Remember how ten years ago the American urbanist conversation was all about carving the country up into megaregions? The America 2050 project drew some lines connecting metro areas into regions, designed to imitate the Boston-Washington corridor in concept, and asserted that this would be the future of American growth. The concept seems to have dropped off the discourse, and for good reason, but it may be useful to have a second look. The Boston-Washington megalopolis is a genuine megaregion, and it’s useful to see which regions elsewhere in the world share its characteristics.
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.
What is a megaregion?
The original Boston-Washington megalopolis was defined in the 1960s, as a linear region with continuous suburban sprawl. The core comes from New York and Philadelphia, which share some suburbs in Central Jersey, their regional rails meeting at Trenton. However, continuous sprawl goes north to New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, with only a few tens of km of separation from Providence and Worcester on the way to Boston; and southwest to Baltimore and Washington, with suburbs spaced closely together along the I-95 corridor.
There are extensive academic connections. Academics are generally hypermobile, but form especially thick metropolitan connections. Living in Boston and reverse-commuting to Brown is normal, and people at Brown would sometimes go up to Harvard or MIT for seminars when sufficiently important or interesting people gave talks. Connections up and down the central part of the corridor are extensive as well, stretching from Yale down to Penn. There is a gap between New Haven and Providence, as Hartford and Springfield aren’t academic centers; perhaps for academics the megaregion only stretches from New Haven to Washington, but even so, at least two-thirds of the megaregion remains intact.
Socially, there are strong connections along the corridor as well. They’re rarely end-to-end, but people in fandom routinely go a state or two over for conventions, so conventions in Connecticut and Rhode Island draw from New York and Boston, conventions in New Jersey draw from Philadelphia and New Haven, and conventions in Maryland draw from Philadelphia and Northern Virginia. On some stretches, weekend trips are normal, like the Columbia students who’d go back to visit parents in suburban Philadelphia every weekend, or people in New York who dated people in New Haven and didn’t even really think of it as a long-distance relationship.
Which regions qualify as megaregions?
Outside the Northeast, it is difficult for me to judge the extent of social connections, with a few key exceptions. However, I can judge how continuous urbanization is and, using American survey data on commuting, whether two adjacent core urban areas share suburbs. In Europe, I do not have commuting data, but it is easy to look at regional rail maps and see when S-Bahn networks touch.
In the United States, the three largest core metropolitan areas outside the Northeast – Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco – all anchor megaregions. However, in all three cases, the big core metro area dominates the broader region. Los Angeles has continuous sprawl down the coast to San Diego, and the two metro areas’ commuter rail networks touch; Chicago similarly has continuous sprawl up to Milwaukee, and if Milwaukee bothered to run regional trains then they would probably go down to Kenosha and connect to Metra; the Bay Area’s high housing costs have driven many people to the San Joaquin Delta, most of the way to Sacramento, and the Amtrak route connecting San Jose and Oakland with Sacramento is largely planned as regional rail nowadays.
New York is of course much larger than the other core regions of the megalopolis, but its metro area has at most half the population of the region, and even that requires making the broadest assumptions on what counts as part of the metro area and the narrowest ones on what counts as part of the megalopolis. If metro New York excludes mostly economically independent areas like New Haven and Central Jersey, and the megalopolis includes some inland areas like Albany and Harrisburg, then New York is only one third of the megalopolis. In contrast, the five-county Los Angeles metro area has three quarters of Southern California’s population, the Bay Area has about two thirds of its megaregion’s population, and metro Chicago has about 85% of the combined population of Chicago and Milwaukee.
Suburb sharing in smaller megaregions
High population density and suburban sprawl can lead some core urban areas to share suburbs, forming a megaregion with much lower population than the megalopolis. Florida supplies at least one such example: out of 237,000 employed residents in Polk County, 26,000 commute to Orlando’s Orange County and 29,000 commute to Tampa’s Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg’s Pinellas County; the western parts of Polk County have a higher density of Tampa-bound commuters and the eastern parts have a higher density of Orlando-bound commuters, but there is a fair amount of mixing, as well as anywhere-to-anywhere commuting within the county. By all accounts, Orlando and Tampa should be placed into one megaregion.
South Florida is arguably a megaregion as well. It is treated as a metro area stretching from Miami or even Key West north to West Palm Beach, but its northern, central, and southern areas have distinct urban cores. Miami-Dade County has 982,000 employed residents, of whom only 28,000 work in Palm Beach County; in the other direction, 29,000 workers from Palm Beach commute to Miami-Dade out of 513,000. This megaregion stretches even further north – St. Lucie County has 13,000 out of 100,000 workers commuting to Palm Beach County – but there is a gap in both population density and commuting zones between Port St. Lucie and Space Coast. Socially, too, the people I know on Space Coast don’t have ties to South Florida, and barely have any to Orlando. So the bulk of Florida is really two linear megaregions, one north-south and one southwest-northeast, which may be close but do not merge.
Finally, crossing the Pond, Northern England features a megaregion out of core metro areas of similar size to those of Central Florida. Liverpool and Manchester are two historic cores and are formally two distinct metro areas, but are so interlinked they are arguably a single metro area, and are certainly a single multicore megaregion. There is contiguous suburban sprawl connecting the two cities with small gaps, and were British regional rail services better, their frequent urban rail networks would have touched. There are even some ties crossing the Pennines to Leeds; Britain has attempted to improve infrastructure between historic Lancashire and Yorkshire, using the language of megaregions to argue that this would boost the area’s economic profile.
Leapfrog urban connections
Western Germany and the Netherlands do not have contiguous sprawl in the same way that most developed countries do. On a satellite photo, the commuting zone of New York, Paris, Madrid, Toronto, or any other major city in their respective countries looks largely as a single blob of gray. The population density of this gray blob is higher in France than in the United States, but in both countries, a metropolitan area is made out of a single contiguous built-up area plus a handful of surrounding low-density exurbs.
In contrast, in Germany and the Netherlands there are undeveloped areas between adjacent cities. Most definitions of metropolitan agglomeration in Europe recognize that Cologne and Bonn are one metro area, but the two cities’ built-up areas barely touch and have farmland in between. The metro area of Frankfurt similarly contains multiple core cities with recognizable centers and some rural gaps between them, such as Darmstadt and Mainz. Urban areas with slightly bigger gaps do not necessarily fall into one metro area, but certainly comprise a single megaregion, including Germany’s largest, the Rhine-Ruhr with its roughly 11 million people and extensive internal S-Bahn connections.
Randstad is likewise a megaregion. The Netherlands zealously protects its high-yield farmland from urban sprawl, so suburbs are usually not contiguous with the cities they serve as bedroom communities for. There are agricultural gaps between Amsterdam, the cities of Flevoland, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and the Hague, and not too much commuting between the southern and northern edges of the combined region, and yet intermediate commuting and tight economic links mean it must be viewed as more than two or three disparate metro areas.
More controversially, I claim that the lower reaches of the Upper Rhine, from Frankfurt and Mainz up to Karlsruhe, form a single megaregion, and may even stretch farther up all the way into Basel. The gaps in urbanization between Frankfurt and Mannheim are not large – there is a city every few kilometers on both rail lines connecting the two cities. Moreover, the Frankfurt and Rhine-Neckar regions’ S-Bahns touch at Mainz, the Mainz-Mannheim line having recently been designated as S-Bahn quality and appearing on the regional schedules. The Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn in turn serves Karlsruhe. South of Karlsruhe the population density is high but less so, and the gaps between the cities are larger. But even without Baden south of Karlsruhe, the combined region has nearly 10 million people, and certainly has the highest GDP in Germany, as it is much richer than the Rhine-Ruhr.
Remember the Blue Banana?
In 1989, a group of French geographers led by Roger Brunet coined the term blue banana for a European megalopolis. As defined, it stretched from London or even Liverpool and Manchester in the north, across the Channel to the Low Countries, up the Rhine to Switzerland, and then across the Alps to Milan. The original definition deliberately omitted Paris from this zone, arguing that French urban geography was dominated by internal national links centered around the capital rather than the polycentrism of the Low Countries, western Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
The last 30 years have not been kind to the Blue Banana. Much of Continental Europe was beset by a period of slow growth in the 1990s, sometimes called eurosclerosis; parts of it have slowly recovered in the 2000s and 2010s, most notably Germany, while others have stagnated, most notably Italy. In the 1990s, it was plausible to view Milan as more like Northern Europe than like Southern Italy. Today, it is no longer tenable. Before the 2008 crisis, Lombardy was as rich as Hamburg and southern Hesse and much richer than Stockholm and Copenhagen; today it is slightly behind Stockholm and slightly ahead of Copenhagen, and well behind Hamburg and southern Hesse.
The story of growth in the last generation has mostly been one of states, not regions. Northern Italy is much richer than Southern Italy, just as it has always been, but the entire country has equally stagnated. French growth has not been spectacular over this period, but it’s been better than Italian growth. Belgium, within the Blue Banana, has done better than France in the last generation, but not by much. In this entire period, the most notable subnational per capita income changes have been that London has pulled ahead while Northern England has stagnated, and that East Germany has grown faster than West Germany.
Megaregions and wealth
In the United States, the big megaregions have been loci of wealth, particularly the megalopolis. This has intensified in the current century. According to BEA data, since 2000, economic growth in the four core Northeast combined metro areas has exceeded the national average, gaining about 4 percentage points relative to the rest of the country in terms of both per capita income (from all sources) and net earnings (i.e. income from work). But even there, this is not the whole story, since Seattle, which is not in any megaregion, has had even faster growth.
Moreover, in Europe, there is no real correlation between megaregions and growth. The largest single megaregion in Europe, the Rhine-Ruhr, has slower economic growth than both the surging cities of southern Germany and the converging ones of the East. Paris and London are doing just fine as independent metro areas, Munich is still the richest city region in the EU, and Berlin is steadily converging to West German income levels.
Of course, no correlation and negative correlation are two different things. Just as the Rhine-Ruhr is slowly stagnating, the Frankfurt-Mannheim megaregion is growing, and Randstad has managed to recover from the recession alongside the rest of the Netherlands.
To the extent that there’s a link between megaregions and wealth, it’s that in developing countries, or even in midcentury America, poorer regions are mostly rural, and their cities tend to be small and less likely to interlink to form large metro areas. Thus, Eastern China has three megaregions with tens of millions of people each – Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangtze Delta, and the Pearl River Delta – underlying the wealth and urbanization of these regions; in contrast, the Indo-Gangetic Plain’s lower level of economic development means that even though population density from Bangladesh up the Ganges toward Delhi is as high as in southern Jiangsu, the cities are too small and too separated to form a Bangladeshi or West Bengali or Doabi megaregion.
But in a first-world context, the urbanization rate is about 100%. Even on-paper rural areas are within city regions and just happen to be small municipalities whose residents can drive in half an hour to a larger number of people than any premodern village pedestrian could interact with over a lifetime.
What this suggests is that the right way to think of first-world megaregions is not in terms of economic output, but in terms of density. In dense areas like the Netherlands, western Germany, England, and the Northeastern US, megaregions are likely to form out of links between adjacent cities. Not for nothing, the only part of the American Sunbelt where I’m comfortable describing metro areas as linking to form megaregions, Florida, also has the highest population density. The economies of Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston are a lot stronger than that of Central Florida, which is frankly a basket case, but cities in Texas and the Deep South are too far apart to function as megaregions.
Does high background density lead to higher incomes? Maybe. Strong urban networks really do allow for more economic specialization. But then these networks can be global, untethered from where one can travel by regional rail or urban highways. It’s an interesting question of economic geography, but on the level of a sanity check, some of the richest cities in Europe are doing just fine without the polycentric megaregional links going up and down the Rhine.