US Megaregions

During the second half of the 20th century, American cities and suburbs expanded outward and the boundaries between them began to blur, creating a new scale of geography: the megaregion. The most well-known megaregion in the United States is the Northeastern Megalopolis, stretching from Boston, through New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, to Washington, D.C. Between now and 2050, more than half the nation’s population growth and as much as two-thirds of its economic growth will occur in 8 to 10 emerging megaregions like the Arizona Sun Corridor, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf Coast. Spanning hundreds of miles, megaregions are linked by their economies, infrastructure, environmental systems, and a common culture and history. They also face shared challenges which cannot be solved by actions taken solely at the city or metropolitan scale.

This past summer, SPIA Director Anne Khademian traveled to China to address a conference of urban planners and scholars on the subject of megaregions. Khademian asked, “As metropolitan spaces transition from cities, to metro regions to megaregions, how do we make decisions to foster sustainable regions, cities, and neighborhoods?” She added, “The transition to megaregions will require us to integrate infrastructure and systems, build and sustain robust economic opportunity, minimize pollution, and insure security and sound emergency response.” For example, a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., could impact surrounding areas in several states, requiring coordinated preparation and response. Creating the industries, jobs, and infrastructure of a 21st century American economy will require states to cooperate around common economic interests, not engage in a race to the bottom competition for investment. And managing precious environmental resources, like public watersheds that span state boundaries, will also require cross-jurisdictional coordination.

America’s economic competitors in Asia and Europe are already adopting large-scale regional planning frameworks to improve quality of life and build their economies. While in China, Director Khademian offered input to planners in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, which is integrating its transportation, industry, and environmental planning across an area spanning hundreds of square miles. In Europe, Italy and the U.K. are reorganizing internally to create larger and more economically viable subregions. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the concept of megaregions is still relatively new, and planning has not moved much beyond the metropolitan scale (though there are efforts underway in the west to link cities with high-speed rail through coordinated metropolitan and regional investment). “We are outgrowing our systems of government,” said Director Khademian. “City and state boundaries limit the coordination that smart planning requires.”

During her trip to China, Director Khademian also spoke to an international dean’s forum about Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries initiative, which aims to prepare students with disciplinary depth and cross-disciplinary breadth to address complex problems that transcend economic, geographic, social, and spatial boundaries. At the School of Public and International Affairs, a newly-redesigned undergraduate degree in Public and Urban Affairs will enable students to become effective leaders in an interconnected world. In the Smart and Sustainable Cities major, students will learn about sustainable development and the use of smart technology in the search for solutions to critical urban challenges. Or as an Environmental Policy and Planning major, students can draw from multiple disciplines—including the humanities, natural and social sciences, planning, and public policy—to solve pressing environmental problems. SPIA’s undergraduate and graduate programs rely on hands-on, experiential learning in diverse and inclusive settings. At Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, students are being equipped with the training and skills to solve problems across boundaries in the emerging landscape of megaregions in America and beyond.

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Illustration courtesy of IrvingPINYC