Rarely does a book come along that contains so much good information and yet relies on such a flawed rhetorical point that it makes the rest of the text difficult to accept. In Megapolitan America (2011, American Planning Association, 278 pages, $74.95), coauthors Arthur C. Nelson, FAICP, and Robert E. Lang make the argument that planning and infrastructure investments (road, rail, etc.) should be focused nationally on areas where most of the population lives. To that end, they make the case that 2/3 of the American population live on 20% of the country’s landmass and delineate those areas into thirteen “megapolitan” regions which they argue should claim the lionshare of planners’ attention as well as public investment.
It’s an excellent point, and one that deserves serious consideration. Geographically and demographically speaking, the U.S. is by no means uniform, and what works for densely populated areas may not work for less populous areas. For example, when considering intercity rail, it does make sense to concentrate service (and funding) in the most densely populated areas and to expect less populous areas to depend on road infrastructure for transportation.
To get to their megapolitan model, Nelson and Lang run through a panoply of urban geographic theory and statistical data, and once there they run each individual megapolitan region through a trend analysis that offers insights on topics ranging from the environment and urban services to population and housing trends.
The problem is that the authors prominently and consistently make the claim that the U.S. is as dense of Europe… so long as you don’t count 4/5 of its landmass. It’s a statement that is so leftfield that it enters the realm of absurdity. What they’re trying to say is that parts of the U.S. are as dense as entire countries in Europe. No kidding. And the rest of the country, a mere 80% of the land, is apparently staggeringly less dense than European countries. That doesn’t make the U.S. as dense as Europe, it means that major American cities and the areas surrounding them are the rough equivalent of European countries in terms of density. And I’m sure you could find pockets of Europe that are less dense than certain areas of this country.
Unfortunately for the authors, by making a claim so fatuous and indulgent that it flies in the face of commonsense, they run the risk of undermining the credibility of the rest of the book, even though the remainder of the text would be worthwhile without it.