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From Metropolitans to Megapolitans

Robert Lang / Apr 07 2012


For Release Saturday, April 7, 2012

Robert LangIn a space as large as France, the Netherlands and Belguim combined, America’s megapolitans house more than 2.5 times as many people. In fact, they are more densely settled than Europe as a whole and, by some estimates, will house two-thirds of the U.S. population by 2040.

Yet, the United States is often referred to as the land of wide-open spaces with low population density. And, at times, the nostalgia for how America once was is used to influence and validate public policy. For instance, some policy experts firmly believe that the U.S. cannot support European-style passenger rail.

It is true the average population density in the U.S.—about 100 persons per square mile—is roughly half that of Western European countries. But the comparison is misguided. The U.S. has a significant amount of densely settled urban areas scattered throughout. While megapolitans occupy only 17 percent of the continuous 48 states’ land base, America’s megapolitan clusters, as a group, form the world’s third most populous country, behind China and India.

Metropolitan regions are the large areas spanning cities and counties that are connected through commuting patterns and economic exchanges. However, as these regions continue to grow, they form even more complex and extensive linkages. Megapolitans, as they are often referred to, are strings of metropolitan areas connected by shared transportation networks, labor markets and culture. The megapolitan clusters are metropolitan regions networked either by commuting, trucking, or commuter airlines and separated by less than 550 miles. Thus far, metropolitans view nearby regions as competitors rather than partners. In fact, only one metropolitan area has a regionally elected governing body: the Metro Council of Portland, Oregon, created in the 1980s. No other region has followed suit.

However, a less formal, self-organizing, voluntary form of regionalism is beginning to emerge. At times this regionalism is created by business interests, as is the case with Phoenix and Tucson. These two cities are marketed together as a collaborative region in an economic development initiative “Arizona Sun Corridor: Open for Business.”

Other megapolitan areas exist in the public conscious. Any traveler on the Pacific Coast Highway can distinguish between Northern California and Southern California. The differences are part environment, part mood. “Southland,” or the area between Santa Barbara and San Diego, exists in the public mind as a place completely separate from Northern California. Or, as the Dallas-Fort Worth area highlights, two cities can have a mutual distaste for one another that evolves into acceptance and celebration of metropolitan integration. This transformation was prompted by the federal aid formula which placed a single airport between them.

A sense of shared identity, whether occurring formally or organically, does not guarantee good planning results, but it does enable public acceptance of the idea that an extensive area crossing jurisdictional boundaries can form one distinct region. There are many benefits to this.

Metropolitan partnerships can help secure a region’s vitality in the global economy. Phoenix and Tucson, for instance, can pool their collective assets and markets to produce a global gateway known as the Sun Corridor. Phoenix is a large-scale region with an international airport and global links. Tucson received the state’s original land grant university, and is home to the University of Arizona, which has strong research capacity in space science and optics and contains the main branch of Arizona’s medical school. Roughly speaking, Phoenix has the global access and Tucson has the technology. Local elected officials and business leaders in Orlando and Tampa are following suit to create the Florida Corridor — its goal to combine Orlando’s tourist economy and global connectivity with Tampa’s major port and industries tied to logistics.

Cooperation among megapolitans such as Seattle-Portland or Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland-Pittsburgh becomes increasingly important as the federal government must ensure that taxpayer money spent on infrastructure improvements and resource-land management is not wasted. Our past proves a lack of planning at a broad level can produce inefficient outcomes, as is the case with several transportation infrastructure projects. Failure to coordinate at a broad level has also led to infighting among cities and states. Case in point is Atlanta’s ongoing feud with Alabama and Florida over water rights.

While our cities and counties increasingly get on board with regional collaboration, this process requires a shift in the way we traditionally think about the many cities and counties that surround us. For instance, despite the strong objections by local officials and business leaders, Florida Gov. Rick Scott killed high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. We can recognize his rationale was tied political discourse rather than disdain for regional collaboration. Nonetheless, his actions dampened the chances for regional integration between Tampa and Orlando and stifled their ability to compete against other megapolitans which have pooled their metropolitans’ talent and resources to create a single unified region.

The sooner we recognize that the United States is evolving into a nation of densely settled economic engines and act accordingly, the better able we are to sustain long-term economic development to the mid-21st century and beyond.

Robert E. Lang is co-author, with Arthur C. Nelson, of the new book Megapolitan America: A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography (American Planning Association, 2011). Christina Nicholas is a PhD student who works with him. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Mike Koetting
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland? Yeah…I guess if you think long enough you can imagine the dinosaurs coming back. I can’t see Chicago-Naperville in my kid’s lifetime…I guess I am just a flat-earther just because I prefer to focus on policies with, say, a 50 year time frame….

  2. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Apparently high price of oil has already started affecting settlement patterns. Too bad public transport is so poor in these regions.
    This is pattern is due to get more pronounced:
    Oil Will Decline Shortly After 2015, Says Former Oil Expert Of International Energy Agency
    Full interview:
    World has been too reliant on giant fields and there is the rub.
    Mexico Tries To Save Big, Fading Oil Field

  3. Posted April 9, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    It’s esy to look at European cities and become enamored with their functioning rail systems for urban and inter-uraban transportation. The model seems to have not found the same success in US cities, though many cities have tried and some even succeeded somewhat. The models difffer, I believe, as a matter choices avaialable in history. European cities devloped earlier and and thier era, the rails were viable. US cities were built around roads and the ubiquitous car. The choices then were diffferent in the respective eras, and, they are different again today.

    The idea that US problems with transit can be solved with rails is like suggesting that non avian life forms sprout wings to better get around. We perceive the difficulty in animals thus evolving, but, believe that since we “design cities” such rules do not apply to cities.

    I suggest that the rules do apply. Our first attempts at flying relied on flapping mechanical wings, laughable now in retrospect. Now the wings and rules do persist in our flying machines, but given the requirements for engines, runways and airports, the analogy ends abruptly. The idea that our 21st century urban form can be saved by imitating Europe and adopting 18th century technol0gy borne on rails, is more nostalgia than an idea. The new form, whatever it is, will be as unique or different as the US is.