It’s been a little more than a half century since noted French geographer Jean Gottmann first used the term Megalopolis to refer to the heavily populated northeastern coast of the United States, stretching from Northern Virginia to southern New Hampshire. Today, the notion of Megalopolis is still important as the U.S. population continues to grow and additional megalopolitan regions emerge.

Why did Gottmann term this region Megalopolis? In a 1964 report from The Century Foundation (then known as the Twentieth Century Fund), using data from Gottmann’s research, Wolf Von Eckert describes Megalopolis as such:

For the nation as a whole Megalopolis is what Main Street is for most communities. It is the place where government, most of the banks, the big offices, the newspaper and broadcasting stations, the important stores, the schools, libraries and theaters are concentrated. It is the place where policies, decisions and fashions, or most of them, are made for the entire community. If Main Street is booming, the whole community prospers.

Conceptually, Gottmann and Von Eckert view Megalopolis as an interconnected network of both urban and suburban areas rather than one giant city. Von Eckert writes that the region is an almost continuous system of deeply interwoven areas—politically, economically, and culturally: “It is difficult to tell where one city ends and another begins.”

And Megalopolis should not be thought of as primarily urban. “Our concept of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit, crowded with people, activities and riches, no longer applies. Cities are no longer separated from their nonurban surroundings,” Von Eckart writes.

What are the characteristics of Gottmann’s Megalopolis?

High population density—In 1960, the average population density of Megalopolis was 700 people per square mile, compared to 51 people per square mile on average nationwide.

Population density image from a 1964 Century Foundation report on megalopolis

Concentrated money market—From the nation’s capital to the largest financial institutions, security exchanges, and insurance companies, to Madison Avenue and the wealth of financial power in Boston and Philadelphia, Megalopolis dominated the money market.

Revolution in land distribution—Rather than maintaining the traditional push-pull relationship between rural and urban areas, Megalopolis saw a new pattern of symbiosis emerge between the rural and the urban, partially as a result of a new counter-pull of manufacturers in suburban areas.

Jobs and trade—A cycle is established: a high population density means there are a lot of consumers as well as workers. Manufacturers in Megalopolis have a big advantage of location. Also, as Von Eckert notes, “variety in itself brings vitality to Megalopolitan manufacturing.”

Fluid transportation between areas—Though highway, railroad, boat, and airplane infrastructure are well-established, Gottmann, in his research, notes the need for a more fluid system of traffic in Megalopolis as its cities become more integrated and interdependent than in the rest of the country.

Transportation infrastructure, original image from a 1964 Century Foundation report on megalopolis

Heavy influence on culture—A quote from Von Eckert: “As the nation’s center of broadcasting, book and magazine publishing and the arts, Megalopolis largely determines America’s cultural tastes.”

The proliferation of the trend toward Megalopolis has manifested itself today in the rise of other megalopolitan areas throughout the nation. In a 2005 study, two Virginia Tech professors provided some working guidelines on what can be considered a megalopolitan area:

  • combines at least two, but may include dozens of existing metropolitan areas;
  • totals more than 10,000,000 projected residents by 2040;
  • derives from contiguous metropolitan and micropolitan areas;
  • constitutes an “organic” cultural region with a distinct history and identity;
  • occupies a roughly similar physical environment;
  • links large centers through major transportation infrastructure;
  • forms a functional urban network via goods and service flows; and
  • creates a usable geography that is suitable for large-scale regional planning.

Based off of their guidelines, the researchers labeled nine more megalopolitan areas—two in the Southeast, three on the West Coast, one in the Midwest, and two in the Southwest.

You can see the rise of these megalopolitan regions on this population density map, using data from the 2010 census (each dot represents a person). The original Megalopolis is still intact, but similar regions have developed throughout the country.

The rise of these additional megalopolitan regions has been accompanied by a slowing in the growth of the original Megalopolis, as data from the 2010 census shows. Though the Northeast is still growing today, its population growth from 2000 to 2010 was a mere 3.2 percent, compared to a whopping 13.8 percent growth in population in the West and 14.3 percent in the South.

As the population nationwide continues to grow, increased megalopolitan development is becoming evident. And planning for the future of these new megalopolitan regions is already under way. Indeed, Von Eckart hinted in 1964 at the continued proliferation of megalopolitan regions in the future, with Megalopolis as the basis:

Megalopolis is the laboratory of a new urban way of life which is sweeping the civilized world.

To understand how America is changing into a megalopolitan nation, check out this new Century Foundation infographic:

Megalopolis Infographic