Decentralization of the Nation's Main Street: New Coastal-Proximity-Based Portrayals of Population Distribution in the United States, 1950–2000



Almost half a century has passed since Jean Gottmann coined the term “Megalopolis” in reference to the almost continuously urbanized stretch of land spanning the East Coast of the United States from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia. Because a disproportionate concentration of population resided in this Megalopolis, the northeastern core enjoyed an economic and cultural supremacy, and he termed the Megalopolis “The Main Street of the Nation.” By the later 1960s and 1970s, however, population migration patterns began to reflect the influence exerted by the emergence of a second national core centered on the large metropolitan areas along the Pacific Coast, especially those of the Los Angeles and Bay Area conurbations in California. Although of different character, this burgeoning concentration of population, economic activity, and cultural influence may reflect the development of a West Coast Megalopolis that could soon rival the original Megalopolis of the Northeastern Corridor. Today, the U.S. population distribution is largely a bicoastal one. This article documents the emergence of this bicoastal population distribution. Using historical census data and GIS technology, we present a number of novel ways to graphically portray and examine this population redistribution phenomenon. The United States is not unique in witnessing an increasing share of its inhabitants clustering in coastal zones. Current critical policy concerns about the worldwide vulnerability of coastal populations have focused the need for better coastal population estimates and better mapping methods for portraying population redistribution trends.