Galactic City Model

Have you ever been traveling on a remote stretch of rural highway hundreds of miles from a big city, surrounded by farmland, when suddenly you pass a group of houses that look like they were magically transplanted from a city suburb? Have you ever wondered why every time you get off the interstate—any interstate—you see the same collection of chain restaurants, gas stations, and chain hotels? Most likely, you are encountering the "galactic city."

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    It is a city where all the traditional urban elements float in space like stars and planets in a galaxy, held together by mutual gravitational attraction but with large empty spaces in between.1

    Galactic City Model Definition

    The galactic city, as known as the galactic metropolis, is a unique creation of the US experience and of the freedom the automobile gave people to live and work in widely separated locations. The galactic city is based on the notion that people in the US desire the amenities that urban areas provide but want to live in the countryside at the same time.

    Galactic city: a conceptual model of the modern United States that sees the entire area of the 48 contiguous states as a single "city" like a metaphorical galaxy of separate but connected parts. Its components are 1) a transportation system consisting of the interstate highway network and other limited-access freeways; 2) commercial clusters that form at the intersections of the freeways and commercial highways; 3) industrial districts and office parks near these same intersections; 4) residential neighborhoods in rural spaces near these intersections that are populated by urbanites.

    Galactic City Model Creator

    Peirce F. Lewis (1927-2018), a cultural geography professor at Penn State University, published the concept of the "galactic metropolis" in 1983.2 He refined the idea and renamed it the "galactic city" in a 1995 publication.1 Lewis used the terms poetically, referring to the road network as "tissue" or "connective tissue," for example. As an observer of the Cultural Landscape, Lewis created a descriptive concept that should not be construed as an economic model along the lines of earlier urban form and growth models.

    The "galactic city" is related to edge cities, the megalopolis, and the urban models of Harris, Ullman, Hoyt, and Burgess and is frequently mentioned together, creating confusion for AP Human Geography students. In one way or another, all these models and concepts include the idea that US cities are not constrained by traditional urban forms but rather that they spread outward. The galactic city, though often misunderstood, is the ultimate expression of that idea.

    Galactic City Model Pros and Cons

    The imagery of the "galactic city" can be confusing for those who think it is an "urban model" along the lines of the Hoyt Sector Model or the Burgess Concentric Zone Model. Though it is not like these in many ways, it is still beneficial.


    The galactic city takes the Multiple Nuclei Model of Harris and Ullman several steps further by describing a country where the automobile has taken over. It shows how mass production of suburban and exurban forms, starting with the Levittowns in the 1940s, was reproduced almost everywhere, regardless of local physical and cultural geography.

    The galactic city concept helps cultural geographers interpret and understand the repetitious and mass-produced nature of so much of the US landscape, where local diversity and complexity have been replaced by forms created and repeated by corporations (such as the "golden arches" of McDonald's) and reinforced by people themselves who buy housing that looks the same everywhere.

    Galactic City model, Strip mall galactic city, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A strip mall somewhere in the US galactic city

    The galactic city may become increasingly relevant because the Internet, which did not exist when the idea was first promulgated, is increasingly allowing people to live nowhere near where they work. Assuming that many telecommuters will wish to live in urban-looking places and have urban amenities no matter how rural their locations are, the tendency Peirce Lewis noted for urbanites to bring city elements with them is likely to increase.


    The galactic city is not an urban model per se, so it is not particularly useful or necessary for describing urban areas (though elements of it do apply), particularly using a quantitative economic approach.

    The galactic city does not apply to genuinely rural areas, which still form a large part of the fabric of the US. It only describes the transplanted urban forms at and near major road junctions, along with urban structures like strip malls that have been incorporated into rural towns. Everything else is "empty space" in the model, with the idea that it will eventually become part of the galactic city.

    Galactic City Model Criticism

    The galactic city has often been misunderstood or criticized as simply an expanded version of the multiple-nuclei model or as interchangeable with "edge cities" or other ways of describing the US metropolis. However, its originator, Peirce Lewis, pointed out that the galactic city goes beyond a single type of city and even beyond the famous conception of the megalopolis, a term coined by urban geographer Jean Gottman in 1961 that refers to the urban sprawl from Maine to Virginia as a single type of urban form.

    The pejorative "sprawl" ... suggest[s] that this new galactic urban tissue [is] some kind of unfortunate cosmetic eruption...[but the] galactic metropolis ... is not suburban, and it is not an can find plenty of galactic metropolitan tissue on the fringes of Chicago...[but also] widespread across the once-rural tobacco county of eastern North Carolina...on the edges of Rocky Mountain National Park...wherever people in the [US] are building places to live and work and play.1

    Above, Lewis even criticizes the term "sprawl," which has negative connotations, because he is attempting to convey the idea that the urban form has become synonymous with the US itself, rather than something unnatural when found outside of traditional urban core areas.

    Galactic City Model Examples

    Lewis's "galactic city" traced its origins to the freedom enabled by the mass-produced Model-T Ford. People could leave crowded and polluted cities and live in suburbs like the Levittowns.

    Galactic city model, Levittown sign, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Levittown was the first US planned and mass-produced suburb

    Suburbs becoming a significant residential landscape led to services growing up in and around them, so people did not have to go to the city to buy things, even if they still worked there. Farmland and forests were sacrificed to roads; roads connected everything, and driving a personally-owned vehicle, rather than taking public transit or walking, became the dominant means of transportation.

    As more and more people lived near cities but avoided them, and more and more cars were on the road, ring roads were built to alleviate congestion and move traffic around cities. In addition, in 1956, the Federal Interstate Highway Act provided for almost 40,000 miles of limited-access freeways in the US.


    Massachusetts Route 128 was built around part of Boston after World War II and was an early example of a ring road or beltway. People, industries, and jobs moved out to the interchange areas where existing roads were expanded from the city and connected to it. This highway became part of Interstate 95, and I-95 became the central corridor joining the different parts of the "megalopolis." But in Boston, as in other Eastern megalopolis cities, traffic congestion became so great that another beltway had to be built farther out, providing more freeway interchanges and resulting in more growth.

    Washington, DC

    In the 1960s, the completion of the Capital Beltway, I-495 around Washington, DC, allowed travelers on I-95, I-70, I-66, and other highways to go around the city, and it was built far enough away from the existing urban settlement that it mostly went through farmland and small towns. But at places where major highways intersected the Beltway, formerly sleepy rural crossroads such as Tysons Corner became cheap and prime real estate. Office parks sprouted up in cornfields, and by the 1980s, former villages became "edge cities" with as much office space as cities the size of Miami.

    Galactic city model, Tysons Corner office park, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Office parks in Tysons Corner, an edge city along the Capital Beltway (I-495) outside Washington, DC

    People who worked in such places could then move to rural towns an hour or two beyond the beltways in states like West Virginia. The "megalopolis" started to spill over from the Eastern Seaboard into the Appalachian Mountains.

    The Galactic City Beyond DC

    Picture thousands of Tysons Corners at thousands of freeway exits across the land. Many are smaller, but all have a specific pattern because they all derive from a single process, the expansion of urban and suburban life to every corner of the country. Down the road from the office park is the commercial strip with the chain restaurants (fast food; family-style restaurants) and the strip malls, and a little farther is Walmart and Target. There are versions designed for more affluent areas and less affluent areas. A few miles away might be trailer parks, which pretty much look the same everywhere, or expensive exurban subdivisions, which also pretty much look the same everywhere.

    Tired of all this generic landscape, you drive out into the countryside for hours to get away. But you can't, because that's where we started this article. The galactic city is everywhere now.

    Galactic City Model - Key takeaways

    • The galactic city or galactic metropolis is a concept that describes the entire continental US as a type of urban area that extends along the interstates and their exits.
    • The galactic city grew with the universal accessibility of the automobile that allowed people to live far from cities but still have a type of urban living.
    • The galactic city is characterized by identical landscapes of urban, mass-produced forms, no matter where it is located.
    • The galactic city is constantly expanding as more limited-access highways are built, and more people can live in rural areas but not have rural occupations like farming.


    1. Lewis, P. F. 'The urban invasion of rural America: The emergence of the galactic city.' The changing American countryside: Rural people and places, pp.39-62. 1995.
    2. Lewis, P. F. 'The galactic metropolis.' Beyond the urban fringe, pp.23-49. 1983.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Galactic City Model

    What is the galactic city model?

    The galactic city model is a concept that describes the entire continental US as a type of urban area connected by interstate highways, and filled with empty spaces (areas not yet developed)

    When was the galactic city model created?

    The galactic city model was created in 1983 as the galactic metropolis, and named the "galactic city" in 1995.

    Who created the galactic city model?

    Peirce Lewis, a cultural geographer at Penn State, created the galactic city idea.

    Why was the galactic city model created?

    Peirce Lewis, its creator, wanted a way to describe the urban forms he saw associated with the automobile and crossroads areas of interstates across the US, that signified that the urban and suburban forms people associate with cities are found everywhere now.

    What is an example of a galactic city model?

    The galactic city, properly speaking, is the whole continental US, but the best places to see it are on the outskirts of large metropolitan areas like Boston and Washington, DC.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is NOT an essential component of the galactic city?

    The following would NOT be an essential part of the galactic city:

    An essential component of the galactic city comprising much of the Eastern United States from Maine to Virginia is called _________


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