Many of America’s state lines were drawn centuries ago–whether because of King George’s whims, political compromises, or just for the sake of it. Some borders were even established before American colonists settled the area. But if you redraw them completely based on today’s economy, you get a very different picture of the United States.
That’s the idea behind a recent map that lays out the “megaregions” of the United States. Originally covered here on Co.Design, the map’s authors have now released an interactive version that lets anyone take a closer look at the new boundaries and place names.
Gone are the familiar jagged lines dividing up the Eastern seaboard; gone are the straighter, more logical lines of the West. Instead, “Franklin” denotes the metropolitan area around Philadelphia; “Whiterock” is the area around Dallas-Fort Worth; “Champlain” refers to a swath of the Northeast that includes upstate New York and Vermont; present day California is roughly divided into the megaregions “Portola,” “El Asfalto,” “Sequoia,” “Golden Gate,” and “Calegon.”
Based on a paper published in November 2016 by Garrett Nelson of Dartmouth College and Alasdair Rae of the University of Sheffield, the map is a graphical representation of American commuters. Using 2010 census data, Nelson and Rae created a visual representation of about 4 million of those commutes, then ran their findings through an algorithm from MIT that grouped the commutes by how interconnected they were. They believe these patterns serve as a good proxy for grouping the U.S.’s self-organized economic networks.
“Geographers and planners and ordinary people have for many years understood that the conventional geographies that we use–the familiar borders and lines–don’t match up with the real-life patterns of how people live,” Nelson says. “One of our goals was to let people drill down and look at where they live. How does that reshape our sense of the relative territories that we map out our lives in?”
One of the most striking parts of the map? The new names chosen for each megaregion, which Nelson says he “dreamed up” one morning while sitting at his desk. Instead of the common portmanteaus often used to describe metropolises, like “BosNyWash,” which is used to describe the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., corridor, or Austonio, which is like Austin and San Antonio’s celebrity couple name, Nelson looked to each place’s historical roots and geographical features.
“Laurentide,” the megaregion combining Minnesota’s Twin Cities, is the name of the glacier that once covered the area. “Hohokam,” the megaregion around Phoenix, is named for a tribe of Native Americans indigenous to the area. Others are more cultural–“Sandburg,” the name for the Chicago metropolitan area, refers to the poet (who happens to be one of Nelson’s favorites), and “King” refers to a megaregion encompassing the deep South, as an homage to Martin Luther King Jr. The L.A. area, appropriately, is called “El Asfalto”–the asphalt.
Will these borders be replacing state lines anytime soon? Not so fast. “The thing about borders is they have tremendous staying power. They retain the logic of a settlement pattern that is now sometimes centuries old.” Nelson says. “We recognize how much inertia there is.”
However, Nelson does hope that their research provides more empirical backing for the country’s states, enabling better-informed policy about regional development as a whole. There’s actually historical precedent for this; Nelson points to the New Deal, when the federal government attempted to shift power away from the states and into regional economic planning boards and other regional authorities. Still, that won’t be enough to change contemporary policy.
“If all that happens is that administrators and experts and technical planners pay attention to it, it won’t have been successful,” Nelson says. “In order for these places to have lives of their own, people need to recognize them as parts of their lives. The more it [enters] into the lives of everyday people, the more likely it is that political action and organization will be possible in these new geographies.”
There are other ways rethinking state lines could affect the country at large, including politics. But Nelson has different hopes for what these new regional identities could inspire: A much more extended conception of neighborliness.
“People can come to think of themselves as sharing a common interest,” Nelson says. “Is it possible to have an expanded sense of neighborliness? That opens up some interesting possibilities for community, political action, and regional consciousness.”
He also finds the oft-cited urban-suburban-rural breakdown of the U.S. unhelpful. Shifting peoples’ perceptions away from these old divisions and towards megaregion-based borders would demonstrate how connected we are, instead of encouraging further divisiveness.
“It’s really these regional entities which make the most sense to think of in terms of our economic and social lives,” he says. “There’s really a deep interconnectedness that stitches people together.”
[All Images: via Nelson and Rae]