|In red, Asian countries, in light blue, European countries, in orange, European offshoots|
But what is a metropolitan area?
However, I believe that this difference is not due to a fundamental difference in what defines a metropolitan area, but due to the different urban organization and transport infrastructure.
But what defines a metropolitan area? I think that to properly understand what is a metropolitan area, one must first understand what is a city, because they are in many ways functionally similar.
What force binds a city together and defines it? Community? In cities, there are many different communities, each forming separate neighborhoods, so though community is a bound present in cities, it doesn't define them. Culture? As I live in Montréal, where Western Montréal is anglophone and Eastern Montréal is francophone, and the difference is flagrant, that seems self-evidently wrong too. Shared identity? Though present in many cities, identity is more likely a consequence of the city's existence, and not its originator.
Ultimately, I believe a city is bound together mainly by economics, that, in fact, economics are the very reason that cities exist in the first place. A city is mainly defined by economic activities, workplaces, businesses, services that draw in people looking to benefit from the opportunities that exist in cities and from the diverse and rich products and services that result from all this economic activity. So everyone living in a city wants to be in a location to be able to access these activities. This largely means that a city is defined by commuting distance. As a whole, cities represent an area where economic activities occur within commuting distances from each other, forming a local economy.
So if a city is defined by economics, so should a metropolitan area, but what is the difference? In fact, the difference is next to non-existent. Like cities, metropolitan areas are also bound by commuting distance and by the proximity and concentration of economic activities that form a local economy. However, cities are also political entities, and these entities were usually formed in a previous era, before cars, before buses, before streetcars and before trains (except for some recent cities). A city born in a pre-motorization era could only encompass an area defined by a walking commute, which is limited by a walking speed of roughly 5 km/h.
|Paris intramuros (between the walls) forms roughly a circle with a 5-km radius around its center, equivalent to a 1-hour walking distance.|
With the invention of new, faster means of transport, commuting distance has been extended, bringing more economic activities under the same local economy and allowing cities to expand. However, the political boundaries have not followed in most cases, leading to economically integrated areas with fragmented political leadership, sometimes with a disjointed urbanized area with gaps between urban centers.
So, in a way, metropolitan areas ARE the cities, but often split in several entities connected to each other through high-speed transport links.
But how can this explain why Greater Paris is just 824 square kilometers and Atlanta's metropolitan area is 21 694 square kilometers, supposing both metros are defined the same way?
The reason, I believe, is that the European development pattern is different from the North American one. European countries have largely avoided building freeways through cities and have struggled to keep economic activity centers (offices, shops, services) at the center of cities. Meanwhile, North America has often done significant "urban renewal", pushing highways through cities and allowing, even encouraging, economic activities to migrate to highway interchanges, which is the pattern Atlanta has adopted.
As a result, to reach activity centers in European cities, people often have to go through urban areas, which slows down significantly intercity car trips, increasing commute times and thus limiting how far the region can integrate economically.
|The European pattern of highways going around cities with vibrant activity centers inside cities, which limits economic integration of the major city as crossing urban areas to each commercial centers consume a lot of time|
|With activity centers placed at interchanges, it allows for them to connect much faster through the high-speed network, increasing commuting speed and integrating a large region|
|Natural evolution of the European pattern|
|Natural evolution of the American pattern|
Is the future more or less urbanization?
Mines that in the 19th century could sustain an entire town by employing most of the male population can now employ only a fraction of that population while producing as much ore, or more, than before. Farm sizes exploded thanks to new machinery that allowed one person to plant and harvest vastly more land than before, reducing the need for a high number of farmers. Most economic activities however can be relocated, and they gain from gathering in a few places where their presence can lead to the emergence of support industries and where they can benefit from local expertise. That created a bias for cities that has never reversed.
Never reversed, really? Yes, really. As I said, metropolitan areas have become the new cities, and if I look at the population of the top 20 most populous metros in the US versus the US census population, here is what I get:
|Population (in thousands), US total versus top 20 metros|
|Population (1910=100), US total versus top 20 metros|
So I guess QEDs are in order here. BTW, source for the top 20 metro population.
Unfortunately for those who long for the traditional lifestyle, that traditional lifestyle is simply unable to provide the resources and wealth required to maintain a modern quality of life. Just like nations, one can do calculations of accounts of trade for cities, calculating their "current accounts balances". Cities that fail to export enough to pay for their imports of goods and services from outside their borders face constant community impoverishment that leads to their decline.
So ultimately, cities that have not reached critical mass to have an economy that can have a current account surplus are, well, doomed as their people get progressively poorer until they have to move out. This includes many isolated villages, many of which in North America are Native Reserves. It is my conviction that much of the troubles that afflict reserves are due to their inability to create a local economy that can balance the books of the money entering and leaving the reserves. Official policy tries to help them maintain a traditional lifestyle, but that traditional lifestyle is unable to sustain modern quality of life, leading to massive subsidy requirements that often fail to fully compensate the gap. Reserves that exist inside metropolitan areas like Kahnawake and Wendake in Québec have much higher quality of life and far less of the social problems that afflict isolated reserves, which are artificially maintained in conditions that would often lead to the closing of villages in the same conditions.
Some say that technology allowing telecommuting may allow for a "return to the land", I'm more than doubtful. Even if we discount the loss of knowledge transfer resulting from face-to-face communications, there are plenty of goods and services that can't be remotely accessed, and so metropolitan living will remain desirable.
ConclusionI know some may start thinking I'm rambling, but I think it's important to underline that the very basis for cities' existence is economics, it is local economies that bind cities together more than community, culture or identity. In the modern world, economical pressures keep pushing economic activities and people together, though transport has expanded the definition of "proximity", allowing cities to morph into metropolitan areas, which have become the real modern cities.
The concentration of North American populations in metropolitan centers put the lie to the idea that cities are ill-adapted to the North American context. People who come live into a city's suburbs in its metropolitan area go there because they want to join the local metropolitan economy and benefit from its opportunities and wealth. Transport infrastructure will influence how the metros develop and how far they extend, but ultimately, the move to metros is an economic fact of modern life.