By Ben Schulman and Xiaoran Li

Conventional wisdom holds that the larger the population of a city, the more successful the place must be. If the population’s growing, that city must be doing something right. If it’s withering, it must be in decline.

Seeing as so many of the feelings that are collectively construed to form a perception of a place – and inform many of the policies used to influence the design of such places – are derived from this basic fact, the question of what is actually being compared when looking at the population of cities begs to be asked.

While the health of cities is often discussed in terms of population, what’s often lost in the discussion, at least outside of certain wonky urbanist circles, is the size of cities in geographic terms. (Unless that city is Detroit, whose 139 square miles seem to be lambasted at times as one of the central causes for the city’s steady decline.) Putting density and urban design aside, simply taking a quick look at the square mileage of American cities reveals a wide disparity, from the 757.7 square miles of Jacksonville, FL to the 14.79 square miles of Jersey City, NJ.

Although cities are often judged prima facie, not to mention showered with congressional dollars via census results, based on population figures, perhaps a straight reading of the numbers isn’t a good barometer of the merits or demerits of a place given the wild variances in the geographic size of cities.

Cities are arbitrarily constructed entities with culturally loaded boundaries. So what would happen if every city shared the same geographic borders? Would population numbers reflect different realities? Would the perceptions of places change, defining which cities are viewed as declining or prospering?

To try and answer these questions, we decided to conduct a thought experiment. Using census and GIS data, we sought to standardize the size of the American city and find out the population that would reside within that uniform sq. mileage figure.

Our search began easily, using 2010 census data to confirm the population estimates and sq. mileage for the ten most populous cities in the U.S. We added up the sq. mileage of those ten cities and divided the sum by ten to arrive at an average sq. mileage for the “standard American city.”

That number comes out to be 355 sq. miles.

Rank City Population –
Population – 2010
(Average Sq. Mileage)
Sq. Mileage
1 New York 8,175,133 302.64 8,020,022 355 -155,111
2 Los Angeles 3,792,621 468.67 3,551,958 355 -240,663
3 Chicago 2,695,598 227.63 3,197,099 355 501,501
4 Houston 2,100,263 599.59 1,700,164 355 -400,099
5 Philadelphia 1,526,006 134.10 2,462,786 355 936,780
6 Phoenix 1,445,632 516.70 1,382,860 355 -62,772
7 San Antonio 1,327,407 460.93 1,371,715 355 44,308
8 San Diego 1,307,402 325.19 1,433,195 355 125,793
9 Dallas 1,197,816 340.52 1,359,986 355 162,170
10 San Jose 945,942 176.53 1,416,827 355 470,885
14 San Francisco 805,607 46.87 1,277,962 355 472,355
18 Detroit 713,777 138.75 1,443,876 355 730,099
24 Boston 617,594 48.28 1,676,393 355 1,058,799
40 Atlanta 420,003 133.15 1,105,194 355 685,191
48 Cleveland 396,815 77.70 1,047,376 355 650,561
58 St. Louis 319,294 61.91 999,421 355 680,127
62 Pittsburgh 305,704 55.37 1,052,105 355 746,401
65 Cincinnati 296,943 77.94 982,924 355 695,981
73 Buffalo 261,310 40.38 810,524 355 549,214
Average Sq Mileage: 355.25 sq mileage
[Sq Mileage of Top Ten Most Populous Cities Added/10]

Using our average sq. mileage figure, we then used GIS software to graft a 355 sq. mile radius in the shape of a box from the downtown core of select cities and metropolitan areas across the country. The GIS software compiled the population within the box to arrive at a population figure if all cities were sized to the average. For example, we set our zero coordinates at the intersection of State and Madison Streets in the heart of downtown Chicago and drew out a 355 sq. mile tract from there, compiling the population figures within the newly drawn perimeter of the standardized-sized city.

Here are our results:

City Population – 2010
(Actual boundaries)

Population – 2010
(Based on 355 sq m average)

New York 8,175,133 8,020,022
Los Angeles 3,792,621 3,551,958
Chicago 2,695,598 3,197,099
Houston 2,100,263 1,700,164
Philadelphia 1,526,006 2,462,786
Phoenix 1,445,632 1,382,860
San Antonio 1,327,407 1,371,715
San Diego 1,307,402 1,433,195
Dallas 1,197,816 1,359,986
San Jose 945,942 1,416,827
San Francisco 805,607 1,277,962
Detroit 713,777 1,443,876
Boston 617,594 1,676,393
Atlanta 420,003 1,105,194
Cleveland 396,815 1,047,376
St. Louis 319,294 999,421
Pittsburgh 305,704 1,052,105
Cincinnati 296,943 982,924
Buffalo 261,310 810,524

All cities bar graph

A few interesting findings immediately pop out. Redrawn at 355 sq. miles, Chicago’s population jumps over 3 million, a number last crossed in the 1980 census. Some quirks of geography and the presence of independent enclaves reveal that some cities can see their footprints shrink and their populations grow, such as San Antonio. Conversely – and perhaps tellingly, revealing how arbitrary the process of drawing borders is – New York’s population would shrink by over 150,000 even as its sq. mileage increased. [Note: Obviously, drawing cities at a 355 sq. mile box is just as capricious as present practices. It does however offer a framework in which to view cities as comparable units of analysis.]

Where the altered numbers are most revealing though is for cities constrained by the legacy of their geographic confines. Enter the Rust Belt City.

Geography Population – 2010 (Actual boundaries) Population – 2010
(Based on 355 sq m average)
Detroit 713,777 1,443,876
Cleveland 396,815 1,047,376
St. Louis 319,294 999,421
Pittsburgh 305,704 1,052,105
Cincinnati 296,943 982,924
Buffalo 261,310 810,524

Rust Belt Bar Chart

Buffalo, a city of 261,310 as of 2010 over 40.4 sq. miles, is recast as a place of roughly 810,000 at the 355 sq. mile standard size. Cleveland, that punching bag on the lake, is transformed from a shadow of 396,815 across 77.58 sq. miles to a player of 1,047,376. St. Louis, the city that percentage-wise has hemorrhaged population more than any other American metropolis, sees its population rise to 999,421 at 355 sq. miles from 319,294 at 61.2 sq. miles. The pattern pretty much holds for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Detroit, other cities often lumped in the great fallow foundries of the interior of the country. (Other geographically constrained, yet non-Rust Belt cities express similar patterns: Boston grows to 1,676,393; Atlanta to 1,105,194; San Francisco to 1,277,962)

For Rust Belt cities who have experienced massive population loss and whose recent histories read as exemplars of post-industrial urban failure, the numbers seem to reveal a story of dispersal, rather than absolute decline. (A few years ago, the Buffalo-based planner Chuck Banas delved into this very issue.) Rust Belt cities taken at the standardized size no longer look universally like dying vines, but rather large agglomerations of people positioned at the same relative scale as more “successful” urban areas.

These points do not negate the economic insolvency and vacancy that plague certain neighborhoods that reside within the current, or imagined, bounds of Rust Belt (or otherwise) cities. And it should be noted that these findings and discussion offer nothing in terms of concrete policy prescriptions, nor do they posit that any particular form or design typology serves cities in a more beneficial fashion. Nor, although the numbers would seem to imply it, do we state that a certain density per sq. mile is essential for success. The authors may have opinions to share on such matters, but all elements of those discussions are topics for other debates.

What this exercise illustrates is that popular opinion puts a lot of faith into a metric that in actuality reveals an inaccurate depiction of the places condemned as shrinking and failing, and for that matter, as growing and successful. These assumptions tend to have a disproportionate effect on Rust Belt locales, as population trends that in reality point towards transference are read as absolute indicators of a place’s worth, or lack thereof.

What would it mean if cities were redrawn at a standardized scale?

A lot more goes into economic and human development than just geography, but if the city were standardized at the same geographic scale, it may affect the perception of place in terms of what economic geographer Jim Russell has deemed “the mesofacts.” Mesofacts relegate a place to the constraints of its own history, even if the reality of the present paints a different picture than the overarching popular narrative that defines it.

A simple exercise such as this, altering the lens in which population is measured, could help challenge the outdated narratives that reinforce negatively-charged imaginaries of what we think places to be. Doing so may help governing bodies on the federal, state, regional and municipal levels design policies that are attuned to the realities of what places are, and therefore, comport themselves to more realistic notions of what should be done to address their attendant problems.

Ben Schulman is the Communications Director for the American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA Chicago) and the co-creator of the Contraphonic Sound Series, a project that documents cities through sound.

Xiaoran Li is an urban planning intern for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and a master’s student in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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