What does polycentric region mean?

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: I have become interested in what our regional planning council is doing because I am concerned about the need for expanding highway access in my suburb. At their last meeting one of the staff members sort of stood up for me and mentioned that we are becoming a polycentric region, and I do not understand what that term means. Can you help? Is it a good thing or bad thing to be polycentric? How is the average citizen going to notice if we are polycentric or not?

Editors Reply: Thanks for the interesting question. Breaking down the word, we find that "poly" means many, and "centric" refers to the fact that there are centers in a city.

The historic center of a city, both geographically and metaphorically, was the downtown. So when we say there are centers, now we have moved away from the geographic notion and toward the idea of activity centers, a term that actually is used sometimes in city planning circles.

An activity center could be a shopping mall, an office or industrial complex where there is a lot of employment, a university, a popular cultural or shopping district, or a tourism or museum district, as examples.

Thus, we come to the definition of a polycentric city as a city where there are multiple major activity centers instead of a very heavy concentration of activity in and immediately around the downtown area.

City planners, including those of us who author this website, have been pretty slow to embrace the idea of a polycentric metropolitan region as a good idea, believing (correctly) that the rise of a large employment, shopping, and entertainment district on the periphery is a good thing. Often these districts do cause businesses, retail, and major festivals to leave the downtown center. Taken far enough, these rival centers can leave downtown hollowed out to a very unhealthy extent.

Having said all of that, there is a place for a polycentric region. One of the drivers that is causing us to change our minds is the pragmatic observation that in the U.S. we are not going to get everyone to suddenly embrace the downtown as the center of everything again. We are not going to convince everyone that city living is better than suburban living within the course of one generation.

With this reality in mind, many of us are thinking about our climate change planning and deciding that we need to reduce our vehicle miles traveled (which you may hear referred to as VMT) as quickly as possible.

In turn, a major way to reduce travel is to reduce commutes to work and routine shopping. To do so, we need some concentrations of activity, and ideally those activity centers contain feature both employment opportunities and most shopping, except for the most specialized retail.

We are making it sound as if the polycentric region or polycentric city are brand new ideas, and this is not really the case. Even though older standard representations of the ideal city and even real cities showed concentric circles around downtown, with "rents" (meaning both rents and home or commercial building pries) highest in the center, those same diagrams also frequently allowed for what they might call minor centers, neighborhood centers, and any number of other planning terms.

With the advent of Joel Garreau's edge city book in 1991, we started becoming more realistic about what already had occurred in American cities by that time. His work pointed out a number of examples of activity centers on the edges of a metropolitan area, or at least at a considerable distance from downtown, that had become major employment, office, and retail centers. Like traditional downtowns, these had become major traffic generators and exerted their own pull on real estate development and upward momentum on rents and housing prices.

We stand firm in our resolve to oppose suburban sprawl as a matter of regional planning principle. The reasons sprawl is bad are many and are detailed elsewhere on our site.

However, there is also a role for realism in our regional planning, and it is our hope that your desire for additional road infrastructure in suburbia is driven by such realism rather than the unrealistic idea that you can build your way out of traffic jams. When the desire for expanded highway access is genuinely a wish for access where none exists or where the access is dangerous for both vehicles and pedestrians, it can be a good thing.

To be polycentric as a region at this point is not only realistic, but also healthy if the region is growing in population. For regions that are stagnant or are suffering as shrinking cities, we still recommend the most stringent measures possible to restrict the number of activity centers to the ones that already are beyond control.

Answering your last point, we think that if a citizen is armed with this basic information, they will be able to discuss and understand whether their city is polycentric. Our hope is that they then can enter into the discussion about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, as you put it.

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