The challenges posed by climate change can often seem so local. A wildfire torches Northern California, a storm surge batters New York Harbor, a king tide floods a Miami neighborhood. But while these local impacts are devastating, they rarely stand alone. A growing swath of the American West is now facing a perennially horrendous wildfire season. Extreme storms thrash coastal communities around the world. Rising sea levels are as big a challenge in Jakarta as in Southern Florida. The impacts may seem local, but the problems are global.
A new book argues that addressing climate disasters and other large-scale infrastructure challenges will require us to think beyond the local planning and disaster response that’s so common in the U.S. It will require thinking at a scale called the megaregion.
Megaregions and America’s Future, written by planning scholars Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner, makes the case that some of the biggest challenges and development opportunities in the U.S. should be viewed from outside our typical jurisdictional borders. Just as sea level rise doesn’t end at a coastal community’s city limits, the benefits of large-scale transit systems touch cities that are hundreds of miles apart.
The book identifies 13 megaregions in the U.S. The Northeast, encompassing a multistate area stretching from Portland, Maine, to Richmond, Virginia, has a population of more than 50 million. Others include the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast region, and the Texas Triangle formed by Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Together, these 13 regions account for the majority of the country’s population. But because they make up only about 30% of its land, concentrated design interventions within these regions can have an outsize benefit compared to national planning and development.
Conversely, not planning at this scale can make problems like climate change even worse. One very visceral example is Hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $60 billion in damage when it hit New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut in 2012. The recovery effort was massive, but Yaro suggests it also highlights the fact that there was little regional preparation for an event that was not totally unexpected. “We do a pretty good job of bailing places out after they’re struck by these storms. At an enormous expense, tens of billions of dollars a year, we pick up the pieces, but we don’t have a proactive, forward-looking strategy to address these concerns,” he says.
Designing a megaregional defense could take various forms, from the construction of massive tidal barriers like those built in the U.K. and the Netherlands, to creating onshore levees and dunes, to restoring marshes, tidal flats and oyster beds that can reduce wave intensity. Making any of these efforts effective relies on doing them at a larger scale.
“When the Army Corps gets around to doing things, they do it one place at a time, one estuary at a time,” says Yaro, who spent 25 years as head of the Regional Plan Association focused on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. “We need a broader, coordinated strategy.”
Megaregions can also be useful geographies for solving problems beyond the climate emergency. The authors suggest that megaregional thinking could direct federal investment into cross-state projects like high-speed rail, natural resource preservation, and economic development.
“If you can create better physical connections, infrastructure connections, economic connections between these places, then in fact you can create new economic strengths and opportunities that didn’t exist before,” Yaro says.
High-speed rail is a key strategy, and it’s slowly gaining steam in North America. Aside from the long-established Amtrak Acela line in the Northeast, high-speed rail projects are moving ahead in Texas and the Pacific Northwest.
Of course even these projects leave the U.S. far behind other countries and regions, such as Europe and Asia, where high-speed rail is well-established. Yaro points to countries like Morocco, Turkey, and Malaysia that are also passing the U.S. in making these investments, noting that these are “places that we shouldn’t be 20 years behind.”
Ultimately, Yaro argues, megaregional planning is a way to remain competitive in a global economy. “It’s not just Europe. Basically every place that we’re competing against is organizing national and megaregional economic development, energy, and transportation strategies at this scale,” he says.
There are signs that this kind of large-scale thinking is possible in the U.S. Steiner, one of the book’s coauthors and the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, says COVID-19 has proven that high-level governments are able to join forces and act beyond their borders in the face of an emergency. “Governors of the Northeast all got together and cooperated on a number of measures,” he says. “There was a level of cooperation among the states in the Northeast that I think gives hope that across jurisdictions, across large scales, action can be taken to protect our health.”