It’s a given that regions are the competitive units for the global economy, but while Memphis still struggles to come to grips with what this really means, a new reality is unfolding to complicate our competitiveness even more.

It’s the age of the megapolitans — super-regions strung together by economies, commuting patterns, culture and demographic trends, giving birth to what are becoming the super-novas of economic units.

More than two-thirds of the country’s population already live in 10 megapolitans, which are growing at a faster rate than the U.S. as a whole, according to Robert Lang, the Virginia Tech University professor who’s become the nation’s expert on this statistical phenomenon. He predicts that the population of the megapolitans will grow by 85 million people and see $33 trillion in construction spending in the next 35 years.

History In The Making

While these super-regions would command attention in their own right, the fact that they are emerging as a new brand of federalism is taking root across the U.S. makes this a moment in time when history may be in the process of being fundamentally reshaped.

On this weekend’s Smart City interview with Jonathan Taplin, the University of Southern California professor discussed the abdication of federal responsibilities that has led to cities taking action on issues such as global warming, stem cell research and fuel standards. He made the point that these demands for changes in policy come as a result of the digital age and the size of states like California which is a leader for the movement.

Another trend giving momentum for this shift is the emergence of 10 nation-states that will exist in our midst – economic and political centers of power that can drive change at the national level because the alternative is that they will create it for themselves.

In the Backwater

The problem for Memphis is that when the age of megapolitans dawns, we’ll be in its backwater, no closer than about 200 miles to the nearest one – the Piedmont megapolitan, which embraces 19 million people in an area that stretches from Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta and Birmingham. Its western edge teases the Nashville metro.

The largest of the megapolitans is the gigantic Northeast, stretching from New England to Northern Virginia and holding 50 million people and a $3 trillion economy.

The Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago corridor holds 40 million people in the Midwest; Southland embraces Southern California and Las Vegas with its 22 million people; the I-35 megapolitan runs from San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City with 15 million people; and the Peninsula is essentially all of Florida south of the mainland and holds 14 million people.

Small Is Big

The smaller megapolitans include NorCal, which has San Francisco and Central Valley’s 12 million people; the Gulf Coast, running from Houston through New Orleans to Pensacola, also holds 12 million people; the seven million people in Cascadia live in the western third of Washington and the upper quarter of Oregion; and the bottom half of Arizona with its five million people makes up the Valley of the Sun.

As the fluid shape of these megapolitans begins to emerge, the imperative for them now is to find ways integrate them into the global economy, as Europe has been doing – and across country borders no less – for decades. For example, the self-named Alpine Diamond region has been collaborating, cooperating and marketing an area for more than 20 years that includes Lyon, France; Torino, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland. The strongest evidence of the success of this approach is the light rail system that was constructed as a result of the tri-country clout.

For Professor Lang, the criteria for the megapolitan are:
* It combines at least two, but may include dozens of existing metro areas
* has more than 10 million in population projected by 2040
* It constitutes an organic cultural region with a distinct history and identity
* It has roughly similar physical environment
* It links large centers through major transportation infrastructure
* It forms a functional urban network via goods and service
* It creates a usable geography that is suitable for large-scale regional planning

Edge(less) Cities

These edgeless super-regions defy the traditional notion of a central city surrounded by an urban core and a suburban ring. Instead, megapolitans are amorphous, irregular, unpredictable and seemingly alive in the way that their borders undulate and shift.

In the face of such growth in the megapolitans, issues like sustainability, equity, rational government structure and global competitiveness will only be amplified and take on new importance, some observers predict. It also will produce more burbtowns with new versions of center cities and greater density.

The gravitational pull produced by these megapolitans will escalate trends that are already evident today. For example, these 10 super-regions will be the major magnets for talent in the U.S., and it’s no wonder: The dozen or so cities that today are attracting the bulk of 25-34 year-old workers today fall within a megapolitan.

The Pressing Questions

As we now know, companies will move to the cities where the talent lives, and as a result, these workers will attract more and more companies to these super-regions, and because talent is key to the innovation economy, it’s likely that these megapolitans will also be the seedbeds for the innovative breakthroughs that determine economic success today.

In other words, it’s likely that these 10 megapolitans will dominate the American economic and political landscapes like nothing seen in a century. So, the question that Memphis needs to answer is “How do we become part or make a connection with a megapolitan?” or more likely, “What does Memphis need to do to become more strongly competitive in the age of the megapolitan?”

As for the first questions, projections suggest that it’s unlikely that Memphis will become part of a super-regions. We’re just too far off the growth corridors, and it seems unlikely that I-69 – which on most days feels more like a real estate scheme than a transportation plan – can produce the kind of growth that could attach Memphis to the Midwest megapolitan, and it seems even more unlikely that the Piedmont super-region will ever ooze this far west.

Low-Wage, Low-Skill, Low Expectations

So, the more pertinent question for Memphis is deciding what strategies can make it more competitive. Our top-of-mind answer is that Memphis needs to concentrate on quality – as in quality government, quality of life, high-quality transportation and quality community.

If Memphis is willing to continue to sell itself at a discount, it will continue to pick up the crumbs from the knowledge economy table, and worst of all, it will seal the fate of our region, because we will forever be on the lower rungs of economic life in the U.S. In a knowledge economy where talented workers are looking for high quality of life and high quality cities, it seems obvious, but we’ve made a history of chasing warehouse/distribution/logistics jobs to the detriment of a comprehensive, healthy economy plan.

Our reliance on low-wage, low-skill jobs will continue, and our future is preordained if nothing happens to shake things up. To this end, the Memphis region needs to act against type.

Walking The Walk

We need to be known for experimenting with some of the most innovative programs in the South. While it would be a good strategy for most cities, it would have extra impact here because no one would expect it from us.

We need to walk the walk of a region, because God knows, we’ve talked the talk for 15 years. We need to start acting like a region, developing joint plans in areas where agreement should be motivated by mutual enlightened self-interest, such as transportation and water and air quality. We need the MPO to demonstrate the same sort of innovative thinking that characterizes the agency in other cities, where it’s taken on strategic regional planning (actually linking transportation planning to land use and economic development) and in a few cases has even morphed into a form of regional government.

As we have said repeatedly, we need to bring rationality to our tax structure, which is one of the most regressive in the U.S. and results in lower incomes paying larger percentages of their salaries in taxes than the wealthy. But more broadly, we need a regional tax for amenities that would serve as a venture capital fund for cultural and historical facilities.

Agenda Items

In addition, we need to be defined by our commitment to sustainability. We need a greenprint to make the most out of the riverfront, Shelby Farms Park, Wolf River greenway and Memphis Greenline, but there are projects in other cities in the region that are just as important.

But we need much more. We need incentives and codes that encourage density and urban reinvestment and redevelopment. We need government fleets of hybrid cars and LEED-certified public buildings. We need greenways, walkable neighborhoods and bike paths.

And we need create a city where people with choices elect to live, particularly families with children, and that means not only improving neighborhoods but improving schools, the toughest job of all.

A Choice

Some say that none of this can be done. And the harsh truth is that some key indicators for Memphis paint a discouraging picture for the future.

In other words, it may take a citizen revolt to make it happen, to make sure we’ve got the most progressive agenda, to make sure we’re having the right conversations, to increase the intellectual capital brought to issues and to spark new thinking.

And, we shouldn’t have to wait until 2040 to get it started.