Talking Headways Podcast: Designing the Megaregion

mega regions montage

This week, we’re joined by Jonathan Barnett, emeritus professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. We talk about his new book, “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale” (Island Press). Barnett chats about where the idea of megaregions came from, environmental planning within the landscape, the importance of transit connections in these regions, and how we can coordinate megaregions administratively.

If you prefer to read rather than listen, excerpts are below the audio player, and a full, unedited transcript is here.

Jeff Wood: As we spread out and continue to move in multiple directions in our cities, one of the things that was really interesting about the book was you talked about these eco-regions and thinking about the watersheds and how environmentally we should think about these regions as a whole because our systems kind of depend on it. What was the thinking behind involving environmental discussions as well as the urban design as well as population discussion?

Jonathan Barnett: It goes back to somebody named Ian McHarg, who is the kind of patron saint for us at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a landscape architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania for many, many years. And McHarg was saying for years (people didn’t at first pay attention to him) that you can’t just put buildings in the landscape. The landscape is not a blank slate, which is sitting there waiting for you to put a building on it. It is a living ecosystem.

And when you put a building into it, you change it, and you may change it in a good way. But the chances are very good, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you will change it in a bad way. And he used as an example the New Jersey Shore, where people were leveling the dunes between the ocean and the land mass. And he was saying, every schoolchild in the Netherlands knows you must not do this. And no engineer in the United States understands this. So he was saying it for years, but his book was published in 1969 and was called “Design with Nature.” It opened a lot of people’s eyes to the necessity of relating what you’re doing to the actual forces that work in the natural landscape. That is if you pave everything over you cause rapid runoff of water. And two things happen: everybody ends up with water in the basement of their houses when there’s a heavy rainstorm. And secondly, you run out of water in your wells because it’s not percolating into the groundwater as it used to do before your development took place. So we gradually learned that we when we plan a subdivision in a newly developing part of a suburb, we have to look at what we’re doing. Are we knocking down all the trees? Are we bulldozing all the landforms? If we are, we’re causing future problems.

Climate change is another powerful force and future emergency. And we are making the consequences of a warming climate much worse for us by the way we’re developing. So it becomes not just a matter of suitability and conservation. It also becomes a life and death issue. There are many places in the United States where you shouldn’t build anymore: on the edge of wild land, on areas that are prone to flooding, along rivers, along the shore, where the sea levels are rising, so forth. So I thought we ought to start when we’re talking about the growth of mega regions, or urban sprawl, it’s a powerful economic force which is not going to change. We have to figure out where are the places where it should urbanize and where are the places which should not urbanize.

And so you have to look at the environmental context and planning the future mega-regions. And here are two things you need to make your decisions about development intelligently. And you want to take some of the pressure off urbanizing land at the edges of these cities and try to divert it to the areas which have already been urbanized, which have many blank places in the middle of them where you have disused buildings or inefficiently developed land, which is readily available for some of the growth is going out to the urban fringe.

So as you noticed in reading the book, a lot of the stuff that I write about is interrelated — observing the natural landscape when you plan for new development could be complimented by rezoning commercial corridors in already developed areas to allow for apartments and townhouses. And that would take some of the pressure off the landscape, and it would also solve some of the equity problems and so forth. So all of these things are kind of interrelated, but you definitely need to start with landscape.

JW: There’s such a huge discussion about the future of cities and there’s all kinds of ink spilled about whether people want to live in cities anymore. And your points earlier about crowding versus density are good ones, you know, as we found out, I think it’s an inequality issue rather than a “density” issue as some people want to make it out to be. But I am curious about your thoughts on that. I mean, you know, is there a future for mega-regions in the pandemic future?

JB: Well, the first thing is that mega-regions are all about decentralization and the driving force behind them has been people leaving those cities and moving to suburbs and exurbs. So to the extent that things are going to be different, it may well be that the driving force, which is making cities expand, is driven even more. But I think you have to ask yourself when you start saying, “It’s going to change everything.” Okay. There are three levels looking at this. First of all, the question is containment. It’s not axiomatic that any new disease has to become a pandemic. It is possible to contain them. It’s been done before with previous coronaviruses. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from this one. So maybe in the future, the next pandemic can be contained before it affects everybody.

Secondly, there ought to be treatments that make it a much-less-terrifying disease. All over the world, the best medical minds are working on this. So I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that there will be effective treatments within the next year.

The third question of course, is can there be a vaccine? And that’s a kind of an unanswered question. It may take a long time to do a vaccine. It may be solved in a year or two. If there’s a vaccine, I think it’s going back to the way things were before is quite likely. If the vaccine is slow in coming, but the disease is contained and its consequences are much less severe, I think we get closer to back to being back where we were before.

There are things which are happening though. What I mentioned in my book, the switch to e-commerce, is having a big effect on commercial corridors in the suburbs and then residential parts of cities. That hollering out is being accelerated. I think brick-and-mortar stores are going to be fewer. And the land that they’ve occupied becomes available for other uses and higher-density housing is a good use. And as you were saying earlier, and I was also saying it, the issue isn’t living in an apartment, it’s living in an uncrowded apartment. So I think this is still a useful change what’s happening at present is that people are building apartments, townhouses way, way out on the real fringe of the city — 40 or 50 miles from the traditional city center. And they could build higher density housing much closer in this way.

The other thing which may be changing is how much office space do you need? There was already a tendency for people to not go into the office once a week, but to work from home. People have been observing that while, the office space is fully rented, it isn’t always fully occupied. And it may well be that we’ve had a crash course in working from home, and many enterprises are going to discover they don’t need office space? On the other side of that issue though is plenty of people who have a place to live, wanted to go out, to work anyhow, and were prepared to pay rent, to go in a WeWork office space.

So you have to balance off these two tendencies so that it’s become much more acceptable and easier to work from home. On the other hand, people do want physically be near other people. So there’s going to be an effect on office development, and that affects city centers, suburban office centers. So there may be more decentralization, mega-regions become more mega in that sense. We really don’t know the answer to any of these questions. My view is that the midcourse corrections I’ve suggested for designing the mega-region are important even with the pandemic. And probably more importantly as things changed because of the pandemic.