Megaregions: Foundations, Frailties, Futures | GaWc

J. Harrisonand M. Hoyler


This chapter argues that the rhetoric and can-do bravado which currently surrounds megaregions has raced too far ahead of the sustained theoretical and rigorous empirical work needed to support many of the assertions, assumptions, claims and investments being made in the belief that megaregions do constitute globalization’s new urban form. Critically examining the foundations upon which the megaregion discourse has been constructed, this chapter conceptualizes the position occupied by the megaregion in debates prior to the onset of globalization, and then discusses how the concept has been reawakened during globalization. It then explores four separate, yet interrelated, lines of argumentation which cut into the megaregional debate as it is currently constructed and form the basis for developing a more critical approach toward megaregional research: (1) the megaregional gaze; (2) megaregional form and function; (3) imagined megaregions; and (4) the role of social actors. Concluding with some cautionary remarks about the challenges and opportunities for near-future megaregional research, the chapter moves megaregional debate forward from questions of definition, identification and delimitation to questions of agency (who or what is constructing megaregions), process (how are megaregions being constructed) and specific interests (why are megaregions being constructed); a task that requires a more political and more historical perspective on megaregions.


I hope that his own definition will be heeded; for the term is so awe-inspiring, and the phenomenon it describes so dramatic and novel, that it is very easy for misconceptions to take root. (Hecksher, 1964, p. vii) August Hecksher is a name that is not necessarily instantly recognizable as being pivotal to the intellectual development of research on megaregions. Yet his words offer a profound insight into what lies at the heart of a critical research agenda for those of us whose interest in megaregions has brought us to contribute to this edited collection. When you consider the term Hecksher is alluding to is ‘megalopolis’, and that his quote appears in the foreword to the paperback edition of Jean Gottmann’s classic twentieth-century urban geography and planning text Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States1, the relevance to contemporary work on megaregions starts to become clearer. His words take on added significance when you cast your eye over just some of the many terms that have been used over the last half century by geographers and planners to describe the phenomena of sprawling urbanized landscapes comprising clustered networks of cities: megalopolis … archipelago economy, galactic city, string city, limitless city, endless city, liquid city, global city-region, world city-region, mega city-region, polycentric metropolis, new megalopolis, megapolitan region, metro region, polynuclear urban region, super urban area, super region … megaregion.

The first question to consider, then, is why are we focusing on megaregions? After all, if you look back to Peter Taylor and Robert Lang’s (2004) list of 50 names given to new metropolitan forms, the term megaregion is not present, while the most recently published ‘dictionaries’ in human geography both omit megaregion – though interestingly retain entries on ‘megalopolis’ (Castree et al., 2013; Gregory et al., 2009). Is the term megaregion simply less important than we think it is? Or perhaps the megaregion is as transient as some of the other concepts listed by Taylor and Lang (‘cities a la carte’, ‘servurb’ and ‘sprinkler city’) used to account for current or near-future urban form?

Our starting point is that despite considerable dispute over what the term might mean, an increasing number of commentators seem willing to agree that megaregions are important phenomena in globalization. One widely circulated story is that megaregions constitute globalization’s new urban form. Here commentators appear convinced that the expansion of globalizing cities into larger city-regions is being superseded by trans-metropolitan landscapes comprising networked urban centres and their surrounding area. They appear captivated by a perception that what goes on in megaregions is foreboding our urban futures. And they seem assured that what occurs in megaregions constitutes the leading-edge of capitalist endeavour, driving competitiveness (Ross, 2009) and determining life opportunities (Florida, 2008). From its origins in the United States (Dewar and Epstein, 2007; Lang and Dhavale, 2005; Regional Plan Association, 2006), through to its parallels in European spatial planning (Faludi, 2009), and its spread and application to all manner of different geographical contexts (Yang, 2009; Pieterse, 2010; UN-Habitat, 2010; Weller and Boteller, 2013), there can be little doubt as to the importance currently being attached to the megaregion concept by its many advocates.

Nowhere is this intellectual buzz and appetite for megaregions more fervent than in the United States. Inspired by Gottmann’s (1961) prediction that ‘megalopolis’ was the antecedent to a new spatial order that would emerge nationwide during the late twentieth-century, the beginning of this century saw the Regional Plan Association (RPA) consider making their own statement on what they saw as the current and near-future ‘megaregional’ geography of the United States. Launched in 2005, America 2050 is that vision. It identifies 11 emerging megaregions as prototypes for balanced and sustainable growth across the United States during the first half of the twenty-first century

America 2050_Megaregiones




Table 1.1 From megalopolis to megaregions (and beyond)


The largest megaregion of 121.6 million is Pearl River Delta. It is worth noting that back in 2009 it was reported that plans were afoot to expand the region politically so the population of the Pearl River Delta would reach 260 million (Forbes, 2011).

Figure 1 A typology of global urban-regional spatial configurations

Source: Authors


– Geographical Excursions: A Spiky World of Megaregions, a Spiky World of Megaregion Interest

– From the Visible to the Invisible: Examining Megaregion Form and Function

– Imagined Megaregions? Megaregional Space, Spaces of the Megaregion

– Whose Megaregion is it?


Our ambition for embarking on this project has been to prompt more critical analyses of megaregions, megaregionality and the megaregion concept. By setting out to provide an introduction to what we hope will become a wider debate on megaregions, we have encouraged contributors to be more provocative than they may otherwise be in their academic writing. To facilitate this we asked authors to specifically address three questions in their chapters:

•  How robust are the foundations upon which the megaregion concept has been constructed?

•  What are the methodological challenges of researching megaregions?

•  Do megaregions constitute ‘globalization’s new urban form’? If not, are there alternative (more suitable) spatial frameworks?

Linking these central themes is the argument that in order to advance intellectual and practical debates on megaregions, attention needs to be focused on the who, the how and the why of megaregions much more than the whatand the where of megaregions. Our aim is to move the debate forward from questions of definition, identification and delimitation to questions of agency (who or what is constructing megaregions), process (how are megaregions being constructed) and specific interests (why are megaregions being constructed); something which, we argue, requires a more political and more historical perspective on megaregions (Harrison and Hoyler, 2014b).

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