Planning beyond boundaries

America needs a new map prioritizing our urban regions. We are as strong as our weakest link, and our urban regions are weakened by municipal and state boundaries, forcing us to think small and plan small. Municipalities and states fight to attract businesses and fund transportation links. Resources are scarce and arguably even scarcer when regions aren’t thinking as a whole.

Brooklyn used to be its own city, which itself was a consolidated city from various towns. Eventually, Brooklyn was annexed controversially into greater New York. The Brooklyn Bridge, which Jumbo helped to test, catalyzed this consolidation, and the New York City Subway would eventually connect four of the city’s five boroughs.

In other industrialized countries, this kind of regionalization is rather normal. But the United States was only founded because the former colonies agreed to limited federal powers, in order to unite against the British Empire. Most power remained in the state capitals, and in turn, a lot of that power was delegated to municipalities. Moreover, American polarization is often split between liberal urban and conservative suburban interests, with race playing a role that is largely irrelevant in relatively homogenous Europe. Most of America has little interest in public transit.

Our 50 states drive our political system, but it is our regions that (literally) drive us. Socially and economically, many Americans are more connected to their regions than their states. Infrastructure lines cross state and national boundaries in order to form metropolitan clusters, but political boundaries make infrastructure spending difficult to coordinate. They also make it difficult to operate services. For instance, the Port Authority’s PATH subway does not physically connect with the New York City Subway; the two systems aren’t even shown together as rapid transit lines on their respective agency maps. And at Penn Station, the country’s busiest rail station, a lack of through-running leads to a lack of service and more congestion and delays.

Since creating a 51st state in order to coordinate the New York region is highly impractical, can we reorganize otherwise? As it stands, institutional disconnects are suffocating the Northeastern megalopolis, home to more than 50 million people and 20 percent of America’s GDP, centered around New York. Seventy percent of Manhattan employees commute from outside the borough. The region historically was entirely within New Netherland, but the British split up the area along the Hudson River. Today, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are governed by state capitals that are relatively far from the Big Apple. 

It’s not just New York. Commuters to Chicago from Indiana need to cross time zones, and commuters to D.C. from Maryland or Virginia can elect to ride the Metro, while D.C. residents can barely elect politicians. State capitals concentrate federal and state resources far from the D.C. metropolitan area and consistently fight to pay less. Moreover, since D.C. is governed by the federal government, which cares about every state more than its own backyard, the Metro is, essentially, a ping pong ball in a black hole.

Bridging this institutional disconnect and planning beyond boundaries in order to regionalize will be key to keeping America socially, economically, politically and physically on track in the 21st century.