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Megaregions are predicted to propel
US population and economic growth

By Tony Favro, USA Editor*

10 March 2013: It’s a commonplace among urban planners and many policymakers that regions are the basic unit of economic competitiveness in the global economy. The US Conference of Mayors annually publishes a media-friendly report asserting that metropolitan areas are drivers of the US economy, and the US Census Bureau has vastly increased the amount of data it makes available for research at the metro level. America 2050, part of the Regional Plan Association, reckons that America’s population growth and and even a larger share of the country’s economic expansion will occur in 11 megaregions. Yet nowhere in the industrialized world are regions given fewer resources and less power than in the United States.

The lack of working regional mechanisms hasn’t inhibited American planners and academics from analyzing metropolitan growth in terms of megaregions. They’ve leapfrogged the unresolved challenges of coordinating local governments at the regional level and are examining multi-regional agglomerations. Depending on the selection criteria adopted, there are between five and ten megaregions in the US comprised of varying numbers of metropolitan areas.

Advocates say that megaregions are the next logical step in regional thinking in a global economy. In the near future, they argue, only well-oiled megaregions will have the economic scale and critical mass of talent to compete globally. They often argue for federal policies, especially infrastructure policies, that take megaregions into account. Other observers are more circumspect, considering megaregions an interesting intellectual exercise with little practical value; still others are skeptical or hostile, stating that directing attention to megaregions is a way of evading the social equity, livability, and economic viability issues within regions.

There’s no doubt that interest in megaregions received a boost in the United States with the publication in 2008 of a book on the subject by Richard Florida. Florida previously gave planners the notion of a “creative class” and a simple, arithmetical “creativity index” for communities to gauge their competitiveness based on their quotient of high technology, young talent, and tolerance for social diversity.

An official European Union document gives advice about Florida’s work on the creative class:
“We should avoid interpreting Florida’s ideas about the city in a simplistic way. In fact, it is difficult to consider his “three Ts model” (Technology, Talent, Tolerance) as a serious urban theory. It should rather be considered as an inspiring idea, which is very useful for refreshing urban policies. In other words, addressing Florida’s thinking on the creative city as an inspiration and not as an urban pattern. And if we can listen to his critics at the same time we can go beyond the trendiness of his ideas and assess the importance of the creative driver in the economic development agenda in a more balanced way… (From creative industries to the creative place: Refreshing the local development agenda in small and medium-sized towns, URBACT, 2011).”

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to extend this caution about the “three Ts model” to ideas about megaregions. Trends can be inspirational in certain circumstances and within recognized limits, but rigorous research follows the scientific method. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify independent and dependent variables about relationships within megaregions, prepare hypothesis statements, test the strength of relationships, and then apply them to the real world.

From an intellectual standpoint, the most basic question about megaregions is: What makes them possible - not necessary, but possible? In other words, what are the necessary geohistorical preconditions of megaregions and what are the geohistorical limits governing them? This gets one thinking, spinning off all manner of conjectures, paths of investigation, some of which may prove inspirational and fruitful. For example, corridors of prosperity tend to develop, consciously or not, within regions and between regions. Is managing them well a function of size? What would competition at the megaregional scale mean for fairness and equity in economic development, transportation, and land use?  Are inter-regional transportation and infrastructure improvements necessarily innocuous or win-win for all regions within a megaregion? Might not some regions lose wealth and jobs at another region’s expense? How does the concept of a megaregion solve a problem - any problem - in way that is superior to existing regional theory?

These questions are rarely asked by advocates of megaregions; in fact, they may be unanswerable. But many urban planners in the United States, for better or worse, find no greater purpose in life that to try to answer such questions.

Megaregions, in other words, are the latest existential grounds for American planners to park their visions of the future.

America's megaregions
Main cities
2010 Population (and as percentage of US population)
Projected growth 2010 to 2050
Arizona Sun Corridor Phoenix, Tucson
5.7 million (2%)
Cascadia Portland, Seattle, Vancouver (Canada)
8.4 million (3%)
Florida Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonvill
17.3 million (6%)
Front Range Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, Denver
5.5 million (2%)
Great Lakes Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Indianapolis
55.5 million (18%)
Gulf Coast Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge
13.4 million (4%)
Northeast Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C.
52.3 million (17%)
Northern California Oakland, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco
14.9 million (5%)
Piedmont Atlantic Atlanta, Birmingham, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte
11.6 million (6%)
Southern California Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, Long Beach, Las Vegas
24.4 million (8%)
Texas Triangle Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio
19.7 million (6%)
Source: America 2050, NYC

Definition of megaregions by America 2050:
Megaregions are large networks of metropolitan regions, each megaregion covering thousands of square miles and located in every part of the country. The megaregions of the United States are defined by layers of relationships that together define a common interest; this common interest, in turn, forms the basis for policy decisions. The five major categories of relationships that define megaregions are:
• Environmental systems and topography
• Infrastructure systems
• Economic linkages
• Settlement patterns and land use
• Shared culture and history
While every megaregion may not share every one of these characteristics, the possession of several indicates a stronger and more cohesive megaregion. For instance, the Northeast Megalopolis, identified as early as 1961 by geographer Jean Gottman, is defined by relationships in each of these categories and, accordingly, is one of the strongest and most easily recognizable megaregions.

*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form

Tony Favro also maintains the blog Planning and Investing in Cities.

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