American Planning Association

The next urban agglomerations will be big, populated and crucial to the economy

They didn’t know it, but Dallas and Fort Worth were really ahead of their time. The two cities, separated by about 35 miles, had for many years been rivals, trying to outshine the other to bring in new businesses and building projects. But in the post-war years of the mid 20th Century, the two cities were spreading increasingly outward and toward one another. The U.S. Census Bureau could see this happening, and started to think of Dallas and Fort Worth as part of the same region. And so in 1964, when each city independently approached the federal government to help build a new airport within each of their respective boundaries, the Federal Aviation Administration told them to scrap their plans and team up on a shared airport. Reluctantly, the rival cities joined forces and now sit on either side of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the center of a booming and interrelated region. That simple, logistical insistence on the part of the federal government created an agglomeration that, according to a new book, will be the future of urbanity in the U.S.

In Megapolitan America, Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang look ahead to 2040, a point in time when they foresee a United States dominated by 23 "megapolitan" areas, or large regions of interconnected metropolitan areas. As commuting patterns continue to shift, where people work and where they live can be two very different places. These commuting patterns are mainly what informs the Census Bureau’s definition of metropolitan areas, and Nelson and Lang take a similar approach to identify their megapolitans. These are areas that, based on Census projections, will be dominated not only by large and relatively nearby cities, but a strong degree of commuting-based interaction between them into the future.

These 23 megapolitan areas – further combined into 10 clusters – are projected to house about two-thirds of the U.S. population in 2040. Strong foreshadowing of the megapolitans can be seen today, the authors say. Dallas-Fort Worth is just one example, which by itself extends to include a total of 29 counties. The Dallas-Fort Worth megapolitan is further connected to two others in the area, one driven by Houston, the other by Austin and San Antonio. Together these three megapolitans form a 67-county cluster Nelson and Lang refer to as the Texas Triangle, which they predict that by 2040 will house more than 28 million people.

“Metros are the basis of integration into the global economy, I have no doubt about that,” says Lang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He argues that the megapolitan scale will increasingly be that driver. “These are the key assets, these are the key ports, these are the key international airports, this is the key place of interface with the global economy.”

And more locally, these megapolitans will also be the geographical unit that drives planning.

“Not in terms of everything,” says Lang. “Not housing, not schools. But in terms of transportation planning, economic development, environmental planning, areas at that scale.”

Given that commuting patterns play such a large role in determining how these megapolitan clusters will form, large scale transportation infrastructure planning is expected to be a crucial element in the governance of these large urban areas. Like the airport linking Dallas and Fort Worth, major transportation projects will be important in securing the economic vitality of these places.

High-speed rail is seen by some planners as a critical path toward this kind of economic integration of places. The Regional Plan Association, for example, has a similar large-scale urban outlook of a future of megaregions, most of which are identified as good candidates for high-speed rail networks. Lang says that one of his megapolitan regions, Central Florida, is one of those prime candidates. Tampa and Orlando have a high degree of commuting integration, which would have been a good argument for high speed rail, but Governor Rick Scott returned the $2.4 billion the federal government had awarded the state for such a project. Lang argues that was a missed opportunity, not just for the transportation link, but for the economic link it would have helped solidify between the two cities – one with an active port, the other with an active airport.

“The whole region of Central Florida is a point of integration into the global economy,” Lang says. “Because you could live across that region, if you had more effective transportation across it would have made it easier. Together those two markets could have gone from modest- to good-sized cities to a Dallas structure in terms of size and scale.”

He says it was business interests pushing for the rail link, not transit advocates. “They were trying to link the two regions to help Orlando diversify its economy, to provide resilience in downturns.”

Infrastructural investments could have helped both Tampa and Orlando have a stronger presence, according to Lang. He says that areas like this need to embrace their regional connection.

“These are the places where we have laboratory space, all of the university capacity, the innovation assets that the U.S. is going to need as it switches from pure consumption to a mixed economy with an increased emphasis on exports,” Lang says. “And our argument is we’re not prepared enough. We’re not investing in them enough.”

The politicization of infrastructure in recent years has been a deterrent to bringing about the sort of large-scale investments Lang and his co-author suggest. But it’s not just high-speed rail. Lang argues that simple investments in maintaining infrastructure like roads and bridges are incredibly important to keeping the economy moving.

“It makes sense to invest in basic capacity. There’s nothing controversial or criminal or conspiracy or socialistic in building a stinkin’ bridge,” Lang says.

He’s hopeful the political winds will shift and people will recognize the economic benefits of building infrastructure that better links areas already connected by workers and businesses. With the Census projections and the concept of megapolitans, Lang argues that varying levels of government, but especially the federal level, should start preparing to meet the needs of much larger urban areas that house bigger portions of the population and drive a much more significant share of the economy.

In other words, don’t make the mistake Dallas and Fort Worth almost made.

“If it was up to Dallas and Fort Worth, the region would have two half-assed airports, it would have probably a million and a half less people, it wouldn’t have any signature in the global economy as opposed to now, which is substantial,” says Lang. “It wouldn’t have its identity as we know it today but for the federal government’s insistence that a world class piece of infrastructure be placed in the middle between these two emerging regions.”

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