed high speed rail lines, modeled on the European systems that have emerged over the last half-century.

Other region-shaping infrastructure investments may emerge from the America 2050 effort. In this light, institutions like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey re-emerge as extremely interesting experiments in regional cooperation across state boundaries. The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, first suggested in 1927, but not completed until 1974, is another case of infrastructure that shaped a megaregion—although not necessarily in positive ways. Will the once-dreamed of Tijuana-San Diego airport be revived? Will the Ports of Oakland and Sacramento, now experimenting with a form of joint operating agreement, someday be merged? A million other examples of regionalist infrastructure are possible.

And historically some of the most successful efforts to plan at the megaregional scale have involved habitat protection. Think of the Appalachian Trail, the Great Lakes clean up, or the saving of San Francisco Bay. It’s sometimes easiest to perceive the need to think at a larger scale when the natural topography of the earth is so obviously larger than the existing set of political institutions.

Other questions will follow: Can the integration of “less successful” and “more successful” cities be part of the solution for economic underdevelopment? Or provide an affordable housing relief valve for the most expensive cities? Do we need to create megaregional institutions of governance or can this be done through a combination of state and local cooperation? Planning for megalopolis is just beginning. But we all sense that it’s something we need to figure out how to do.

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The Ecolopolis pdf link seems to be broken

Posted by: Justin Martenstein on 19 Apr 06

Nah, the Ecolopolis pdf was just linked wrong, as:

It should be:

without the WorldChanging pre-link.

Posted by: Aaron on 19 Apr 06

Rising energy costs over the next few decades as we ride the downslope from peak oil could provide a counter influence and start a move toward more compact urban centers.

Posted by: Stephanie on 19 Apr 06

Beyond Metropolis: Exploring America’s new ‘Megapolitan’ Geography. [PDF]). correct link

Posted by: Michael on 20 Apr 06

The map shows "blobs" with smooth boundaries. In reality, the urban/non-urban boundary is very coarse and wrinkled. It might even resemble fractal geometry if we look closely enough.

To me the really interesting question is what that boundary will be like. Most ecological richness takes place at boundaries, from wetlands to deltas to estuaries - even to the cell wall. To get "Megapolis" right, we have to get the boundaries right.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Apr 06



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