We often identify as Minnesotans or Midwesterners, citizens of the Twin Cities metro area, or simply our various hometowns.

But did you know you're also a resident of Laurentide?

This is just one of the unofficial designations that researchers, regional planners and other experts have for the Twin Cities and its surrounding areas as they redraw the United States to better reflect how cities currently connect with each other and will do so in the future.

Researchers have used millions of census data points in a recent study to determine where people commute to and from work and the strength of those connections. They have carved the United States into 50 mega-regions, revealing the infrastructural and economic relationships between cities, towns and rural areas.

The concept of mega-regions dates back to the 1960s in reference to the Northeast megalopolis centered on New York City that was emerging at the time. While lacking a hard definition, the term describes areas that have common economic, infrastructural and planning challenges, share transit connections, ecosystems, labor markets and are generally intertwined – functionally forming their own region across traditional political borders.

And when it comes to various mega-region maps, Minnesota usually gets lumped into regions like the Midwest, Great Lakes or Great Plains –  often as a satellite of Chicago. But researchers at Dartmouth College and University of Sheffield painted a different picture, revealing the Twin Cities to be the center of its own regional universe.

“As cities have over-spilled their boundaries and into each other, the idea that we have these distinct cities has faded away,” said Garrett Nelson, a historical geographer at Dartmouth College and an author of the study. “What we really mean is clusters of big and small cities and towns and even rural areas that form some sort of cohesive whole.”

In the Twin Cities’ case, the Laurentide mega-region – named by the researchers after the ice sheet that once covered the state – stretches across state borders into Fargo and Grand Forks to the west and La Crosse and Eau Claire to the east.

“There was a time when these cities were distinct from one another, but now they have become deeply interlaced,” Nelson said.

Redrawing Minnesota like this, of course, is all a simulation. But it’s one driven by a real phenomenon describing how cities are bound together by people’s commutes to work, which can be a measure of economic ties.

The vast majority of those commuting to the Twin Cities metro area – about 1.6 million – come from within it, according to a Star Tribune analysis of 2009-2013 U.S. Census data.

The numbers of workers from elsewhere are comparatively very small. About 14,000 are from areas in outstate Minnesota, including Duluth, Rochester and Mankato.

Roughly 1,200 come from La Crosse, Eau Claire and other points in Wisconsin to work in the metro. About 450 commuted from North Dakota, including Fargo and Grand Forks. Some of the longest commutes found in the census data come from San Diego, Tucson and Miami.

 

Rather than simply eyeballing the current U.S. map, the researchers used an algorithm that identified the strength of commuter connections, a process that’s completely blind to political geographic boundaries. For instance, it doesn’t know that St. Paul is next to Minneapolis, Nelson said, only how strongly connected they are.

"If a suburb of Minneapolis has many commuters into downtown Minneapolis that’s a stronger connection than from Los Angeles to Minneapolis," he said.

So when it comes to drawing borders around these mega-regions, the goal was to place lines through areas with the fewest commuter crossings, allowing them to distinguish where breaks or borders occur that aren’t necessarily visible to the naked eye.

"There really are these kinds of natural regions. I think this is the way in which the economy is working," said Tom Fisher, a University of Minnesota professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center. "It’s also part of the conversation about how the global economy rests on cities.”

As a caveat, David Levinson, a professor of transport at the University of Sydney, points out that mega-commuters – defined by the Census as those traveling 90 or more minutes and 50 or more miles to work – and others making similarly long journeys don't necessarily make those commutes daily, and not always from their home city. 

But Levinson said there are advantages to considering mega-regions as targets for central planning around economic and transportation decisions, though it shouldn’t be the primary framework for such discussions.

“It’s difficult to get metropolitan regions to collaborate,” said Chris Jones, senior vice president and chief planner of the Regional Plan Association, something he called “a major institutional undertaking.”

While he noted that the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota pioneered ways of tackling various planning challenges, problems of infrastructure and the lack of other sweeping intercity and interstate policies stand in the way of more effectively connecting this area into something more resembling East Coast mega-regions.

If the Dartmouth and Sheffield researchers' map is a glimpse at what present mega-regions might look like, another map by the Regional Plan Association peers into a future where these regions have expanded and bled into one another even more, stretching stronger ties between cities ranging from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh.

In the Regional Plan Assocation's America 2050 map, the United States could be defined by 11 emerging regions, with Minnesota being considered part of a larger Great Lakes region.

Based on the organization’s projections, such a Midwestern consortium would be one of the largest regions in the country, at about 55.5 million people using 2010 data. But by 2050 the region's population could surpass 71 million.

 

 

To reach this point of intercity connectivity and cooperation, cities have a number of common challenges to tackle in the realms of economics and transportation, Jones said.

Some of those challenges involve the development of physical connections between cities, by way of roads, high-speed transit and other means. Experts also cited political polarization and a lack of cohesive regional planning as particularly strong barriers standing in the way of regional development.

Levinson said that although transportation has historically sped up over time, it’s stagnated recently. To him, digital commuting via the internet may emerge as the next logical step to further tighten economic bonds across cities. Self-driving vehicles, too, could take some of the pressure off drivers and allow them to travel longer distances while also engaging in other tasks.

"The 20th century version [of regional competition] has Minneapolis competing against St. Paul. But in the 21st century the competition has to be with other regions. Otherwise we’ll be less successful globally," Fisher said.

"A region needs to stick together,” he added, “including its urban and rural areas."

Are you "mega-commuter" who travels 90 minutes or more and 50 miles or more to the Twin Cities for work on a somewhat regular basis, but not necessarily every day? If so, and you'd be willing to tell us about your experience for a future Star Tribune story please email reporter Sharyn Jackson.