Forty years ago, in 1961, Jean Gottmann, a French geographer in the United States, published a book called Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Gottmann didn't coin the word "megalopolis." It derives from the name of a city created in Greece in the fourth century B.C. to serve as the capital of a federation of city states. (The project failed, as many ambitious efforts at urban planning have failed over the centuries.) But Gottmann's book gave the term a currency it enjoyed for some time.

Today the word is not forgotten, but it has long since lost its buzz. In common usage a megalopolis is often simply a very large city: London or Tokyo or Sao Paulo. But that is not what Gottmann meant. His book focused on the dense urban network stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., with New York in the center: an axis along which 20 percent of the total American population, c. 1960, was concentrated. For Gottmann, a megalopolis was not merely a "mononuclear metropolitan agglomeration" but rather a vast "polynuclear urbanized system," of which there were only six or seven examples to be found worldwide.

Ah, system. That was a notion to conjure with in the years of the postwar boom, which saw the rise of "systems thinking" in many fields. A city, no matter how large, is something on the age-old human scale. An "urbanized system" can't be visualized and held in the mind's eye as New York or Chicago can. "The important thing to keep in mind," Gottmann wrote in a 1976 essay, "is that megalopolis is not simply an overgrown metropolitan area. It is not only another step on the quantitative scale. It is a phenomenon of specific qualities of a different nature."

What exactly would be offered by those "specific ...

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