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SUGGESTIONS FOR A COURSE SYLLABUS Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale By Jonathan Barnett Jonathan Barnett is a Fellow of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, a professor emeritus of practice in City and Regional Planning, and a former director of the Urban Design Program at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to the University of Pennsylvania, he has taught at the City University of New York, and has been a visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture, the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee), the University of South Florida, the University of Maryland, the University of New South Wales, Southeast University in Nanjing, Mackenzie University in Sao Paulo, and Dongguk University in Seoul. He has participated in two on-line courses: Designing Cities on Coursera, and Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs on EdX. He also has extensive experience as an urban design consultant and has written many books and articles about city and regional design. The material that follow are designed to help prepare a semester or trimester course consisting of ten lecture topics and a review lecture. The materials include discussion topics and a suggested term-paper subject. The basic text for this course is Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale by Jonathan Barnett, plus additional suggested readings. https://islandpress.org/books/designing-megaregion. Illustrations from the book can be provided as PowerPoint slides here: http://bit.ly/Megaregion_ppts. This course should be of interest to programs in urban studies, public policy, city and regional planning, and landscape architecture. Parts of this syllabus can be incorporated into other courses on topics including regional planning, environmental studies, social inequality, transportation, landscape design, and planning law.

Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale “[E]veryone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” –Nobel-prize-winning economist Herbert Simon from The Sciences of the Artificial


Around the world, cities and their suburbs are advancing across the landscape to meet neighboring cities and suburbs, forming megaregions which are capturing much of the world’s population and economic growth. In the United States this growth is destabilizing the natural landscape, creating increased highway and airport congestion, and making access to jobs and housing opportunities more and more unequal. However, the full development of megaregions is a prediction of what will happen by 2050. There is still an opportunity to meet these challenges by making incremental changes in the way development is managed, using existing governmental structures and normal business practices. In this course students will become familiar with methods for designing and managing the development of the evolving megaregion, including such topics as: climate change, ecoregions, geographic information systems (GIS), inequity, land use planning, landscape scale, natural disasters, natural environment, passenger rail, real estate development, transit, transportation, urban resilience, and zoning

Lecture 1: A New Scale for Urban Challenges What is called urban sprawl includes many forces deeply embedded in the U.S. economy. It is causing metropolitan regions to grow together into megaregions which often stretch across state borders. These megaregions are being mapped by urban geographers according to population projections and also by commuting patterns, which show economic connections. The evolving megaregions are projected to capture much of the country’s economic and population growth by 2050, but there is still time to correct their many problems and shape how they develop by: • managing how new development will fit into its environmental setting while a warming climate is changing what had once seemed a stable landscape • building a transportation system that can pull together all the components of these large urban regions • challenging the forces that make megaregions very unequal places These are the central topics of this course. Learning Objectives: Understanding what a megaregion is, the forces that are currently shaping it, and the problems that are being created for sustainability of natural systems – especially in a time of climate change, for highway and airport congestion, and for equal access to housing and jobs.


Readings: Chapter 1: “A New Scale for Urban Challenges” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020. pp 1-12. Also “Megapolitan America: Defining and Applying a New Geography” by Robert E. Lang and Arthur C. Nelson in Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness, edited by Catherine L. Ross, Island Press, 2009, pp 107-126.

Lecture 2: Recognizing Ecoregions as the Context for Development The United States Environmental Protection Administration maps four levels of ecoregions across the United States from 12 large ecoregions that include all the smaller ecoregions and cover multiple states, down to 104 level-three local ecoregions, which in turn have even smaller subdivisions. These natural boundaries have little relation to the political borders and property lines which are used to guide development. In the past the inevitable conflicts with the natural environment have been resolved by engineering, but today development has become such a powerful force that engineering solutions are no longer sufficient. The result has been increased local flooding, erosion of soils and hillsides, and general destabilization of the natural environment. A changing climate makes environmental preservation even more important: including threats from coastal floods, river floods, flash floods, wildfire, drought, heat waves, and food shortages. These effects of climate change make relating new development to its natural context even more necessary. Learning Objectives: Understanding that the natural environment in the United States is divided into ecoregions, each with its distinctive character, and that there are damaging conflicts being created between these natural ecoregions and the developing megaregions. A changing climate is producing seven different kinds of threat to all development, and conserving the natural ecoregions is the best way to reduce these threats and prevent or minimize future natural disasters. The second of the two readings takes a pessimistic view of the possibility of safeguarding natural ecoregions, but was written before a changing climate gave a new urgency to preserving and adapting to them. Readings: Chapter 2: “Recognizing Ecoregions as the Context for Development” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 13-26. Also “The Imperative of Growth; the Rhetoric of Sustainability: The Divergence of the Ecoregion and the Global Megaregion,” by Scott Campbell in Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness, edited by Catherine L. Ross, Island Press, 2009, pp 127-139.

Lecture 3: Relating Development to the Natural Environment Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have given state and local governments new and much more effective tools for relating development to the natural environment and also for retrofitting existing areas to make them relate better to natural forces. Existing zoning maps can


be amended to incorporate GIS information to make them more environmentally based. Natural watersheds can become the boundaries of environmental zones, or environmental overlay zones. Growth boundaries can be created that exclude only areas that should not be developed for environmental reasons, rather than boundaries that simply map a circle around existing and projected development. Learning Objectives: Understanding that new GIS technologies have helped create legal and administrative tools that state and local governments can use to relate megaregions to the ecoregions in which they are evolving, without preventing regional growth, and without changing the way private development is financed. Potential negative effects of climate change make governmental safeguards of the natural environment even more important. Readings: Chapter 3 “Relating Development to the Natural Environment” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 27-40. Also “Relating Development to the Natural Environment” in Reinventing Development Regulations by Jonathan Barnett and Brian W. Blaesser, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017, pp 7-45, also “Adapting to Climate Change and Limiting Global Warming” in Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs, by Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley, Island Press, 2015, pp 21-62.

Lecture 4: The Northeast Megaregion: Prototype for Balanced Transportation Visitors to European countries like the Netherlands, France, or Germany can experience balanced transportation systems where every method of getting around is suited to the type of trip. It is easy to walk or cycle to close-by destinations within cities, transit is reliable and easily available for longer trips, and frequent trains connect from city to city – and many destinations in between – and to airports for longer distances and international flights. And all of these systems connect to each other. In the United States, travel is overly dependent on roads and highways, and is dominated by private cars and individual trucks. Megaregions have grown up based on highway access, and the highways are becoming increasingly congested. As the megaregions grow, highway congestion becomes worse, and airport delays are also predicted to become much worse. The answer is a more balanced transportation system comparable to what can be experienced in Europe. The Northeast megaregion comes closest to having a balanced transportation system. Lessons for other US megaregions from the northeast corridor: complete highway and road networks; transit and commuter rail systems; container ports and freight railways; fast-enough trains; direct connections from trains to airports; real estate development at stations. Learning Objectives: Understanding that balanced transportation almost as effective as in Europe is possible in the United States because it is already present in the northeast megaregion. The critical missing piece is passenger train service. While Amtrak does not offer true high-speed rail as can be found in Europe, Japan, China, and Korea, the northeast corridor trains are frequent enough, dependable enough, and fast enough to attract a majority of inter-


city travelers away from airports and take some cars off highways. The northeast megaregion provides a model that can be followed in other megaregions. Reading: Chapter 4 “The Northeast Megaregion: Prototype for Balanced Transportation” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 41-52.

Lecture 5: Progress Toward Fast-Enough Trains in Megaregions For the first time in a long while private companies are investing in inter-city rail transportation in Florida, Texas, and a route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Frequent, fast-enough passenger trains are the largest missing piece in US transportation systems. As these plans are implemented, transportation in these megaregions will become more balanced. There is also some progress towards using passenger rail to balance transportation in other megaregions: the Bay Area megaregion; the Southern California megaregion; the Texas megaregion; megaregions around Chicago; the Southeast megaregion; the Pacific Northwest megaregion; Front Range megaregion, Gulf Coast megaregion, and the Arizona megaregion. Learning Objectives: Private investment in passenger rail can make it easier to supply an important missing piece in transportation systems across megaregions. There is already privately funded passenger rail service operating in the Florida megaregion, and plans for privately financed lines between Dallas and Houston and between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There are also measures to finance passenger rail improvements for Amtrak through state financing and interstate compacts. While progress is uneven, and train speeds are not up to high-speed rail in other advanced countries, they are fast-enough to help achieve more balanced transportation. Reading: Chapter 5 “Progress Towards Fast Enough Trains in Megaregions” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 53-75.

Lecture 6: Achieving Balanced Transportation in Megaregions Improved passenger train service is essential to creating a balanced transportation system, but are not sufficient by themselves. Improved passenger trains also need connections to airports, and to commuter lines and transit systems, which are as fast and seamless as possible. People are still going to use automobiles for many trips, and highways will continue to be central to the development of megaregions. Walking and cycling can reduce car trips in urban centers and in neighborhoods, especially areas served by transit. There are possible future alternatives to upgrading existing passenger rail to fast-enough trains, but megaregions need fast-enough trains now, as they are the key to improving other transportation systems.


Learning objectives: While true high-speed rail is only a distant possibility in the United States, improving existing passenger rail sufficiently to balance transportation in megaregions is realistic, and already happening in some places. But improved trains won’t be effective on their own. Good connections to airports from trains are necessary if rail is going to compete with airlines for parts of trips and relieve the growing problem of airport congestion. Good connections to transit are also needed if people are going to take trains instead of driving. Complete streets with good accommodations for pedestrians and bicycles are also essential. Readings: Chapter 6 “Achieving Balanced Transportation in Megaregions” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 77-90. Also “Balancing Cars and Other Transportation” in Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs, by Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley, Island Press, 2015, pp 63-91

Lecture 7: Inequities Built into Megaregions A satellite view of southern Connecticut shows the distressed city of Bridgeport, with its vacant factories and empty lots, and the neighboring affluent community of Fairfield with its golf clubs, woodlands, and houses surrounded by trees and greenery. The inequality between the two communities is visible from space. It is the legacy of redlining by government programs and racially restrictive covenants that were legal until relatively recently. As government has had a big role in creating these conditions, it has a responsibility to correct them, but the politics of doing this are very difficult. At the same time, on the outskirts of the evolving megaregions, town houses and apartments are going up next to open fields and woodlands, as the search for affordable housing moves people farther and farther from employment centers. Vacant land in Bridgeport and vacant shopping in Fairfield offer opportunities to correct some of these imbalances through the real-estate market. Learning Objectives: There is a long history of government-supported programs that have created and enforced unequal opportunities for housing and, as a consequence, also unequal access to jobs and education. These official policies, while they do not continue, have created a structure built into cities and towns which is difficult to correct, as people who live in more fortunate communities tend to vote to support their own interests. But there are vacant land opportunities in suburbs and in older cities that could divert development from the urban fringe and broaden the range of housing opportunities in suburbs. While correcting place-based inequalities is important, they are only part of a larger set of inequality issues, ably summarized by Norman and Susan S. Fainstein in the second of the two readings. Readings: Chapter 7 “Inequities Built into Megaregions” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 91-103. Also “Social Equity and the Challenge of Distressed Places” by Norman Fainstein and Susan S. Fainstein in


Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness, edited by Catherine L. Ross, Island Press, 2009, pp 191-218.

Lecture 8: Reducing Inequality in Megaregions There are practical ways to reduce place-based inequalities which can help many people lead better lives, although they do not affect all the larger causes of social inequality in the US. Ecommerce is making big changes to retail and causing many of the stores and shopping centers in suburban retail corridors to close. This newly vacated land provides an opportunity to add townhouses and small apartment buildings, which can be more affordable than the houses on larger lots in adjacent communities. These changes can be politically feasible if the people who live nearby benefit: older families can downsize while continuing to live in the same community, grown-children can afford to continue living near where they grew up. But some of the new housing should be subsidized as part of the over-all plan. There are additional vacant land opportunities in by-passed areas in older cities, and infill sites in established urban neighborhoods. Suburban zoning can also be modified to allow more people to live in singlefamily zones, including accessory dwelling units, owned by the same people who own the house – which means that established homeowners can profit from this change. In newly developing areas, a simple change in single-family zones could reduce the minimum lot size while keeping the same over-all density, leading to more walkable communities with a mix of housing types and prices. Learning Objectives: Understanding practical ways to create opportunities for affordable housing in suburban commercial corridors, including political feasibility. In addition, vacant land in older cities can be an opportunity for bringing back development to bypassed areas, making some of the new housing more affordable, and rehabilitating surrounding neighborhoods. Single-family zones can also be opened up with higher density development on vacant lots, including what are called accessory dwelling units. In new suburban development, a simple change to current zoning patterns – reducing the minimum lot size but keeping the same over-all density – can create both more walkable communities and a better mix of housing types and prices. Readings: Chapter 8 “Reducing Inequality in Megaregions” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 105-119. Also “Creating More Affordable Housing and Promoting Environmental Justice,” in Reinventing Development Regulations by Jonathan Barnett and Brian W. Blaesser, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017, pp 125-146.

Lecture 9: Adapting Governmental Structures to Manage Megaregions


The environment does not conform to property lines or governmental boundaries. However, watersheds are natural environmental boundaries, and there are existing governmental organizations to manage development within watersheds. The largest is the Tennessee Valley Authority, enacted during the depression in the 1930s. It is unlikely that a comparable structure will be set up anywhere else, but aspects of its programs are possible prototypes for environmental management. There are also inter-state compacts that have been created to manage watersheds and they also are useful prototypes. Federally mandated coastal zone management commissions are also organizations that manage development in an environmentally cohesive area. There are also state and local watershed-management districts. Transportation planning is already regional at the metropolitan level, and alliances of metropolitan planning agencies could extend transportation planning to the megaregions. States have the powers needed to determine development suitability, which can help set growth boundaries for megaregions. States also have the power to enable local governments to follow state policies for managing large areas. Taking a very long view, metropolitan governments like the one in Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan region, or Metro, the regional government around Portland, Oregon can be prototypes for megaregional governments. There are many obstacles to creating such governments and it would be unwise to postpone necessary measures that can be implemented now until such large-scale regional governments are established. Learning Objectives: Understanding how existing institutions can be used to implement policies for megaregions without having to wait for new governmental structures. The second reading includes information on the two most successful metropolitan governments in the US, around Minneapolis/St. Paul and Portland, Oregon, but even these do not reach anything like the scale of a megaregion. It is more effective to achieve megaregional co-operation through existing institutions than to put decisions on hold and wait for an ideal governmental structure that may never be possible. Reading: Chapter 9 “Adapting Governmental Structures to Manage Megaregions” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 121-132. “Also Governing American Metropolitan Areas: Spatial Policy and Regional Governance” by Myron Orfield and Thomas F. Luce Jr. in Planning for Global Competitiveness, edited by Catherine L. Ross, Island Press, 2009, pp 250-279.

Lecture 10: Rewriting Local Regulations to Promote Sustainability and Equity Local development regulations control the physical shape and structure of cities, suburbs, and towns by determining how, when, and where real-estate development takes place. These regulations tend to be derived from similar templates used all across the US, and many of these provisions are now seriously out of date and help cause many of the environmental and equity problems discussed in this course. Amending a relatively small number of these provisions could implement many of the proposals made in this course, including adding environmental information to zoning maps, removing incentives for environmental damage from residential


subdivision ordinances, helping communities to adapt to climate change, making housing more inclusionary, and supporting both equity and better transportation by mixing land uses and housing types. Learning Objectives: Understanding how to amend local development regulations by adding environmental information to zoning maps and removing incentives for environmental damage from residential subdivision ordinances, including factors that will aid localities in adapting to climate changes. Understanding how to amend local development regulations to mix land uses and housing types to support both greater equity and more effective transportation. Understanding current measures to make zoning, especially single-family zoning, more inclusive. Readings: Chapter 10 “Rewriting Local Regulations to Promote Sustainability and Equity” in Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale, by Jonathan Barnett, Island Press, 2020, pp 133-143. Also “Managing Climate Change Locally” and “Encouraging Walking by Mixing Land Uses and Housing Types” in Reinventing Development Regulations by Jonathan Barnett and Brian W. Blaesser, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017 pp 47-104.

Review Lecture and Discussion: A Design Agenda for Megaregions Individual citizens, civic organizations, advocacy groups, and professional organizations can influence government agencies to implement the megaregion design agenda, as can the staff and leadership of the agencies themselves. The design agenda includes adding environmental factors to development regulations through the use of GIS: operating fast-enough passenger trains through every megaregion, and amending local development regulations to facilitate more equitable development, such as turning commercial corridors into mixed-use corridors and rebuilding by-passed parts of cities and towns. These improvements to the way decisions are made about megaregions will still leave many difficult choices to be made within the new framework. However, compared to current trends, adopting these practical and relatively simple changes will lead to a much more desirable future. Discussion Questions: 1. Why does the availability of GIS for states and local governments improve their ability to manage development? What kinds of information are most important to include in the GIS maps? How can this information help make policy decisions which have environmental implications? Are there any reasons why local governments can’t modify their development regulations to include environmental factors? 2. How practical will it be to implement plans for fast-enough trains in megaregions? What are the potential sources of funding? What are the advantages of fast-enough trains for


megaregions? What are the political forces that could oppose fast-enough trains? How could such plans receive political support? 3. How can local governments amend their development regulations to address inequality in local zoning? What are the politics of making these changes? If you were the mayor, city manager, or county executive, what would be your position?

Possible term paper topic: Describe a community that you know well. What are the opportunities to implement all or part of the megaregion agenda in this community? How do you assess the potential for success in implementing changes in this community? What would be the consequences of action, and of inaction?

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Creating a course syllabus - Designing the Megaregion by Jonathan Barnett  

Suggestions for a course syllabus for the book, Designing the Megaregion by Jonathan Barnett

Creating a course syllabus - Designing the Megaregion by Jonathan Barnett  

Suggestions for a course syllabus for the book, Designing the Megaregion by Jonathan Barnett