Megalopolis Essay

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The term megalopolis combines mega (Greek for “big”) and polis (Greek for “city”) and has been used both to connote any very large city or city region and as a place name for particular large cities. The emergence in 19th and 20th-century capitalist economies of cities that were both large and very rapidly growing led to a considerable literature on the opportunities and particularly the dangers that those cities presented. The coining of new terms to describe these cities reflected the feeling that they were unprecedented in scale, character, and significance.

Earliest Uses of the Term

The 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language records the earliest known use of megalopolis, which it defined in terms of size and importance as “a chief city; a metropolis.” This use is atypically neutral, but confirms that the term has always had most currency in North America. In The Interpreter Geddes (1927), the geographer and visionary Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) used megalopolis in a stage model of city growth and decay that was characteristic of his use in the social sciences of the concept of evolution. Geddes’s “Polis” (city) grew successively into “Metro-polis” (the capital), “Megalo-polis” (the city overgrown), “Parasito-polis” (the degenerate city), “Pathalopolis” (the diseased city), and finally “Necro-polis” (the city of the dead).

Geddes’s pupil Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) extended the model. In The Culture of Cities (1938), he identifies six stages of evolution from “eopolis” (village) to “polis” (association of villages) to “metropolis” (capital city emerges) to “megalopolis” (“the beginning of the decline”) to “tyrannopolis” (the overexpansion of the urban system based on economic exploitation), and finally to “nekropolis” (war and famine, city abandoned).

Mumford’s use of the term and his gloomy prophesies continued in The City in History (1961) and in the double volume The Myth of the Machine I: Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Myth of the Machine II: The Pentagon of Power (1970), the latter of which uses images of New York’s World Trade Center twin towers as exemplars of the “purposeless giantism” and “technological exhibitionism” of megalopolitan culture.

In 1961 the urban geographer Jean Gottmann (1915-94) published Megalopolis, which used the term “as a geographical place name for the unique cluster of metropolitan areas of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States.” Gottmann’s use of megalopolis consciously echoed its history as a place name in antiquity (Megalopolis was a city in the Peloponnese, Greece, founded in 371-368 B.C.E.) and, probably unconsciously, challenged the work of Geddes, who in Cities in Evolution (1915) had coined the term conurbation for the more or less continuous urban development characteristic of the same region, which he found to be “depressing life… [with] disease and folly…vice and apathy…indolence and crime.” Gottmann describes Megalopolis neutrally as “an extraordinarily interesting laboratory in vivo,” but he admired it for the material and cultural opportunities it offered its inhabitants.

Conceit or Concept?

Whether “megalopolis” is an empty conceit or an unjustifiably neglected concept rests on whether the term has explanatory force. When Geddes and Mumford used the term, they were arguing by analogy from biology: organisms develop and decay, so too will cities because they are “organic.” To Geddes’s argument by analogy from nature, Mumford added an argument by extrapolation: because cities had fallen in the past, so would they in the future.

None of this identified a causal mechanism for cities’ evident growth and posited decline, though the rhetoric, sharpened by use of neologisms such as megalopolis, was undoubtedly powerful in winning converts to the idea that uncontrolled capitalist city growth must be replaced with a rationally planned humane alternative. Mumford did attempt a causal explanation for his stage model, which included “megalopolis”: in a mixture of classical economics and Marxist reading, he analyzed the economies and technologies that underlay the development of cities, suggesting that overconcentration in cities involved huge diseconomies and at the stage of “tyrannopolis” involved strategies of exploitation pursued over a wide geographical area to ward off the relentless fall in the rate of profit.

Despite having taken great pains over his choice of the word, Gottmann never explicitly claimed any explanatory power for it, and he was criticized in geographical circles from an early date for his refusal to define clearly what he meant by it. Gottmann’s term was rooted in the rhetoric of classical erudition, internationalism, and scientific value freedom, but rhetoric could not compensate for the ambiguity of the term.

Gottmann defines Megalopolis as a place, a particular city region, and conceived of his study as a description of a unique region in classic French style, and an end in itself, although he stated that because the region was skillfully chosen it might also aid the study and the planning of similar regions. However, urban geographer Peter Hall asserts that in fact Gottmann had in mind not a physical definition, but a functional definition of urbanization and urban growth. Gottmann’s ambiguity meant that megalopolis was not widely taken up by geographers as an analytical tool, but became simply a label bestowed by various authors on various very large city regions, a bestowal, however, which gave Gottmann great satisfaction.

New Interpretations

Contributors to a 2003 volume celebrating Gottmann’s work, Ekistics, try to get beyond labeling by articulating what Gottmann apparently intended by “Megalopolis.” They suggest “megalopolis” is a particular regional structure epitomizing Gottmann’s general “geographical theory” of the relationships of man with space: geographical structures reflect the operation of both centralizing and circulatory trends, and analysis of those trends and the geographical entities they produce suggest a method for geography. They suggest that Gottmann was not simply a prophet of a new urban form, but rather that he clearly linked his case for the emergence of an American Megalopolis and possible ones elsewhere to a particular model of historical-geographical change. This model is based on the tension between pressures toward openness and closedness in territorial systems such as modern states.

They suggest that neither the possibility for linking the “megalopolis” to recent ideas about global city regions nor the fundamental insight about the political geographical underpinnings of urbanization has received much attention, and that instead megalopolis has misleadingly been associated simply with descriptions of urban sprawl and taken up in a literature that fallaciously considers city systems as separable from the particular economic systems of which they are a part. This is a valid criticism of urban studies, but the criticism is not new: neither is a new understanding or use of the term megalopolis necessary or sufficient for its solution.

Robert E. Lang and Dawn Dhavale also argue in favor of the term megalopolis to connote a functional, trans-metropolitan urban region. They suggest it is of value both in aiding description of a new geography, in which regional economies clearly extend beyond metropolitan areas, and as a basis for regional planning in an increasingly globalized economy. Perhaps most pertinently they argue that the U.S. Census Bureau is actively considering using “megalopolis” as a category in its work. Such an adoption would ensure the longevity of the term, but if, as seems likely, it would be based on size alone, it would probably ensure that the term remained a physical, not a functional term. (Interestingly Ekistics also uses the term as a simple measurement of settlement size.) Its adoption would, however, ensure that the term would increasingly be used following Gottmann’s example, rather than Geddes’s and Mumford’s. The term continues to be used in pejorative, neutral, and approbatory ways outside the scholarly literature.


  1. Elizabeth Baigent, “Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Jean Gottmann: Divisions over ‘Megalopolis,'” Progress in Human Geography (v.28, 2004);
  2. Robert Lang and Dawn Dhavale, “Beyond Megalopolis: Exploring America’s New ‘Megalopolitan’ Geography,” Metropolitan Institute Census Report Series, #05:01 (July 2005);
  3. Calogero Muscara, , “In the Steps of Jean Gottmann,” Ekistics (v.70, 2003).

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