Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's the Biggest City in the USA? you didn't guess Sitka, Alaska.

The notion of scale is an interesting one in the mapping/visualization world and can mean many different things.  Generally, when we think about a city being "big" we jump to how many people live there.  This is an interesting example because, A it so pervasively overrides an intrinsic understanding of 'big' as being a physical characteristic, and B because we mentally leap from physical size to a more fuzzy notion of an aggregation of contained elements (humans, in this case) -something thematic visualization drools over.  Our cultural notions of 'cities' as being primarily places where people live, rather than zones within sovereign borders (turf) is overwhelming.  I wonder if it was always this way?  I also wonder if the trend line would correlate to our valuing of the ideas and innovation (resources that exist inside brains) of a place compared to its more physical/geologic resources?  (On a related note, check out Robert Linn's excellent 'Feet of Street per Resident' map that combines both notions of city 'size.')

These map shapes and "land area" measurements come from the 2010 Census, which in this case are projected using Albers Equal Area in order to provide a fair-enough size comparison...


  1. Hi,

    I am looking at your list and I noticed that you didn't include Nashville, TN on your list. Though it has a consolidated city-county government, the area not attached to another municipality should make Nashville between nine and ten on your list. I'm not sure why the census left Nashville out.

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for the interest and question. I looked into Nashville in the source data and found that the Census called it "Nashville-Davidson metropolitan government (balance)" had categorized it as Functional Status "F" which "identifies a fictitious entity created to fill the Census Bureau's geographic hierarchy."

      I don't know why that is. For the sake of sanity, I considered only places with a functional status of "A" which is "an active government providing primary general-purpose functions." I notice that consolidated cities are included in status A but for whatever reason Nashville got put in an odd bucket.
      In any case, the area for that boundary is about 475 square miles, which would put it at #10 -just like you said. Thanks for the insight, and let me know if you have more insight as to why the bureau categorized Nashville that way; I'd be interested to know.


    2. John,

      It is interesting the way that the census bureau classifies it. I'm not exactly sure why they do it this way, but my guess is that Nashville-Davidson county has one metro government (Metro Council) that covers the entire county including non-consolidated suburbs (Belle Meade, Goodlettsville, Oak Hill, etc.).

      The residents of the non-consolidated suburbs have representatives on the Metro Council and vote for the mayor of Nashville. However the non-consolidated suburbs have their own city councils and pay for their own police, fire, streets, garbage, and parks, but defer to the Metro government in other areas including schools and have to abide by Metro ordinances in addition to their own, just like a typical city within a county.

      So, when the census bureau takes out the non-consolidated suburbs from Nashville-Davidson County there is no governmental entity that just applies to that portion, so the government is "ficticious." That is my guess. Does that make sense with that type of designation?

    3. Thanks for the insight, John! I'm just glad I'm not on the Census team that has to pour through all these thousands of entities and make category calls!

  2. Butte-Silver Bow (also in MT) at 719 sq mi. ought to fit the same criteria as Anaconda-Deer Lodge, and therefore come in at #7...