Rise of Megapolitans May Require Regions to Up Their Game

 

LOS ANGELES -- For all the efforts that California has expended to embrace regional planning, it turns out that regional planning may already be outdated. 

At this morning’s APA National Conference session on “megapolitan America” Robert Lang of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas posed a question: “What the hell does Reno have to do with San Francisco?” What the hell, indeed. 

According to Lang and the University of Utah’s Chris Nelson, co-authors of the recently published Megapolitan America: A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography, California’s capital of tech, sophistication, and urbanity ought not ignore the northern Nevada capital of bowling, divorce, and sprawl – nor vice-versa. According to Lang, anything that happens in San Francisco, or, more specifically, the Port of Oakland, has direct impacts on the economy of Reno. The more ships that come into the port—which was dredged a few years ago, with an immediate increase in traffic – the more trucks and trains pass through Reno, where they unload cargo for redirection to all points throughout the intermountain West. 

Nelson’s and Lang’s point is that the emerging units of economic growth—as well as environmental protection and transportation networks—are not cities, metro regions, or even MPO regions. They are “megapolitan” regions. They identify 23 megapolitan regions across the country, including the Sierra-Pacific region, plunging inland from San Francisco to Reno, and Southern California, stretching roughly from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. These regions pursue the geographer’s Holy Grail of grouping contiguous places according to function and affinity rather than by de jure political boundaries (cf. Joel Garraeu’s Nine Nations of North America or Wilbur Zelinsky’s Cultural Geography of the United States). 

Lang and Nelson claim that these regions already act as de facto economic, and, sometimes, cultural units whose components share common interests, complementary strengths, and overlapping commuting patterns.  They include everything from the Seattle-Portland region to Colorado’s Front Range to the original “megalopolis” lining the Eastern Seaboard. Often, these regions function in spite of themselves.  In particular, American urban areas have not always embraced planning and coordination within discrete metro regions, much less between metro regions.  

California’s four biggest metro regions are already trying to reverse this trend, in the name of mitigating climate change. After four years of yanking and tugging, regional Sustainable Communities Strategies are coming to fruition, often with great fanfare (and sometimes, in the case of San Diego’s SCS, some litigation for good measure). 

If the thought, though, of creating inter-regional – and even inter-state – plans makes your head hurt, I’m sure you’re not alone. 

For starters, California and Nevada do not exactly like each other. They can’t even agree on how to preserve the one undisputed jewel that they share: Lake Tahoe. On all other matters, California tends to treat Nevada with indifference and Nevada often treats California with derision. That’s especially true in the Reno area, where faded casinos have suffered from the rise of Indian casinos in northern California. 

Lang and Nelson point out, however, that northern Nevada’s economy relies more on trucking than on gambling. “The logistics industry is the only thing holding Reno together,” said Lang. 

The eighteen-wheelers coming over Donner Summit therefore give the regions – the Bay Area, Sacramento, and northern Nevada alike – to cooperate. As Lang said of distinction between the economically linked cities of Phoenix and Tucson, “to a German looking to invest in solar energy, they’re all just Saguaros and Circle K’s.” 

You can only imagine what they’d think of Reno. But Lang’s point is that it doesn’t matter. Traffic is traffic and money is money. If California wants to prosper in the next generation, it not only has to figure out how to implement its regional plans well, but also how to create plans between regions. That means that ABAG, SACOG, and Washoe County need to reach out to each other, as do SACG and SANDAG.

Daunting as this prospect may sound, at least California is ahead of the game, thanks to SB 375. We have a vocabulary for talking across political boundaries. I can only imagine what will happen when Boston tries to cooperate with southern New Hampshire, or Cleveland with Pittsburgh. 

It’s not like we in California don’t have enough to do already, but if history is any guide, then there’s plenty of reason to think that Nelson’s and Lang’s predictions of an inter-regional future will indeed come to pass. 

Now someone has to tell Nevada.