What makes a region, a region?

A frequent complaint of Consolidated Statistical Areas (CSAs) – a Census description explored in an earlier blog – is that they are so large they have little practical meaning. While “cities” have important political and socio-cultural identity implications, and metropolitan areas are especially important for broader economic reasons (demand and supply) as well as cultural ones (e.g. “I’m from the Bay area“), CSAs are frequently derided as pointless.

One commonly cited exception is the Bay Area. Technically, there are two metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the Bay Area: San Francisco/Oakland and San Jose (Silicon Valley). The Census combines the two MSAs into a single CSA and most people seem to think that’s appropriate because they have well-integrated infrastructure, overlapping labor markets, regional coordination, and a shared identity.

Critics say practically all other CSAs, fall into two easily dismissed categories:

  • Meaningless because they merely add a few far-flung communities in the metropolitan hinterland (e.g. Chicago’s CSA is only 4% bigger than its MSA)
  • Meaningless because they merge two completely distinct MSAs that shouldn’t be merged (e.g. Washington and Baltimore).

But let’s unpack that second category by comparing the Bay Area CSA to the Washington-Baltimore CSA on a few metrics that one might reasonably assume are CSA qualifiers:

Criterion Bay Area CSA

(pop. 8,751,807)

Balto.-Wash. CSA

(pop. 9,665,892)

Adjacent and geographic-ally consolidated MSAs are adjacent.

Combined area: 10,135 sq. miles

Distance from SF to San Jose: 48.4 miles.

MSAs are adjacent.

Combined area: 11,954 sq. miles

Distance from Baltimore to DC: 38.3 miles

Both CSAs sprawl but their core areas are relatively adjacent and much more compact.
Integrated transportation infrastruc-ture They don’t directly share an airport although SFO is the undisputed busiest within the CSA, drawing San Jose users. The commuter rail network, CalTrain is frequent and includes off-peak bi-directional trains. A BART  (San Francisco’s suburban heavy rail network) extension will reach San Jose in the next few years. Frequent commuter buses between the two. In addition to sharing an airport (Baltimore-Washington International is the busiest airport within the two MSAs), they have an integrated transportation network with MARC providing frequent commuter rail and off-peak bi-directional trains. Frequent commuter buses between the two. The transit cards of each system is usable on the other. Both CSAs have internally linked and mutually dependent transportation networks.
Integrated labor markets (source: commuting data from American Community Survey) About 8.7% of workers in the CSA live in one MSA and work in the other (total of 253,700 workers). About 5.5% of workers in the CSA live in one MSA and work in the other (total of 234,895 workers). For each CSA, about a quarter million people live in one MSA but commute to the other every day, representing an overlapping labor market.
Regional Coordination Leaders from both MSAs have cooperated in the past on policy goals of mutual interest (e.g. housing), and there have been calls for improved business coordination. However, no permanent forum exists for regional cooperation between the two. In addition to transit coordination (Maryland in one partner in DC’s mass transit system), various partnerships occur across the two MSAs. For example, the DC and Baltimore MSAs submitted a joint bid for the Olympics. No permanent forum exists for regional cooperation between the two. No large region in the U.S. really does this well but both CSAs exhibit some degrees of coordination, perhaps more so in the Balto-Wash CSA where the State of Maryland has at times helped convene.
Social identity There is a strong pop cultural recognition of a single “Bay Area”, typically tied to features such as mild pleasant weather, expensive real estate, and the thriving tech industry. However, there is strong variation within the CSA, within distinct communities and cultures. Baltimore and Washington developed over a couple centuries as neighboring but distinct cities. Over the years, this divide, between white collar Washington and blue collar Baltimore has faded, and there has been cultural cross-pollination throughout, but there remain lingering differences in perception and reality. This is a very subjective measure but arguably one of the most important when deciding what feels like an “area.” While there is some common identity between Baltimore and DC (especially among Marylanders), the Bay Area certainly has a more clearly integrated identity, at least in popular perception.


Does Gentrification Cause Displacement?

Gentrification is a heated word. It hangs ominously over every conversation on the return of investment and residents to the urban cores of many of our metropolitan areas over the past decades. Ominous because it represents the reverse of the coin of prosperity. The downside. The negative impacts. It’s dark and something vilified. A candidate for mayor of San Francisco in 1999 went so far as to declare “war on any and all gentrification.”

But why is it so often and easily criticized? Gentrification is a scapegoat for numerous processes, some recent and others decades-old, that better deserve the ire of the urban poor and their allies. Indeed, anger towards gentrification itself is often misplaced and obscures these real concerns. Perhaps none is greater than “displacement”. That gentrification causes displacement is commonly believed, yet beyond anecdotal evidence, is it true?

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MSA vs. CSA: What’s in a Name?

A recent post of mine, pointed out that by 2018, the Washington-Baltimore Combined Statistical Area (CSA) would likely have more people than the Chicago-Naperville CSA. It elicited several responses including that the analyses was pointless because CSA is a meaningless measure – what matters are MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas).

This critique is not new but it reminded me that many are skeptical of CSAs and that how we define (and measure) an integrated urban area, and compare it against others, is both important and contentious.


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Wash-Balt area could become nation’s third most populous by 2018


Washington (left) may soon replace Chicago (right) as the third most populous US CSA. Source: DC: flickr user taedc; Chicago: flickr user gravitywave

If recent population growth trends hold steady (see table), the fast growing Washington-Baltimore Combined Statistical Area (CSA), is on track to become the US’s third most populous, passing the Chicago area CSA in 2018.

CSA growth table

If this comes to pass, as seems likely, it would be noteworthy and reflective of the  shift in relative fortunes of the two regions.

Chicago suffers from two ‘curses’, its location in the midwest where most major cities are struggling to grow, and the overall slow growth of large established cities (e.g. New York is also growing slowly – about half as fast as Washington). This could have impacts on Chicago’s psyche: the area has long been the second or third most populous in the country. It is incumbent upon the region’s leaders to take a hard look at what’s working and what isn’t and to explore growth strategies that are inclusive and provide broad-based opportunities far from the shining lights of Chicago’s downtown loop.

On the other hand, the Washington region has a unique opportunity to capitalize on this growth by forging regional strategies that can help sustain it. The CSA continues to diversify and is strong in many attributes that are key to many knowledge economy sectors (e.g. biotech, high-value added professional services, etc.) but stronger links are needed within the two metropolitan areas (Washington and Baltimore) as well as between them to ensure that growth strategies are harmonized. Continue reading