Megaregions Rule

The 2016 Elections made many Americans feel, at least philosophically, that the distances that separate us are wider than ever before. Spatially, though, the web that knits us all together is getting tighter by the year, as the megaregions in which we live—clusters of interconnected cities—get bigger and closer together. Just look at this map. It not only color codes America’s distinct megaregions, it shows exactly how they’re linked together. And it might just be fairer to say that increasingly, we can’t talk about the U.S.— more the U.M.A., or the United Megaregions of America.

The concept of megaregions is nothing new. The influential urban planner Sir Patrick Geddes first defined the concept in 1915—though he called these regions “megalopolises”—and there are many variations on the term. By some definitions, everything from Boston to Washington, D.C. is one large megaregion; other definitions might see that chain of tightly connected cities as being made up of five different megaregions, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Either way, considering the fact that as much of 70% of our country’s population and economy is centered in these cosmopolitan corridors, megaregions are more than just an academic concern—they’re a matter of national import. So Garrett Nelson of Dartmouth College and Alasdair Rae of the University of Sheffield began wondering if there was a more scientific way to define and visualize them.

Nelson and Rae used census data to come up with a map of 4 million distinct commuter paths, tracing a person’s doorstep to their office—datapoints they call “nodes.” Once these paths were plotted out, the researchers turned to MIT’s Senseable City Lab, which used an algorithm to divide the nation into distinct megaregions based upon the strength of the connections between all of its nodes. They then limited themselves to 50 megaregions—roughly one per state, although some states like California have more, and other states like Wyoming have none—to make the finished map visually coherent.

The colored candy floss map of the entire nation is, perhaps, the most visually interesting. But it’s the simple black-and-white map, which names all of the country’s megaregions, that really makes an impression. What this map makes clear is that megaregions usually expand across multiple states, and that there are far more plausible ways to divide the country into 50 sections than the arbitrary borders of statehood—namely, using the organic economic and cultural zones that have developed around cities. It makes you wonder how different the results of the last election would have looked if America was divided into megaregions, not states.

You can read more about Nelson and Rae’s research here.


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