The MetaCity: Baltimore’s Transportable Idea in Thailand

I hope I will be forgiven for calling the MetaCity a Baltimore idea, at least in part.  Architect and leader of the BES Urban Design Working Group, Brian McGrath is the senior parent of the idea of the MetaCity.  The co-parent of the idea is architect and architectural historian Grahame Shane, famous for his ideas of recombinant urbanism (among others).  Maybe I’m an uncle.  At any rate, I have to admit a close relationship to this offspring idea, and admitting that will leave the reader unsurprised that I think it is an important contribution to the emerging theory of urban systems.  It is certainly an important feature of contemporary urban ecological science, and can serve as a useful link with other disciplines struggling to firm up urban theory for the 21st century.
This essay is stimulated by two recent papers by McGrath.  One is called “Collecting and Disseminating Knowledge on the Architecture of the Metacity” (McGrath 2016), and the other is called “The Architecture of the Metacity: Land Use Change, Patch Dynamics and Urban Form in Chiang Mai, Thailand” (McGrath et al. 2017).  I was fascinated by these two papers for several reasons.
First, they provide a good description of the metacity idea, where it came from, how it differs from other currently circulating perspectives on extensive urban systems, and what it means for the connection between ecological science and the theory and practice of urban design (which is inclusive of planing, architecture, and landscape architecture).  Second, the papers suggest that the metacity idea applies well beyond Baltimore, where at least some of its roots extend deeply.

Chiang Mai City (Wikimedia Commons)


The term metacity (prounounced with more or less equal emphasis on both syllables) was first used by the United Nations as a marker of size.  The prefix was used to describe cities larger than megacities. But that seemed to McGrath (and me) a waste of a powerful term.  Meta in ecology refers to a process or phenomenon that abstracts or stands beyond some other concrete or localized one.  For example, a metapopulation is a spatially distributed aggregation of individual populations each of which is undergoing its own dynamics, and which are differentially connected by migration or flow of genes with other populations in the aggregation.  The term meta, derived from a Greek preposition, has lots of other meanings, but the sense of beyond or above is the one that is relevant here.  
A metacity is thus a level of aggregation above that of individual urban or urbanized settlements, and which suggests that the different nodes in the aggregate are spatially distributed and differentially connected with each other by flows of people, goods and services, economic resources, information, waste procucts, and so on.  McGrath and Shane (2012) emphasize that the metacity involves electronic and hand held media, which makes connectivity much more rapid, individualized, and flexible than the kinds of connectivities that fueled modernism since the eras of Gutenberg, the Dutch East India Company, Marconi, and Alexander Graham Bell.
The metacity concept is not restricted to any particular spatial scale.  Aggregations of differentially dynamic and differentially connected settlements can exist within a county, a nation, or at global scales. It is pattern, connection, and dynamics that are key to the concept, not a set size.  McGrath et al. (2017: 53) emphsize that the metacity is “a new urban form.” 


The metacity brings together several themes that have been emerging over many years to summarize the changing nature of urban processes and urban forms.  Earlier terms, such as metropolis and megalopolis have embodied specific assumptions. Metropolis, for example, suggests colonial or regional control by a large core city.  Megalopolis as originally coined referred to a linearly array of regionally significant metropolises, powered by coal and steam, and connected by rail and wire.  Even the familiar term “urbanization” carries assumptions of a set temporal sequence of development from economies based on managing the resources of a nearby hinterland, through trade across ocean basins, through industrial productivity and connectivity.  Such a sequence is implied in the term “post-industrial,” for example.  The metacity concept, although it is manifestly a dynamic one, does not assume a single or even predominant historical sequence of urban development.  The metacity is a framework that can accommodate the successful assumptions of a variety of different urban ideologies, histories, and projections, but is not limited by the erroneous or narrow ones.  Perhaps McGrath’s term “metaurbanization” is useful for pointing out the distinctive conceptual contributions of the metacity concept.
Rice terraces in Chiang Mai area (Pixaby, public domain)

Connecting ecology and urban design

Contemporary urban ecology has brought the perspective of ecology of the city, in contrast to ecology in the city to the fore.  This means that ecological science as an integrative pursuit linking with social sciences, economics, and other modes of understanding human agency and concerns, studies entire urban systems, not just the “green” areas embedded within them.  That is the meaning of ecology of the city.
Connecting with urban design can also employ a perspective of rather than in the city.  Architecture, McGrath points out, has focused on specific sites and projects.  That is, it has been a practice within the city.  Following architect Aldo Rossi, McGrath espouses an architecture ofthe city, meaning that the concerns of architecture and other design fields must be the larger urban context, not just a particular client’s property, or a gem of “starchitecture” intended to elevate a neglected downtown to international attention.  The parallels in architectural thinking and ecological thinking about the nature of urban systems and involvement in them is striking.
The metacity concept demands scientific understanding of the dynamics of individual patches in urban areas, the differential connectivity among patches (and indeed with other urban areas and non-urban ecosystems), and the shifting structure and processes of entire urban mosaics.  Such information can in turn help understand the kinds of impacts — both positive and negative — that individual designs or networks of designed urban places can have.  The concerns of both designers and ecological scientists with the nature, change, and benefits of spatial heterogeneity or patchiness is a powerful bridge between the disciplines.
Rental ad for suburban bungalow in Chiang Mai (Wikimedia)

Broad applicability

McGrath, Sangawongse, Thaitakoo, and Corte (2017) apply the metacity framework to the Chiang Mai urban area in Thailand.  The first part of their paper is a comprehensive overview of the metacity concept.  The second part indicates how metacity dynamics in the Chiang Mai urban region has evolved to reflect “the demands of global digital financial networks and neo-liberal trade policies” while also “grounded in the ecology and life worlds of particular localities” (p 53).  Features that show up in their analyses of land change in the context of the metacity are comprehensive understanding of the patch array, including “natural,” managed, constructed, and incidental patches; the role of social production of space; and the hybridity or urban and rural spaces.  In these aspects the analysis suggests parallels with the continuum of urbanity (Boone et al. 2014).  
The important point here is that the metacity is applicable to places as disparate as post-industrial Baltimore, MD USA, which exhibits dispersed dynamics both “shrinking” and growth, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, which exhibits a trajectory of patchy and complex land change involving local shifts in livelihood and embedding in global financial networks and regulatory models.

Steward T.A. Pickett, Director Emeritus

Literature Cited

Boone, C. G., C. L. Redman, H. Blanco, D. Haase, J. Koch, S. Lwasa, H. Nagendra, S. Pauleit, S. T. A. Pickett, K. C. Seto, and M. Yokohari. 2014. Reconceptualizing land for sustainable urbanity. Pages 313–330 in K. C. Seto and A. Reenberg, editors. Rethinking urban land use in a global era. MIT Press, Cambridge.
McGrath, B. 2016. Collecting and Disseminating Knowledge on the Architecture of the Metacity. Urbanisation 1:13–18. DOI: 10.1177/2455747116640431
McGrath, B., and S. T. A. Pickett. 2011. The Metacity: A Conceptual Framework for Integrating Ecology and Urban Design. Challenges 2:55–72.  DOI: 10.3390/challe2040055
McGrath, B., S. Sangawongse, D. Thaitakoo, and M. B. Corte. 2017. The Architecture of the Metacity: Land Use Change, Patch Dynamics and Urban Form in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Urban Planning 2:53–71. DOI: 10.17645/up.v2i1.869
McGrath, B., and D. G. Shane. 2012. Metropolis, megalopolis and the metacity. Page in C. G. Crysler, S. Cairns, and H. Heynen, editors. The Sage handbook of architectural theory. Sage, London.