A Human Geography of the USA

So, now that I’ve decided to abandon my doctorate (Why? See Should you complete a Ph.D.?), get a Masters degree instead (It doesn’t really make a difference, read A PhD prices you out of the Market), and go for an Industry job right away, the next question obviously is: Where?

Now, as I mentioned earlier (About Myself), I’m an Indian national, and I’d never been to the USA before. And its just been something less than 3 years that I’ve been here. I’ve not even really traveled a lot in this country – Just been to Chicago, to take flights to India, and to State College, PA for three days last August to meet someone VERY important. So I’ve not much of a clue of what goes on here.

Since all the country is alien to me, and I have no ties anywhere, I’m open to living anywhere really. And that only causes my options to explode.

Should I continue to stay in the Midwest, with which area I’m most familiar now, in terms of geography and weather, and where I’ve my friends from the University, nearby? Or should I go further – maybe to the Northeast, perhaps? From where, outbound flights to India are shorter, and cheaper? Or perhaps to the faraway tech hub of California, where all the “Cool Kids” go?

Well, I decided to be much more methodical about this, and so I fired up Wikipedia, and started reading. Turns out, the USA is an interesting country in terms of where people live.

Enter: The Sprawl

The first thing that you notice when you come to the United States, is that their cities are a lot differently planned than cities anywhere else in the world. They are very very spread out, there are fewer high rise apartments (most high rises are office spaces), with a lot of independent houses. This, of course, causes the city, as a whole, to take up more space. This is called Urban Sprawl, and it is endemic in the United States.

From Wikipedia,

Urban sprawl or suburban sprawl describes the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into low-density, monofunctional and usually car-dependent communities.

The dependence on cars comes in because Mass-Transit system like buses and trains rely on large populations going to a single destination. If they are not full, they make a loss. But, with Urban Sprawls, this “Unity” of destinations is lost. Each person starts off from a different location, and wants to go to someplace else, and this intended destination is totally different from his neighbor. Taking a Bus or a Train is, thus, inconvenient for the prospective passenger, and unviable for the person who owns the Mass-Transit system.

Therefore, Wikipedia also adds,

It [Urban Sprawl] is criticized for causing environmental degradation, and intensifying segregation and undermining the vitality of existing urban areas and attacked on aesthetic grounds.

And here is a picture of it, again courtesy of Wikipedia,

Satellite image of the greater Beunos Aires at night. Urban sprawls created a vast conurbation of almost 13 million inhabitants including the city of Buenos Aires, a third of the total population of Argentina. (Original caption on Wikipedia)

In the United States

One can say that the United States invented Urban Sprawl. From the Encyclopedia Britannica,

During the period of economic prosperity in the United States following the end of World War II, increased manufacturing output and new federal loan programs allowed many American citizens to purchase single-family homes and private automobiles. At the same time, continued road-building projects, most notably the onset of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, and other infrastructure development made it possible to build homes on land that was previously inaccessible. Compared with land in the cities, suburban land was relatively inexpensive, and the homes constructed on this land afforded more space to their occupants than inner-city dwellings. Some citizens moved to the suburbs to enjoy a lifestyle that was ostensibly closer to nature; however, others moved to escape the congestion, crime, and noise of the city. Suburban residents retained a connection to the city through their automobiles.

Evidently, Americans do not like to live near each other. And so, as urban populations expand, instead of going higher, they go broader, causing them to occupy more space (spatial spread),

For example, between 1970 and 1990, metropolitan areas in the western United States (such as Las Vegas, Nevada, Seattle, Washington, and Salt Lake City, Utah) experienced massive influxes of new residents that contributed to increases in their individual spatial footprints. [Encyclopedia Britannica]


On the other hand, in the metropolitan areas of the eastern and central United States, relatively modest population growth was also accompanied by significant spatial growth. For example, the population of the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Illinois, Kansas City, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, grew by 1 percent, 16 percent and 20 percent, respectively, between 1970 and 1990, but each area’s geographic extent grew by 24 percent, 55 percent, and 91 percent, respectively.

And even more surprisingly,

The spatial footprints of major cities in the Midwest and the Northeast, such as Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew approximately 30 percent even as the cities experienced declines in population over the same period. [emphasis added]

It is so bad, it is visible from space.

If there were no Urban Sprawl, the vast areas of light would not appear. Rather, cities would show up as islands of light, joined together by lines (highways). In this image, we can see the lines linking up major cities, but we can also see the Sprawl. Image Courtesy: NASA.

What does it mean for me?

The Urban Sprawl means that I can no longer look up Wikipedia for the larger cities like Seattle or NYC and see what the cost of living there is like, and so on. Like it or not, the Sprawl does exist, and so I should plan my life taking it into account.

And so, I decided to explore these Sprawls further, how many of them are out there, what life is like inside one, and which one I should choose to live in.

From the Sprawl to the Megalopolis

The sprawl has become such a standard pattern of development in the United States, that it has morphed into something even bigger: The Megalopolis. This is,

A series of interconnecting or adjacent cities with a total population of 10 million or greater. Due to urban and transportation development between the individual cities, the boundaries of the areas tend to become blurred, making it seem like one massively overdeveloped region. Many of these areas, as well as being centers of business and industry, are also a cultural meccae and have a major affect on the cultures and lifestyles of their residents as well as their countries and the rest of the world and vice versa. [Source: Urban Dictionary]
In effect, this means that I must make my living choices in terms of Megalopolises, rather than in terms of individual cities, like Seattle.
The Chicagoland Megalopolis. Each megalopolis covers a huge area, and so in terms of living there, one can consider the whole Megalopolis as one single living space. Therefore instead of evaluating living destinations as individual cities or suburbs, one can make evaluations in terms of the entire Megalopolis. This point of view is helped by the excellent high speed freeways in the US, that make travelling easy.

To the Megaregions

And as it turns out, the USA in its quest to big bigger and bigger, has moved on from even the Megalopolis, and has now Megaregions.

From Wikipedia,

A megaregion is a large network of metropolitan regions that share several or all of the following:

  • Environmental systems and topography
  • Infrastructure systems
  • Economic linkages
  • Settlement and land use patterns
  • Culture and history

The megaregions are the future, for one reads,

More than 70 percent of the nation’s [USA] population and jobs are located in 11 megaregions identified by the Regional Plan Association, which is an independent, non-profit New York-based planning organization. [emphasis added]

Time for a map!

An indicative map of the USA’s megaregions. Each area is vast, and encompasses several cities, forests, rivers and parks. Each also has its own distinct culture, cuisine and of course climate.

And this how they look at night!

The megaregions on a night-time satellite image. There is some overlap between them, and some are larger than the others. The ones in California, Arizona and Washington (Cascadia) are pretty far apart from each other. The vast dark area stretching from the Central Plains to California is all desert and high mountains (Rockies). [Image Source]
And a cleaner view,

The night time map has a lot of pollution, since the sprawl extends all over the land. This is a cleaner map, showing the “core” of the megaregions. Image source, Wikimedia.

In the next post, I shall try to explore each of these mega regions, investigate the quality of life in each of them, and lets hopefully, come to a decision that way!

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