The Rise of Megaregions

 In late May 1929, the Committee on the Regional Plan for New York and Its Environs published a massive, 10-volume report. Now known as the Regional Plan of 1929, it laid out a vision for infrastructural expansion designed to take the tristate region's economy to midcentury and beyond. As Thomas K. Wright, executive director of the Regional Planning Association (successor to the Committee on the Regional Plan for New York), reminded those gathered for the RPA's 19th-annual assembly in April, the 1929 plan gave the New York area a leg up when the depression hit and Work Progress Administration dollars came pouring out of Washington.

"[Of the] 2,500 miles of highway proposed by the RPA in 1929, over 1,000 were built or under construction by 1938," Wright said. Many have noted the parallels between the crash of 1929 and the turmoil of today. But the "more instructive analogy," Wright said, "is not what happened in the run up to the financial crisis but how we responded."

As another economic crisis unfolds, the RPA is again trying to shape the response. It organized America 2050, a national initiative for long-term planning, particularly in intercity and regional rail transport, as the surest way to facilitate future growth. Perhaps America 2050 is making up for lost time; the RPA's 1929 plan called for more rail, too, but in the end Robert Moses' car-carrying roadways and bridges -- now clogged with traffic and belching carbon dioxide -- won the day. But there's more to it than that. America 2050 and others, including planning guru Richard Florida, are trying to convince business and political leaders to rethink the spatial coordinates of the national economy. No longer content to plan on a regional basis, they have moved on to what they call the "megaregion."

The United States is now home to 11 such megas, from "Cascadia" in the Pacific Northwest to the "Northeast," which runs from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine. As Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, told the audience at the April RPA meeting, by 2050 "70 percent of population and economic growth will be focused" in them. This is just a prediction. What we know for sure, as America 2050 tells us, is that the Europeans, the Japanese, and now, the Chinese, have built or are building intercity high-speed rail systems that better integrate their own megaregional economies. "This is about global economic competition," Todorovich told Fox Business News in April. Of high-speed rail, she said, we "can't afford not to do it."

Indeed, the RPA, America 2050, and others in the planning world seem to have gotten their point across. Infrastructure development is a big part of the federal stimulus package, and back in April, President Barack Obama announced a $13 billion plan for a regional system of high-speed rail.

The promoters of megaregions and modern rail systems seem to have a winning formula, one that offers a fresh conceptualization of the spatial workings of economic growth and is glamorous and high-tech (not to mention, green). To say the least, this formula is politically convenient, given how well it responds to concerns -- magnified by the recession -- about America's economic future.

The time has come for a closer look.


What are the advantages of thinking megaregionally? It's easy to look at, say, the upper Midwest and tick off the intractable problems of cities like Detroit or Youngstown, Ohio. Policies would be devised (and money spent) to address joblessness, population loss, and crime, but substantive and sustained revival was hard to come by. Mega theorists say it's about expanding the view -- about considering the links between cities and the suburbs and exurbs around them. Can't we then see them as functional wholes, with identifiable strengths that might outweigh more localized weaknesses?

Moreover, if we measure the total output of a megaregion, there's cause for optimism. As Bruce Katz (of the Brookings Institution), Mark Muro, and Jennifer Bradley write in a recent issue of Democracy Journal, the strengths of our big metros will, as long as their growth is both encouraged and well-managed, "help pull us out of the current economic disarray."

Since the Obama administration announced its high-speed rail initiative, the public has been awakened to the possibilities. In his speech marking the day, Obama encapsulated the kind of promotional language that surrounds most talk of trains these days:

Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

As Obama suggested, there's more to the initiative than personal convenience. Writ large, planners say, it brings a series of other benefits.

When a region is properly linked up through an extensive system of high-speed and commuter rail, and more locally, mass transit, the air not only gets fresher. Workers become more productive, and older urban centers get a burst of energy by being connected to more innovative business clusters. Jobs are created as new firms are drawn in and existing ones expand. In-fill development produces both commercial space and affordable housing; people walk or ride their bikes or hop the subway to get to work and to shop. Space gives way to "place." People like these 21st-century versions of Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village, and so do businesses.

Given these difficult times, this tale of the frictionless accumulation of happy multiplier effects is compelling. In a recent post on his Atlantic blog, Florida attempts to provide some historical and theoretical heft to this vision. He says that recovery from the last two major slumps (in the 1870s and 1930s) came when new forms of transportation technology facilitated a "spatial fix," a shift toward a "more expansive and intensive use of space." First came the railroad and urbanization, in other words, and next the automobile and the suburb. Getting out of our current downturn, Florida says, will require a new spatial fix and a new mode of transportation. The megaregion will be the "cornerstone" of the former, and high-speed rail will accomplish the latter.

"Spatial fix" is a geographer's term, as Florida says. But it doesn't always connote the kind of natural, stage-by-stage, technologically determinist progression evident in Florida's description. As geographer and urbanist David Harvey has suggested, spatial fixes are stopgaps. They get a capitalist economy up and running again -- onward to the next crisis. Moreover, spatial fixes and the technological innovations that secure them are not in the first instance what society needs, but what, in times of crisis especially, capital needs to restore profitability and growth. So Florida is right to say that capitalist development has a spatial scale; it's just that it's not as value-free, politically speaking, as he makes it sound.

Take the original development of the railroads. Sure, they helped local and regional economies grow, created jobs, and cheapened consumer goods. But the railroad economy also enriched land speculators and robber barons on the one hand and spurred ordinary men and women, in picket lines and in their communities, to fight for their due on the other. It is no coincidence that the railroad, and the mills that forged its steel, were the scenes of momentous labor strife in the last decades of the 19th century. Can the automobile represent progress without the 1937 sit-down strikes in Flint? We should also remember that, for all its clover-leafed elegance, the "expressway world" (as Marshall Berman called it in All That Is Solid Melts into Air) of Robert Moses produced plenty of dislocation and conflict. In other words, if the spatial fix imagined by megaregional planners is to bring not only long-term growth but the equity dividend they often claim is in the offing, it will likely take some of the messy give-and-take of political struggle to make it happen.

The roster of attendees at the RPA's recent regional assembly begins to tell the short-term story. Todorovich was there, as were other planners, some public officials, and representatives from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Most, though, were from transportation- and development-related consultancies, management firms, and contractors. Surely, these firms are pouring over the maps of American 2050's proposed "trans-American" passenger- and freight-rail networks the old-fashioned way, in view of their own bottom lines.

But of course, the work of planning organizations like the RPA and America 2050 doesn't boil down to this. They don't hand out the contracts to build railroads and other pieces of our infrastructure. What they really do best is come up with an agenda, get the business and political elite on board, and then get the media to spread the word. And lately, the task has been easy. Most politicians like the stimulus it promises, because most have constituents that are struggling. Politicians from megaregions where thousands of people sit in traffic every day might create a happier, more loyal commuter class. Not least, the talk of equitable and green renewal keeps alive the idealistic spirit that captivated so many during Obama's campaign.

A national growth machine may be coalescing around what Mike Davis, in a recent New Left Review analysis of Obama's election, called "Green Keynesianism," and the biggest short-term winner could be Obama himself.

But as Davis suggests, infrastructural investment, however cutting-edge and green, might not be all that effective as stimulus, because "protracted stagnation, not timely tech-led recovery, seems the most realistic scenario." It also remains to be seen how progressive this growth machine will actually be, if it does jump-start the economy. After all, bullet trains aren't magic bullets.