As the trend in U.S. politics will be to recognize the huge population growth of the nations’ very largest states, the reverse is true for our largest cities. In American culture, living in large cities is not a life style preference. In fact, the most recent census revealed that only 10 percent of all Americans live in cities of more than 500,000 people.

Actually, only a quarter of the U.S. population can be found in incorporated places of more than 100,000. A cultural pattern that began in New England in the 1600s continues on in the much broader American metropolitan culture. In the 21st century, even when Americans live in the middle of a metropolis, they usually live in manageably smaller communities of less than 100,000. It may well be that in a continuously expanding democracy like the U.S., Americans have found that citizen self-rule and managerial accountability more readily coincide in smaller places.

Top 20 states versus top 20 cities: In a previous article entitled, “2010 Census Winners and Losers: U.S. Mega-States and How They Got that Way,” we documented that the overwhelming majority of Americans live in the 20 largest states. Those are the states with at least five million residents. Seventy-five percent of all Americans live in the largest states. A large percentage of all new population growth occurs in those states as well.

In stark contrast to the trend toward large size among the states, the reverse is true for American communities. Three quarters of all Americans live in smaller metro, exurban, and rural localities. Even in hot metro areas like Atlanta and Miami, the center cities are remarkably small and contain only a minority portion of total metro population.

Winners and losers among the biggest U.S. cities: In the past 50 years, 10 of the largest U.S. cities have lost substantial population. Detroit has gone from being the fifth largest city to 18th. Chicago has lost nearly one million residents. Cleveland has seen its population cut in half.  Once ranked the eighth largest U.S. city, Cleveland is now 45th. Philadelphia is down more than half a million residents in the same time period. The city of St. Louis, which used to be ranked tenth among all US cities, is now ranked fifty-eighth. St. Louis is now smaller than Aurora, Colorado, Denver’s largest suburb.

Center city declining influence: In 2010, there were only 10 very large cities in the U.S. The cities with more than 950,000 residents are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose.

And then that’s it for large American cities.

It takes only 645,000 people to make it to the top 20. In fact the top 20cities’ share of total U.S. population has declined by 20 percent between 1960 and 2010, declining from 14 percent to 11 percent.

It may well be that in a continuously expanding democracy like the U.S., Americans have found that citizen self-rule and managerial accountability more readily coincide in smaller places.

Fast- growing U.S. cities are now physically larger: Older U.S. cities in the Northeast and Midwest tend to be smaller in size. So it is, as their metro areas have expanded, center cities have lost population to expanding metro areas. Many of the newer big cities, like Houston, Phoenix, Dallas and Jacksonville, are substantially larger places. As a result, these Sunbelt cities include much more of their area’s initial metro sprawl.

A good example of this is the city of Chicago, which lost its second city rank to Los Angeles two decades ago. If Chicago were the average physical size of the top 20 U.S. cities (300 square miles,) it would still be the second largest city in the U.S. In fact, however, Chicago is only one half the physical size of gigantic Los Angeles.

Shrinking center cities versus metropolitan sprawl: You can’t confuse center cities with their metro areas. It is in metro areas where most of the rapid U.S. population growth has occurred, especially in the South and the West. By the time of the 2010 Census, a clear majority of Americans were living in the 50 largest metro areas (population over two million).

Even discounting sometimes dramatic state-by-state differences in city size due to state laws governing annexation and city boundary-making, the average center city in the 50 largest metro areas has than only half of the region’s total population. For example, in Atlanta metro, which is the ninth largest U.S. metro area, Atlanta itself has a center city of only 420,000 residents. That is less than 10 percent of the metro population.

It is the same with the immigration-rich Miami metro. Washington DC, our nation’s capital city, has lost 25 percent of its population since 1960. Washington, with fewer than 600,000 residents, is home to less than 10 percent of that region’s burgeoning population. And yet, most other nations’ capital cities are huge.

In the United States, New York City is the standout: Among the nation’s biggest cities, only New York City has been a continually dominant center city.

You can’t confuse center cities with their metro areas. It is in metro areas where most of the rapid U.S. population growth has occurred, especially in the South and the West.

With its 36 percent foreign-born population, New York is unique among American cities. It has lost population in only two decades since its first population count, back in 1698 (when the city had a spectacular population of over 5,000 people!). In time, the city actually became a consolidation of five different counties. By 2010, the New York metropolis has spread to include three states with nearly 20 million people. Both New York City and its metropolis qualify to be included in the world’s largest ’international’ cities.

U.S. big cities versus worldwide trends: New York’s unique status in the galaxy of world cities can be appreciated when you compare it to the other great cities of the world. According to 2008 estimates, and using United Nations’ numbers, here are the world’s 10 largest cities and their metro regions, ranked by metro area population, rounded to the nearest million.


City Population Metro Area Population
Tokyo   9,000,000 32,000,000
Seoul 10,000,000 20,000,000
Manila   9,000,000 20,000,000
Mexico City   9,000,000 20,000,000
New York City   8,000,000 20,000,000
Mumbai 12,000,000 19,000,000
Jakarta   9,000,000 19,000,000
Sao Paulo   9,000,000 19,000,000
Delhi 11,000,000 19,000,000
Osaka   3,000,000 17,000,000

It should be noted that the Los Angeles metro area ranked 13th among world metro areas, and Chicago metro was ranked 25th.

Big cities versus manageable cities: Perhaps the most convincing statistics from the 2010 census illustrate the role that different size cities play in U.S. culture. Clearly, big is out and smaller is in. So while there were 33 cities with population above 500,000 which had a combined population of 30 million, (their combined population was equal to only 10 percent of the U.S. population.) There were another 40 cities with populations between 250,000 and 500,000. They had a combined population of only 14 million (equal to a tiny five percent share of the U.S. total.) In contrast with the largest U.S. cities, there were 200 cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000. These smaller cities had a combined population of 32 million, (also equal to 10 percent of the U.S. population.)

The combined total for all U.S. cities with populations over 100,000 includes 273 communities with 76 million residents, (but with only a 25 percent share of the 2010 U.S. population).

2010 Census results summary: The U.S. governmental structure is based on a minority number of powerful state governments and a universe of 23,000 smaller-sized, self-managing local governments. America is an interesting blend of strong states sharing power with the central government. It is also a successful experiment in community self-rule, where a large majority of Americans prefer to live in smaller, and presumably, easier to manage, urban communities. These communities are more likely than not located in metro areas. However, there are many growing, successful, smaller communities which are not even part of a metro area. But it is the diversity in U.S. locales that makes the future of our nation’s growth so fascinating. It might be asked: is the diversity of local communities in our country, and the political competition among the states, part of why this country continues to grow so rapidly?

About the Author:

Peter Fugiel, Ph.D., a housing and public finance consultant in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to His firm, PMN Community Services, provides research services to Chicago-area communities based on platform that combines real estate market analysis with municipal bond research.