Beware Megapolitan Planning

From the USA Today comes an article highlighting a nascent push to refocus attention on a new super-regional geography — the megapolis:

Big cities are bumping into small towns, stretching into rural areas, gobbling up farmland and merging into big urban blobs: megapolitan areas. Sports rivalries aside, the world is no longer about towns, cities, counties, metropolitan areas or even states. Those traditional boundaries may become even more parochial as a booming nation of 295 million braces for another 125 million people by 2050. If current development patterns continue, millions more will settle around metropolitan areas, along interstate highways and near major airports. They’ll form giant urban areas linked by common culture, economy, geography and ecology: Ten megapolitan areas have more than 10 million residents or will have that many by 2040, according to a new study by Virginia Tech. They extend into 35 states and include parts of every state east of the Mississippi River except Vermont. They incorporate less than a fifth of the land area in the continental USA but house more than two-thirds of the population. Four states are completely megapolitan: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City and Regional Planning predict that by 2050, more than 300 million people, about 70% of the population, will live in eight “super city” regions that today have about 175 million people.

Some of the megapolitan areas discussed include NYC-Boston-Philly-DC-Richmond; KC-OK City-Dallas-San Antonio; Houston-New Orleans-Mobile; and LA-San Diego-Las Vegas. The idea of emphasizing a new geographic level of analysis does seem to have some validity as it pertains to regional economic and demographic analysis. But the article does foreshadow a potential movement to keep an eye on — a mutation of regionalism (i.e. regional land use planning and governance) into super-regionalism:

“We’re looking at places the way Asians and Europeans do, cutting across borders,” says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York non-profit research and advocacy group that works on quality-of-life issues in 31 adjacent counties in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Yaro and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., are researching ways of formally delineating and measuring these regions. The goal: to promote collaboration on transportation and environmental protection between metropolitan areas and across political boundaries. […] “The government should recognize that we have super cities, super regions that are emerging,” says Catherine Ross, head of a Georgia Tech program studying the ever-expanding Atlanta megapolitan area. She calls it the Piedmont Atlantic Megalopolis, PAM for short. Defining this vast space as one region could help spread development and the increased demand for water, sewers and electricity more evenly throughout the area, not just around Atlanta, Ross says. The Washington-Baltimore area is another example. In the nation’s capital and its immediate suburbs, the housing market is superheated. Just 40 miles away in Baltimore, a city that is losing population, housing is still affordable but heavy traffic makes such a commute daunting. “If you build a bullet train to Baltimore, you could change that dynamic,” Lang says. “It’s in your interest to redistribute housing opportunities.”

Now in certain cases, such as super-regional coordination on electronic toll collection mentioned in the article, there could be some benefit to addressing issues on such a large scale. But does Amtrak really need a new unit of Census geography to make reasonable decisions on how to organize their service? Can’t they look at the existing data to figure out what routes make sense and which don’t? And similar to concerns about regional planning, efforts to promote coordinated land use, environmental, and transportation planning across multi-state/city areas should raise a serious red flag. Namely, if these efforts were to result in giving some degree of political power to a super-regional entity (i.e., beyond the county and state levels), such efforts would necessarily involve a loss of local control, reducing efficiency and representativeness of local government. Also, in areas like Portland, OR metro area where considerable power over planning and environmental policy has been granted to a regional authority, we see a pronounced rise in land and housing prices and a decrease in housing affordability. Of course, it’s hard enough to form regional coalitions to address land use concerns and other issues, so it would presumably be even more difficult to form super-regional coalitions that cross state lines. Realistically, this would be an uphill battle. But I wouldn’t doubt that smart growth advocates would still jump on any opportunity to pursue dramatic change on a large geographic scale.