Weitzman News

Posted December 17, 2021

Defining America’s Megaregions

Where does Philadelphia end? Political boundaries say one thing. The Metropolitan Statistical Area says another. Transportation networks and watersheds suggest something else entirely. 

In a new book, two Weitzman faculty members argue that megaregions—major agglomerations of cities and towns linked by their shared economies, infrastructure, and environments—are the “predominant urban form in much of the industrialized world.” 

The book, Megaregions and America’s Future, is written by Robert Yaro, a professor of practice emeritus in the Department of City and Regional Planning; Ming Zhang, professor and program director for Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas at Austin; and Fritz Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at the Weitzman School. It will be published in early 2022 by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and distributed by Columbia University Press. In the book, Yaro, Zhang, and Steiner compile years of their own research and collaborations to describe 13 US megaregions, and argue that public policy and investments are best made at the scale of the megaregion. 

“The hope is that this becomes a kick in the pants to policymakers, both within these megaragions but also in the federal government, to pay attention to this phenomenon,” Yaro says. “The rest of the world is organizing economic, infrastructural, social-justice and climate strategies at this scale, because it’s the right scale. And we’re not.” 

The research has its origins in a 2004 Weitzman planning studio led by Yaro, who was then president of the Regional Plan Association, along with Professor of Practice Emeritus Jonathan Barnett and Armando Carbonell, the vice president of programs at the Lincoln Institute. Building on the concept of the megalopolis, a term coined by the Scottish planner and ecologist Patrick Geddes, the studio focused on population and land-use trends around the US. What the group found was that not only did the suburbs of Philly and New York “meet somewhere in Mercer County,” as Yaro says, but that megaregions were emerging all over the country, from Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast and the Texas Triangle. Authorities in Europe and Asia were building “continental-scale infrastructure systems” to serve the emerging multi-city regions, Yaro says. The group wondered: “Why aren’t we doing that?” 

“The megaregional approach provides a platform for different stakeholders and entities to talk with each other, to think about the long-term benefits not just to one specific city or a few urbanized areas, but also a benefit to smaller communities and even rural communities.”

After the studio, Yaro and others reached out to scholars in other megaregions to begin a networked research effort through a project called America 2050. Over the next decade, the Weitzman School hosted a number of studios focused on megaregions and high-speed rail. The megaregion was a compelling frame for understanding how the country was developing, and for thinking about how big transportation and environmental problems could be addressed, says UT’s Ming Zhang, in one of the four major urban centers that make up the Texas Triangle. Since the era of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, most proposals for large-scale infrastructure investments had failed. And that was partly because the governance structures to plan and implement them don’t exist, Zhang says. 

“High-speed rail, or any major investments like that, involve long-term, strategic thinking and cooperation between different stakeholders. Relying on an individual agency or a single community or even a single state … it just did not work well in the US context,” he says. “So this megaregional approach provides a platform for different stakeholders and entities to talk with each other, to think about the long-term benefits not just to one specific city or a few urbanized areas, but also a benefit to smaller communities and even rural communities.”

At the time, Steiner, a Penn alum (MRP’77, MA’86, PhD’86), was dean of the UT School of Architecture. Before he returned to Penn as Weitzman’s dean, in 2016, the authors joined with a group of other scholars to form Cooperative Mobility for Competitive Megaregions (CM2), a US Department of Transportation-funded research partnership between Penn, UT, Louisiana State University and Texas Southern University. That collaborative, which held a forum at Penn in the summer of 2018, has helped coordinate an array of research on transportation, mobility, housing, and other aspects of city and regional planning. 

Erick Guerra, the CM2 director for Weitzman and associate professor of city and regional planning, says that Megaregions and America’s Future is one of a series of publications that will be released in 2022, which is the final year of CM2’s funding from USDOT. The Department grants competitive funds to University Transportation Centers every half-decade, in order to help train the next generation of transportation planners. Guerra says he considers himself a “megaregional investments skeptic,” given the U.S.’s continued emphasis on auto infrastructure and highway spending over other modes. But the collaborative has been a productive umbrella for research from a variety of perspectives on topics including regional evacuation planning, megaregional travel demand modeling, and local walkability metrics. In 2022, CM2 researchers will reapply for another round of University Transportation Center funding. 

Steiner, who has studied megaregions in the context of the environment and ecology, says that writing the book with Yaro and Zhang was a bit like being a “middle brother,” trying to emphasize both Yaro’s strength in politics and Zhang’s expertise in demographics to produce something with a unified voice. It’s a timely publication, he says, given the recent adoption of a major infrastructure package in the U.S. Congress, and the prospect of more investment in the Build Back Better legislation being promoted by the Biden administration. The book is both a history of the megaregion as a concept and a menu of policy options for how to take advantage of it. A chapter that Steiner authored titled “The Green Mega Deal,” for example, examines large-scale interventions to promote climate resilience as a complement to the Green New Deal, and traces how regional thinking informed early eras of public investment. 

“The political agenda of the New Deal picked up on ideas about regionalism, and I think the Green New Deal could be informed or should be informed by mega-regional thinking,” Steiner says. “In a way, it provides a scale for the kind of actions that could be under the auspices of the Green New Deal.” 

Yaro, Zhang, and Steiner will give a public talk on Thursday, March 17, as part of Weitzman’s Spring 2022 Lecture Series. Admission is free with advance registration.