Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University outside of Phoenix, last month ventured into potentially hostile territory 120 miles south in Tucson, home of the University of Arizona, to address 600 civic and business leaders.
His message was jaw-dropping: Put aside the rivalry between the universities and the metropolitan areas and join forces to form one giant urban powerhouse to compete globally with an economy larger than that of theUnited Arab Emirates.
"Competitiveness between two communities gets us nowhere," Crow says. "We've been asleep at the switch too long."
Because population and economic growth is not spread evenly across the country (the 309 million Americans occupy only a quarter of all private land), planners and demographers for several years have advocated planning on a scale larger than cities, metropolitan areas or states.
A new book details this urban geography. It predicts that by 2040, there will be 10 distinct clusters composed of 23 megapolitan areas in the contiguous 48 states. The Phoenix-Tucson area, for example, is in the Sun Corridor megapolitan area, part of the Southwest megapolitan cluster that includes Las Vegas and Southern California.
"The threat of global competition has made these regions seek each other out for competitive advantage," says Robert Lang, co-author of Megapolitan America. "There are a lot of cities that don't like each other. Tucson and Phoenix have been at each other's throats, but when it comes to industries like solar or optics … from a global perspective, this is the same region."
Crow says economic competition is less about the USA vs. China than megapolitan areas here competing with Shanghai or Hong Kong.
The authors define megapolitans as having at least one metropolitan area of 2 million people by 2040 that's connected — via commuting patterns — to at least one other metro area of more than 250,000 people. A megapolitan cluster has several megapolitan areas that are connected by commuting, trucking or commuter airline and share terrain, climate, culture, economic base and political culture.