Megalopolis Personified

From the perspective of urbanization, President Trump is the unwitting personification of something ominous.

President Trump is noteworthy because he personifies the integration of two of America’s most important cities, Washington, DC and New York City.  That is, Donald Trump is a NYC corporate billionaire with the biggest job in DC.  Some might refer to the president’s duality as oligarchy; fewer realize American oligarchy can be seen from space. The NYC-DC linkage is literally built of concrete.

In his landmark 1961 publication, Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, Jean Gottmann used the term Megalopolis to describe urbanization in the northeast United States.  Specifically, Gottmann observed that cities on America’s eastern seaboard were blending into one.  The satellite photo below illustrates Gottmann’s concept of a continuous string of large cities constituting a single urban unit.

The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily
The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily

America’s northeast Megalopolis is not only a string of interconnected cities, it also represents the integration of the country’s political and commercial capitals.  In a striking synchronicity, President Trump personifies this.  That is, Gottmann’s Megalopolis was a theory about something to come, President Trump symbolizes its arrival.  

So what? Global, historic reference suggests a relatively large capital city, particularly one enmeshed in corporate affairs, is a bad thing for a large country like the United States.

Once upon a time, a small, remote capital
After America’s 18th century revolt from England, a fledgling, impoverished nation took deliberate action to separate government from cities.  All of America’s big colonial cities were capitals and most were dethroned immediately after the revolution.  Colonial capitals including New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore*, Charleston, Savannah were replaced with state capitals in rural locations (Albany, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Columbia and Atlanta respectively). *Note, Baltimore was dethroned prior to the 1776 Revolution but under revolutionary circumstances within Maryland.

Colonial cities were dethroned while rural locations favored for several reasons, here are three: First, the American Revolution was a farmer’s revolt because that’s what most Americans were and colonial masters were not.  Americans associated the evils of colonization with cities and saw them as cesspools of corruption; farmers could be trusted, let government reside with them.  Second, inland locations were safe from naval attack which was probable given England was the most powerful military in the world. Third, middle ground locations were favored symbolically because they enabled equitable access to the entire territory.  

As the USA grew, its proclivity for relatively small capitals was demonstrated in new states.  To this day most state capitols reside in locations many people have never heard of.  Perhaps the most obscure capital of all was Washington.  

When Washington, DC was established as capital it was a location removed from international commerce yet central to the original 13 states.  Being so unlike its urban European counterparts, America’s rural capital was innovative.  A swampland, undesirable to uppity politicians, was effectively the key to colonial chains because it fundamentally changed the way American cities grew and paved the way for unprecedented urbanization.

Status is Everything
Among cities, the relative size of a capital has an enormous impact on how cities grow because capitals control the money.  Specifically, r
elatively small capitals are fairer distributors of tax revenues compared to very large capital cities.  The adage, if you build it they will come is true;  small capitals “build it,” boasting distinct track records of more equitable territorial infrastructure provision, speculatively providing transformative infrastructure to remote locations beyond themselves thereby enabling the emergene of other, often larger, cities.

Conversely, relatively large capital cities tend to hoard tax revenue, growing to be enormous, dominant cities that stunt the growth of others. If you don’t build it, no one comes.  Big capitals only build themselves. This well studied phenomenon is called urban primacy or capital dominance. 

In general capital dominance is less competitive, associated with higher poverty, instability, foreign and corporate exploitation, rural neglect and sometimes secession by member states with the power to resist the capital’s suppression. Most interesting, the difference between a relatively small capital and capital dominance can be seen from space.  

The Russian (left) and the US (right) urban systems from space
Two Different Urban Systems: Western Russia (left) and Eastern USA & Canada (right) from space at night. Moscow’s dominance is clearly displayed (left, center). Urban geographers confirmed that the relative size of a capital city and the shapes displayed in these photographs are no coincidence. Visit and search “urban primacy” for further detail. Photos courtesy of Night Earth.  Both images are the same scale. 

The image above displays a psychological phenomenon.  The co-location of big government and big business corrupts the political process.  Dominant capitals rule under the assumption that they are the only location capable of greatness. Conversely, in being relatively boring, small capitals are safer from corruption, attracting those committed to policy and fostering a territorial mindset more willing to invest in regions a dominant capital would overlook.  

Silent Killer
For many years, in being a remote capital Washington, DC was effectively one of America’s greatest inventions, underlying the emergence of an enormous, disruptive and sudden urban system. However, the existence of Megalopolis suggests the United States is regressing. This is to be expected.  

Capital cities, the world over, are perpetual magnets, growing even in times of depression.  Power is always attractive and this is why even small capitals like DC gradually ascend. Ideally capital city status is not a permanent right bestowed to one city, but a policy to strategically maneuver through time.

The reason Americans don’t discuss “capital city status” in politics is because despite the founders’ deliberate choice of small government, they did not anticipate modern urbanization.  Had they known DC would become America’s 4th largest urban sprawl independent of Megalopolis, not to mention that Megalopolis would exist at all, it is likely they would have written management of capital city status into the Constitution.  However, modern urbanization was impossible to imagine in the 18th century.  Thus, few today realize capital city status is relevant. 

Why do I suggest DC’s ascension is terrifying?  The reason is because capitals often establish dominance quietly and once done it is difficult to undo.  Consider for a moment the effort involved to remediate the situation (e.g. move the capital).  Add to this the characteristics of capital dominance: Rampant corruption, pervasive inequality, federal strain, secession.  Perhaps then you can imagine why DC’s status is a threat to the United States as we know them.  

Move the swamp
merica’s large cities and states outside of the northeast (e.g. California, Texas, Florida, etc.) are unlikely to tolerate DC’s dominance passively.  What does dissent against a capital look like?  The former USSR provides one example of the federal strain imposed by a self-absorbed capital (Moscow) and what member states sometimes do about it.  

Already in the United States, well articulated grievances about Washington are surfacing and growing louder, some prompting Trump’s pledge to, “drain the swamp.”  Yet Trump by his very nature is an ironic choice for the task.  Critics suggest his pledge is disingenuous and that he will use his post for personal gain. This would be in keeping with the conduct of politicians in dominant capitals.  It is more likely President Trump will exacerbate federal strain, not alleviate it. 

There is only one cure for American capital dominance, dethrone Washington, DC. Instead of draining the swamp, President Trump should consider moving it.  “New DC” is the solution; it starts by saying its name.

In conclusion, my research of cities has taught me one rule about them: the urban organism always wins. Cities overcome that which holds them down. When policy gets in the way of urbanization citizens have 2 choices:  Move the policy or trample over it. Using this logic, the oppressive influence of the northeast Megalopolis will inevitably be undone, DC will not rule forever.  The questions are, when will it change and how?