Galactic Metropolis at Sunset
December 10, 2010
CopyLeft 2011 Elvin K. Wyly
Except where otherwise noted, this site is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
In the early 1980s, the cultural geographer Peirce Lewis was invited to a conference on the future of non-metropolitan America.  At the time, rural America was struggling with the challenges of radical economic restructuring, generations of outmigration, and the transformation of traditional networks of small towns built for a particular kind of agricultural space economy that no longer exists.  (All of these challenges persist today, and in some cases have worsened.)  Not the most shy or cautious type, Lewis decided to offer a brilliant provocation.  "Non-metropolitan" areas had disappeared, Peirce suggested, and we had best get used to it.  Economic structure and transportation and communications technologies had strengthened all of the connections between the different elements of the nation's settlement geometry:  city centers were linked closely with their surrounding orbit of suburban communities; small towns were ever more tightly bound up with the gravitational forces of nearby big cities; and even the most seemingly isolated rural areas were still part of the galaxy of political discourse, television entertainment, and news coverage that ignores the boundaries between big city and small, between city and suburb, between town and country.  America, Lewis claimed, had seen the birth of the galactic metropolis:

" doesn't require Census statistics to know that something major has happened in the United States.  Travelers on airplanes simply need to sit by the window and keep their eyes open.  From the air, the signs are everywhere ....  One is rarely out of sight of a primary highway or a freeway, with its interchangeable interchanges, and most of the interchanges come equipped with one or a cluster of low, flat, slablike buildings (a shopping center, a small factory, a warehouse, who knows which?).  One sees the neat little subdivisions with their proper setbacks and curvilinear streets and big driveways and little swimming pools; some even come with their own lakes and marinas.  Along the sides of what used to be called 'farm-to-market' roads is a predictable spattering of split-level ranchers and immobile mobile homes...."  (Lewis, 1983, p. 24)

These days, of course, the galactic metropolis can be seen in so many places around the world.  This is what Allen Scott (2001) diagnoses as "global city-regions" -- cities integrated into dynamic transnational networks that often produce urbanization that spills across not just the traditional jurisdictional boundaries within nation-states, but also often crosses the boundaries of nation-states themselves.  I love looking out for signs of continuity and change in the spatiality of the galactic metropolis.  It's a breathtaking phenomenon when seen from the air.  I always ask for a window seat.  Sometimes I get lucky.

This is one view of one metropolis, from edge to center -- from the outlying suburbs of Chicago to the bright, high, shining "Loop" of downtown.


Peirce F. Lewis (1983).  "The Galactic Metropolis."  In Rutherford Platt and George Macinko, eds., Beyond the Urban Fringe.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 23-49.

Allen J. Scott, ed. (2001).  Global City-Regions:  Trends, Theory, Policy.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.
High-resolution files of these images are available in ch_dec2010_001.jpg through ch_dec2010_032.jpg in the cityimage directory.