NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

The economic clustering of cities often ignores the lines drawn on maps.

Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.

As Donald Trump continues to insist that Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S. for his wall, his reality-show antics accidentally reveal an important point: What we perceive as authentic borders—like the one between the U.S. and Mexico—can function as artificial constructs, while the imaginary borders that separate rich and poor neighborhoods in the same city can be all too real.

“True” borders are imposed, often arbitrarily, by political entities. During their reign as world power, the British simply carved up the world in their interest without any regard for how economies were organized or people actually lived. Look at the problems those national boundaries ended up causing throughout the Middle East. But so many of cities in that region—Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem—have stood for millennia. In the earliest forms of civilization, borders shaped the economic unity of a city, providing community and protection, while in the modern era, technology has made cities less constrained by boundaries.

The artificiality of ‘real borders’

The rise of megaregions reveals the limits of “real borders” in our own time. The map below is based on my research with Tim Gulden and Charlotta Mellander, which uses satellite images of the world at night to identify megaregions as contiguous lighted areas. These lighted areas cross state and often national borders.

In the United States, for example the Bos-Wash Corridor runs across the Northeast from Massachusetts to Virginia; Chi-Pitts spans Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and more, and Char-lanta crosses Georgia, North and South Carolina and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee.

(Tim Gulden)

Three other North American megaregions cut across national borders. Tor-Buff-Chester, where I live, spans the U.S. and Canada, as does Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest. So-Cal crosses the Mexican border and includes Tijuana. All of these megaregions are integrated economic clusters that defy the imposition of national borders.

The way that political borders contradict and clash with economic clusters comes through in even sharper relief when we look at the megaregions of Europe.

(Tim Gulden)

The mega of Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp crosses through the Netherlands and Belgium; Barcelona-Lyon runs up the coasts of Spain and France; Vienna-Budapest includes parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia in addition to Austria and Hungary.

Or we can look to the Middle East, where political tension and conflict has long limited the potential of the sprawling Tel Aviv-Amman-Beirut megaregion. That’s an area that we found produced about the same economic output as New Zealand.

The reality of imaginary borders

As unbound by national or state borders as regional economies might be, there are also the invisible—but in many ways very real—boundaries that exist inside our cities and metro areas. These phantom walls that separate rich and poor neighborhoods are stubbornly persistent, as can be seen in the maps of class-based urban divides we generated for my Divided Cities series for CityLab.

The class divisions by neighborhood of San Francisco and Chicago. (Zara Matheson/MPI)

Of course, these geographic divides and segregation also reflect the boundaries that stem from things like the redlining of neighborhoods by banks, which helped create the enduring class and racial divides in American cities.

The class divisions of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. (Zara Matheson/MPI)

The power of such invisible borders to divide can be seen in the way gentrification splits apart and defines neighborhoods. Gentrifiers actively rename neighborhoods and redefine their borders, creating whole new spaces that reflect the divides of class and race.

The world we live in may be defined by borders, but the real ones are often not as powerful as some would like us to believe. It’s the invisible borders that can divide us more than we think.

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