Decline or Dispersal? Standardizing the Size of American Cities

Ben Schulman and Xiaoran Li lead an interesting thought experiment about the populations of cities around the country. That is, what would happen to the population of American cities if all their sizes were standardized?

"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," explains Schulman and Li. "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."

Why does the size comparison matter? According to the authors of the article, "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."

Schulman and Li proceed to describe the methodology of their experiment, which established an average size, in square miles, for American cities—355 square miles, in fact. Then, setting a 355 square box around a central coordinate in the downtown core of each metro area, either expanded or contracted the boundaries of the city.

The story of what is gained and lost is interesting in Chicago and New York City, but especially interesting in Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. According to the authors, "[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."

Full Story: Population Ain't Nothing But a Number: Standardizing the Size of the Great American City


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