Issues with Comparing the Populations of Cities Proper

What are the most populous cities in the United States?

The list of the largest cities proper starts as so: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix…

But there’s something hidden about the city population numbers that correspond to these cities: these cities come in vastly different sizes—as in, the land area they cover, how much is within their city limits. This wouldn’t make such a list of most populous cities so misleading if the city limits simply marked where people stopped living, but that is nowhere near the case. Pretty much all large cities have some quantity of suburbs, and many cities have twin cities right next to them. Inhabited areas around a city continuously flow into the cities next to them, and looking a map of nighttime city lights, for instance, one wouldn’t be able to tell where the actual city limits of one city stopped and those for the next city over began.

And in particular, cities across America are very inconsistent with how far out to the actual limits of their block of inhabitedness they stretch. And the actual city limits of some cities are amusingly pathological.

So what if we instead looked at the largest cities by population density? This list starts Guttenberg, Union City, West New York, Hoboken…

Okay, we can already see the problem here. A similar problem exists here as with looking at the most densely populated countries in the world. The beginning of the list is going to be filled with cities that are ridiculously tiny tracts of land that happen to be drawn to enclose a particularly densely populated area in a general region of high density. In the list above: why are they so densely populated? Because New York City.

So instead, let’s compare cities of approximately equal area, and see what cities make the top of the list in each general category.

Below are six lists of the 16 largest cities in the US smaller than an upper size limit. In the first five lists, cities that actually fit in a small enough area to go in the list for the next smaller size group are bolded. Population numbers are from the “2010” Census.

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <1024 sq km
1. New York, NY (8175133)
2. Chicago, IL (2695598)
3. Philadelphia, PA (1567442)
4. San Diego, CA (1307402)
5. Dallas, TX (1197816)
6. San Jose, CA (945942)
7. Indianapolis, IN (820445)
8. San Francisco, CA (805235)
9. Austin, TX (790390)
10. Columbus, OH (787033)
11. Fort Worth, TX (741206)
12. Charlotte, NC (731424)
13. Detroit, MI (713777)
14. El Paso, TX (649121)
15. Memphis, TN (646889)
16. Baltimore, MD (620961)

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <512 sq km
1. Philadelphia, PA (1567442)
2. San Jose, CA (945942)
3. San Francisco, CA (805235)
4. Detroit, MI (713777)
5. Baltimore, MD (620961)
6. Boston, MA (617594)
7. Seattle, WA (608660)
8. Washington, DC (601723)
9. Denver, CO (600158)
10. Milwaukee, WI (594833)
11. Portland, OR (583776)
12. Las Vegas, NV (583756)
13. Albuquerque, NM (545852)
14. Fresno, CA (494665)
15. Sacramento, CA (466488)
16. Long Beach, CA (462257)

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <256 sq km
1. San Francisco, CA (805235)
2. Baltimore, MD (620961)
3. Boston, MA (617594)
4. Seattle, WA (608660)
5. Washington, DC (601723)
6. Milwaukee, WI (594833)
7. Sacramento, CA (466488)
8. Long Beach, CA (462257)
9. Miami, FL (399457)
10. Cleveland, OH (396815)
11. Oakland, CA (390724)
12. Minneapolis, MN (382578)
13. Arlington, TX (365438)
14. Honolulu, HI (337256)
15. Anaheim, CA (336265)
16. Santa Ana, CA (324528)

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <128 sq km
1. San Francisco, CA (805235)
2. Boston, MA (617594)
3. Miami, FL (399457)
4. Santa Ana, CA (324528)
5. Newark, NJ (277140)
6. Buffalo, NY (261310)
7. Jersey City, NJ (247597)
8. Hialeah, FL (224669)
9. Rochester, NY (210565)
10. Modesto, CA (201165)
11. Oxnard, CA (197899)
11. Aurora, IL (197899)
13. Fontana, CA (196069)
14. Yonkers, NY (195976)
15. Glendale, CA (191719)
16. Huntington Beach, CA (189992)

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <64 sq km
1. Newark, NJ (277140)
2. Jersey City, NJ (247597)
3. Hialeah, FL (224669)
4. Yonkers, NY (195976)
5. Providence, RI (178042)
6. Garden Grove, CA (170883)
7. Salinas, CA (150441)
8. Pomona, CA (149058)
9. Paterson, NJ (146199)
10. Torrance, CA (145438)
11. Bridgeport, CT (144229)
12. Sunnyvale, CA (140081)
13. Alexandria, VA (139966)
14. Pasadena, CA (137122)
15. Fullerton, CA (135161)
16. New Haven, CT (129779)

US Cities of Greatest Population with Area <32 sq km
1. Paterson, NJ (146199)
2. Elizabeth, NJ (124969)
3. El Monte, CA (113475)
4. Berkeley, CA (112580)
5. Inglewood, CA (109673)
6. Norwalk, CA (105549)
7. Cambridge, MA (105162)
8. Daly City, CA (101123)
9. South Gate, CA (96375)
10. Miami Beach, FL (87933)
11. Alhambra, CA (85804)
12. Cicero, IL (85616)
13. Trenton, NJ (85403)
14. Hawthorne, CA (84112)
15. Santa Monica, CA (84084)
16. Upper Darby, PA (81821)

Notice that some of the largest cities by population in the United States, like Los Angeles and Houston, are so large they can’t fit in the largest category shown here, 1024 sq km, which really is a plenty large tract of land (larger than 25 UN-recognized countries). And notice that the smallest area category is pretty much the festival of the suburbs (just in case I still need to clarify, by “suburb” in this post I am referring to the more generalized concept of a city on the periphery of a larger city, and am not exactly talking about “the suburbs” as a concept of a type of periphery city).

So here’s a way that one could answer the what’s-the-largest-city question in a way that lets go of city limits as defined a bit and looks a bit more at the general picture of the conglomeration of people: look for cities that are at the top of their area category, especially those with suburbs that pop up in lower area categories. Notice that New York can very well be rightfully recognized as truly the US’s largest city: it has a larger population density than all other cities of millions of people, and has numerous suburbs that appear in the lower lists. Notice that Miami, a city that would be ranked 44th in a city population ranking by size of city proper (where in fact in Florida it would be dwarfed by Jacksonville!) shows up as 3rd on one of these lists, and has multiple suburbs show up, one of which is 3rd on another list, whereas neither Jacksonville nor any of its suburbs shows up anywhere in these lists (indeed Jacksonville has nearly annexed its county in entirety). Your impression that Miami was one of the US’s largest cities and Jacksonville wasn’t was not unfounded—the population statistics were merely defined in ways that reflect reality misleadingly. On the other hand, note that even though Los Angeles spans a ridiculously large area, an impressive quantity of its suburbs make the lower lists, justifying that it is actually a very large population center.

This method, of course, still has areas where it falls short. Chicago is in fact a significant population center, but of its suburbs only Cicero shows up. The actual case is that the Chicago area is just dotted with a huge number of suburbs, such that many are too small to even make the smallest list here (where I decided to stop), but for which the consolidation of several of them would probably build a convincing suburb base for Chicago on these charts.

Incidentally, you may have read this far and wondered why I’m not instead looking at the populations of metropolitan areas. Ideally, that sounds like what we’re looking for here. Sadly, once one looks at a map of where the defined boundaries of metropolitan statistical areas actually are, one easily realizes that this may be an even worse idea than city limits for proxying the idea of the population of a city.


One thought on “Issues with Comparing the Populations of Cities Proper

  1. Another way to do this is to use Census Urbanized Areas, which are drawn as the set of contiguous census tracts with population density above a certain amount, centered on a “big city”. (When two such things come into contact, they draw the division at the narrowest point.) This has some problems, but the results aren’t as absurd as those given by MSAs/CSAs, nor as those given by city limits themselves. If I have any objection to them, it’s that I might think their population density cut-off is a bit too low. I think it might be interesting to make such lists trying different cut-offs. This could be done using GIS software and freely available Census data. (If you aren’t familiar with GIS software, this is something I think you would benefit from correcting. I’ve been using QGIS, as it’s available gratis and libre, but I haven’t had the time to get that good at it.)

    Wikipedia gives a list of these at The first twenty are:

    New York 18,351,295
    Los Angeles 12,150,996
    Chicago 8,608,208
    Miami 5,502,379
    Philadelphia 5,441,567
    Dallas 5,121,892
    Houston 4,944,332
    Washington 4,586,770
    Atlanta 4,515,419
    Boston 4,181,019
    Detroit 3,734,090
    Phoenix 3,629,114
    San Francisco 3,281,212
    Seattle 3,059,393
    San Diego 2,956,746
    Minneapolis 2,650,890
    Tampa 2,441,770
    Denver 2,374,203
    Baltimore 2,203,663
    St. Louis 2,150,706

    The most obvious bug here is that it underestimates cities that are surrounded by other cities, in comparison to ones that are in the middle of nowhere. Thus Miami and Phoenix look bigger than Philadelphia (whose boundaries are cut off by the adjacent Baltimore and New York areas) and San Francisco (whose boundaries are cut off by the adjacent San Jose area).

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