"Gretchen, Stop Trying to Make Megaregions Happen."

For someone who likes geeking out about public transit, I discovered Alon Levy’s blog embarrassingly late in the game (May of this year). The most fun posts he writes are those along the lines of American Transportation Is in the Hands of a Bunch of Parochial, Self-Satisfied Idiots—see, for example, his reaction to the GAO report on construction costs, which he describes as “a total miss,” and that’s before he’s even really gotten started—but the most recent post hit closer to home. Levy writes about the rise and fall of the idea of the “megaregion,” and where the term might still be applicable:

The key takeaway is that rich cities do not have to be in megaregions. The Northeast Corridor is a rich megaregion, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago anchor smaller megaregions of their own; but in Europe, among the richest cities only Frankfurt and Amsterdam are in megaregions, while London, Paris, Hamburg, and Munich are not. Megaregions are areas of high population density and interlinked social networks. Their size may give them economic advantage, but it doesn’t have to; urbanists and urban geographers must avoid overselling their importance.

“Closer to home” because for a good chunk of my grad-school career, 2005 to 2009, I worked at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) at Georgia Tech, and CQGRD was one of the loci of the megaregion idea that Levy’s discussing. (The other major center of megaregional research, as Levy notes, was the Regional Plan Association, through its America 2050 initiative; and there were other groups contributing, such as SCAG and the planning programs at UT-Austin, Penn, and Virginia Tech.) Catherine Ross, who edited the book Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness, was my doctoral adviser, and we co-authored one of the book’s chapters together. My dissertation research ended up being at an entirely different scale, so I haven’t had a chance to discuss megaregions with Dr. Ross in a while; but the concept is still part of her research agenda.

Now, if you read Levy’s post, you may be raising an eyebrow right now, because Levy very specifically states that Atlanta is not in a megaregion; and yet we at CQGRD were pretty consistent on insisting that there was such a thing as the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion, and that it ran from Birmingham to Raleigh, including parts or the entirety of six different states. And at this point you’ve probably got both eyebrows up, because: states? If megaregions consist of interlinked metropolitan areas, why bring states into it?

The original idea of the “megalopolis,” first put forward by Jean Gottmann in the early 1960s, was meant to describe the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor. The idea was that connectivity—economic, social, in terms of trip choices—was so dense between those cities that it was hard to define any one of their areas as isolated from the others. Not surprisingly, that’s the area where Levy finds the description works. But a similar number of trips doesn’t exist between Birmingham and Raleigh, or even Birmingham and Atlanta. (For those who don’t spend a lot of time in the American South: Birmingham and Raleigh are almost 900 kilometers apart by highway.) To claim that Birmingham-Atlanta-Raleigh is similar to Boston-New York-Philly means straying from Gottmann’s definition quite a bit.

Which is what we did, when we talked about megaregions. Instead of relying solely on existing density, we talked about cultural and environmental similarities, expected population growth trends, and freight flows. (This is part of the reason why we talked about states rather than metropolitan areas: a Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion defined solely by metropolitan-area social connections wouldn’t include the port of Savannah.) But that flowed from the bigger difference between Gottmann’s megalopolis and the megaregions of the 2000s. Gottmann started with the existing connectivity and asked what changes that connectivity implied in how people thought about where they lived, and what the connectivity might portend. But the megaregion was a framework to get to the connectivity. It was more prescriptive than descriptive.

You can still find, for example, the original 2005 briefing by Robert Lang and Dawn Dhavale, then both at Virginia Tech (Lang is now at Brookings), in which the hopeful language is hard to miss:

When the Census Bureau does formalize a geographic concept, it gains power. Consider a recent example…. In 2003, the US Offi ce of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees the Census Bureau, responded with the designation “Micropolitan Area.” Now micropolitans are literally on the map. Businesses, government agencies, and planners have new geography to work with. Publications took notice—Site Selection Magazine, for example, started a list of “Top Micropolitans” in which to locate businesses…. Megapolitan Areas (or “Megas”) have a similar potential. Once they are officially recognized, private industries and government agencies would embrace this new geography.

The argument all along was that if the planners and policy-makers of the various metropolitan areas and states could just be talked into putting their heads together, the resulting growth could be shaped to reap more of the potential benefits of density and connectivity. A megaregional approach could be used to help policy-makers brainstorm across state and metropolitan-area lines and mitigate the kind of at-each-other’s-throats infighting that led to the likes of the Tri-State Water Wars. Whereas the Bos-Wash corridor had had geography and history contributing to its connectivity (pre-car urban settlement + smaller amounts of land to settle + a high concentration of academic and research activity), PAM was going to need some top-down direction.

Hence one of our megaregion-focused initiatives was a 2009 one-day symposium at which elected officials and policy-makers from throughout PAM showed up and talked infrastructure, with the idea of fostering megaregional coordination and pressing for national-level goals (not least a commitment to high-speed rail). By the way, if you check the America 2050 archives, you’ll see a picture of one of the speakers, Pat McCrory, who was then mayor of Charlotte. Then-Mayor McCrory was very affable and pro-cooperation and pro-transit and charming, and so when he got elected governor of North Carolina later on, I assured a worried friend that he would be pro-cooperation and pro-transit and generally not too awful. And if you take away nothing else from this blog post, remember: do not under any circumstances ask me for stock tips.

I’m joking, but you can start to see the problem. Megaregion-as-policy-driver was a hard sell that got harder after that symposium: neither the recession nor increased political polarization at the national level helped its cause. (The one place where it did get some purchase was the FHWA, thinking about freight routes.) And megaregion-as-theoretical-construct didn’t travel well: could the same word be applied to growing dense population centers in Asia and growing (but considerably less dense) population centers in the United States? There was a lot of discussion of potential European megaregions, as Levy notes, but the following ten years didn’t bear out the megaregional predictions there either.

This is all, admittedly, the insiderest of baseball, possibly not even of interest to people doing megaregional research right now. Having not kept up with that research, I’m not in a good position to disagree with Levy’s finding the whole concept weak. (His invocation of fans in the Bos-Wash corridor crossing state lines to attend conventions does make me wonder: would we have had a stronger case for PAM if we’d showed how people travel for SEC football games?) I did want to add to the history of the megaregion idea in the 2000s while I could, though—some of the work we shared and relied on is already dead links. And the whole effort does illustrate the tensions in planning for the spatial forms you want, as opposed to the spatial forms you’ve got.