Climate resilience, economic competitiveness, and equity at the megaregional level

In ‘Megaregions and America’s Future,’ Emeritus Professor of Practice Robert Yaro and Dean Frederick Steiner discuss how megaregions in the U.S. can address complex challenges.

portraits of fritz steiner and bob yaro alongside the cover of their book with a map of the united states and the title megaregions and america's future
In a Q&A about their new book “Megaregions and America’s Future,” Dean Frederick Steiner (left) and Emeritus Professor of Practice Robert Yaro of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design discuss how megaregions in the U.S. can address complex challenges.

In the late 1950s, geography professor Jean Gottmann used the term “megalopolis” to describe the urbanized corridor that stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C. Since then, the idea of a megacity or megaregion, where eight out of 10 Americans live and that supports almost 90% of the country’s economy, has expanded, helping foster a better understanding of how the shared economies, resources, infrastructure, history, and culture shape these large geographical areas.

Now, a new book called “Megaregions and America’s Future” provides fresh details about megaregions in the U.S. along with recommended practices for planners, policymakers, academics, and decision-makers to address a range of challenges. The book was written by Robert Yaro, emeritus professor of practice in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design and former president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association; Frederick Steiner, dean and Paley Professor of the Weitzman School and co-executive director of its Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology; and Ming Zhang, professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Megaregions research at Penn was conducted in collaboration with Louisiana State University, Texas Southern University, and UT Austin on a major Department of Transportation grant called CM2, Cooperative Mobility for Competitive Megaregions.

Penn Today spoke with Yaro and Steiner to learn more about Penn’s connections to U.S. megaregion research, what they learned in writing this book, and what they hope readers and policymakers take away from this work.

Where does Penn’s connection to the concept of megaregions originate?

Yaro: In 2004 I was teaching a studio course called A Plan for America and we got a travel grant to take the studio to London. There we were hosted by Sir Peter Hall, a planning professor at University College London, who convened a group of European planners engaged in similar investigations for the European Union.

We had students who had done long-range land use change forecasts for metropolitan areas across the U.S., which led to an accidental discovery: As I’m looking at their images on the wall, the suburbs of Atlanta appeared to be growing next to the suburbs of Birmingham, Chattanooga, Raleigh, and Durham. It turned out that this growth was not just happening in the Northeast but in a dozen more places across the country. Out of the studio, we came up with a national economic development recommendation, which included some early thoughts about climate, mobility, and how could we make the most of this emerging trend.

Since that 2004 studio, what has been Penn’s role in this area of study?

Steiner: Bob was president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association and under his leadership started a program called America 2050, which advanced the idea of megaregions across the country, including forming partnerships with various universities to study megaregions. Ming, our co-author, saw the transportation benefits of megaregional thinking and led a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation [DOT] to study megaregions. Through that connection, Penn joined up with Louisiana State University, Texas Southern University, and UT Austin on CM2.

What was the impetus for writing this book?

Yaro: After the Trump administration, both political parties were saying that they wanted to see a very ambitious national infrastructure investment program. Biden then campaigned on this multitrillion dollar national infrastructure program, and we saw that as an opportunity.

Then, as we were writing the book, COVID came along, and we were fascinated to see that in seven or eight of the megaregions, groups of states were collaborating at the megaregional scale on both shutting down and then bringing back economies, all without any incentive from Washington.

We know that a number of megaregions are already beginning to act at this scale. One example is in the Southwest, where discussions about water management have taken place across Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. It’s built around this idea that a place will work better if it functions at a megaregional scale, and people are beginning to understand this.

What is the format of ‘Megaregions and America’s Future’?

Yaro: In this book, we offer a whole series of recommendations for government, businesses, civic leaders, and civil society that are designed to benefit megaregions.

Steiner: This book is also the most detailed description and analysis of U.S. megaregions. There’s a very thorough analytical presentation of these 13 regions, which really hadn’t been done before at this level of detail. One thing I hope comes across is that these 13 megaregions have very different personalities and characteristics, so how you respond to megaregional thinking can vary.

The book covers a wide range of topics and ideas. How do you keep them all connected?

Steiner: The themes of mobility, infrastructure, housing, environment, and climate change are unifying factors across the book. They help weave it all together.

Yaro: One recurring theme is that we knew that racial, social, and economic divisions were growing wider across the country and in the megaregions. In this book, we analyze the extent to which that trend has deepened over time for each of the 13 megaregions.

Steiner: And in the areas of mobility, housing, and climate change, for example, the most vulnerable people are the poor and the elderly. Because of that, equity is another thread that runs throughout the book.

Did anything surprise you while writing ‘Megaregions and America’s Future’?

Steiner: What was interesting and I think unexpected was how many of the ideas were being debated and discussed and, in some cases, enacted as we were writing. As we were doing the page proofs, President Biden was proposing things in real time. For example, we had thought about the idea of climate reserves, and President Biden has a proposal to set aside 30% of U.S. land by 2030. As things were signed into law—or weren’t—we adjusted the book accordingly.

Yaro: The proposed $2.2 trillion investment was later whittled down to $550 billion in new funding, so it’s not the transformational investment we had called for. In the book, we say that we look at this as a down payment, as just the foundation for the investments needed.

We also didn’t anticipate the new focus on national defense due to the war in Ukraine. The book makes clear statement that it takes a threat like the climate emergency or a national security challenge to get this country to do big things. Several times in American history, presidents have done that; the most recent was Dwight Eisenhower convening the Clay Committee, which took place at the height of the Cold War to develop the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.

During this current period of crisis, we’re going to need a strong economy, and the investments and strategies we’ve called for in this book are the key steps that the country needs to take.

What lessons do you hope readers and policymakers take away from this book?

Yaro: On the 19th of April, we presented the key findings and recommendations from the book to the DOT. Polly Trottenberg, the DOT Deputy Secretary, and a number of other top-level officials have elevated the megaregion idea as a framing device for national infrastructure and transportation strategies. This was an opportunity to inform national investments and make sure we get the biggest bang we can out of the infrastructure law.

This series of Penn projects that started in 2004, that we continued to do through studios, seminars, and various research projects over a 15-year period, have already had an influence, but we hope that this book has a lasting impact on how people look at and address these issues. Overall, if we can create the kinds of synergies that the book calls for, we can effectively address problems around climate, racial and economic divisions, mobility, and energy.

Megaregions and America’s Future” by Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner is published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, sold by Columbia University Press, and distributed by Ingram Publisher Services.