Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Boston Versus the World!

In my most recent post I examined the election results of the largest cities in America. I chose the 26 largest cities based on US Census Bureau data, cities which each had a population of more than 600,000. I also discussed some problems with the data set, as I also did in a post from March where I addressed the issue of the size of Boston relative to other large cities in the United States. One of the aims of this project is to situate Boston in the larger world, and these types of comparisons are of great interest to me. Unsurprisingly, when I visit other cities I often spend a great deal of my time making comparisons to my hometown.

So it was that in June of this year I visited San Francisco, staying in both the Union Square area as well as in Oakland across the Bay. My wife and I walked across the entire city from the Ferry Terminal to the Golden Gate Bridge, and from the Embarcadero to the Mission District to Ocean Beach. We also walked through most of Oakland and Berkeley in the East Bay. We also spent time at Stanford, in Fremont (birding the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge), and drove as far south as Big Sur, via Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz, and Salinas.  On previous trips we have spent significant amounts of time in Sonoma, Bodega Bay, and other points North of the Bay. In other words, we have visited both the “core” San Francisco, comprising the 47 mi2 and 852,469 inhabitants of the coterminous city and county of San Francisco, and a large chunk of what we might call “Greater San Francisco,” but which most people know as the “Bay Area.”

Although San Francisco is listed as the 13th largest city (852,469) in the United States and the 11th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area (4,594,060), it is obvious that it is a much more important city than it’s relatively lowly ranking indicates, much as Boston is more important than its equally low rank on the biggest cities list suggests. I would argue that San Francisco is even more important and more well-known than Boston is in the world. Of course, when we examine the rankings for Primary Statistical Area everything settles into place again. The simple reason for this is that “Silicon Valley,” as Santa Clara County at the southern end of San Francisco Bay is known, is considered by the Census Bureau to be a separate Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), despite the fact that when Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, and Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, each recently visited Silicon Valley, many media outlets reported that they were going to San Francisco. When the two areas are combined, as they naturally should be, the resulting Primary Statistical Area is the 5th largest in the country at almost 8.5 million residents, behind only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC/Baltimore, and ahead of Boston.

An examination of the Primary Statistical Area(PSA) rankings of the Census Bureau reveals some interesting data, which helps me to get at a question much more profound than whether Boston is bigger than Jacksonville or San Antonio: What makes a GREAT CITY, or a “World Class City,” the phrase that was bandied about a great deal in the recent brouhaha over the abandoned Boston 2024 Olympic bid. If it is even possible to define a “World Class City,” does Boston make the cut?

The PSA rankings separate out the wheat from the chaff, even if there is still much to be desired about the way the Census Bureau defines a Primary Statistical Area. An area of 10,000 square miles is far too big to be a city; but it does put most of the cities that most reasonable people would likely place on a list of major cities in the United States into a reasonable order. Gone are cities like Jacksonville and Memphis, and leaping up the charts are cities such as Atlanta and Miami, as well as Boston and San Francisco. Below is a table ranking cities in the United States by the population of the Primary Statistical Area, the area that corresponds to the widest definition of a metropolitan area according to the Census Bureau.

RankPrimary CityPopulation of PSA (2012)Population of MSA (2014)Rank MSARank of Primary City alone (2014)
1New York23,462,09920,092,88311
2Los Angeles18,238,99813,262,22022
4Washington DC9,331,5876,033,737722
5San Francisco8,370,9674,594,0601113
18San Diego3,177,0633,263,431178
31San Antonio2,234,0032,328,652257
XSan Josepart of SF1,952,8723410
XFort Worthpart of Dallaspart of DallasX16
XRiversidepart of Los Angeles4,441,8901359


There is a great deal of information here but I want to focus on just a few points for this post. First of all, the three largest cities in the PSA list are also the three largest cities in the MSA list as well as the top of the list of cities alone without any contiguous towns or counties.  They are all big no matter how you define them. Interestingly, Washington DC is poised to pass Chicago in the near future as the third largest PSA. This is partly owing to the fact that the Northeast Corridor is so crowded that the MSA of Baltimore and Washington have effectively merged into one great big (Mega?) city, which continues to spread inexorably southward through Virginia. I will return to this topic another day.

A second point is that all of the PSAs with more than 3 million inhabitants (there are currently 18) have a Major League Baseball(MLB) team, and the top five PSAs have two teams each! Of the 30 teams in MLB, 23 are found in these 18 PSAs, while the all the remaining seven teams are ranked in the top 33 PSAs, except Toronto which, I am reliably informed, is in another country called Canada. If Toronto, the largest metropolitan agglomeration in Canada, were included in the US PSA list it would rank 12th at 5,583,064 inhabitants. Clearly an MLB franchise is an indication of “big city” status.

The largest PSA without a baseball team is Portland, Oregon, followed by Orlando, Sacramento, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio. Of these nine cities, seven have National Basketball Association franchises (NBA), and Columbus has a National Hockey League franchise (NHL) and a Major League Soccer team(MLS), while Las Vegas is shunned by sports leagues desperate to avoid being associated with gambling. The folks at the NBA clearly have been doing their homework (except for the bone-headed decision to move the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma), and spotted the growth markets while they were still small. Of the cities ranked between 19 and 33 on the PSA list only Milwaukee has both an NBA and MLB franchise (as does Toronto).  The NBA seems to be a measure of the new. Other cities such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland,which have MLB franchises dating back over a century, formerly were among the very largest cities in the country. It seems an MLB franchise can also serve as an indicator of cities that have had a more important role in the past and have fallen on hard times.

Speaking of hard times, no city seems to have suffered more in the last fifty years than Detroit. A city that was once the fourth largest in the country and, at its peak, had a population close to two million inhabitants, today ranks 18th on the big cities list with 680,000 people. Worse still, only Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland of the top 50 or so PSAs have failed to add any residents since the 2010 census. There is now a clear division between the very largest PSAs in the country and the smaller PSAs, and Detroit is at that dividing line, only it has dropped to the top of the smaller PSA list.

This brings me back to the original point of this exercise. From the data shown in the table above, it is clear that there are eleven cities that are essentially the largest in the country as measured by PSA or MSA. From New York to Atlanta, eleven cities make the cut of the largest cities in the United States and hence are candidates for “World Class City.” The top three certainly make the cut, and Washington DC has to be included because of both its political importance as well as its rapid growth. San Francisco? I think yes, for many reasons. I also think a good case can be made for Boston. The other five have aspirations and each has a strong case. I am not convinced they are there yet. So, using the cruel logic of numbers, I have arbitrarily set a cutoff minimum of 8,000,000 inhabitants of a CSA to qualify for World Class City Status. I will come back to this topic more than once as I accumulate more evidence. However, I think I have at least made the case for three World Class cities in the US as well as putative World Class status for three more, and a waiting list of five more cities.

How about Megacity status? What the heck is a Megacity anyway? I will return to this topic in a future entry, but for now lets just use the obvious definition: a VERY large city.  In India the Census Bureau defines a Megacity as having more than four million inhabitants. That to me is absurdly small. Take Delhi, the capital of India and a city I will visit next year, as an example. The official name for the area that is considered Delhi is the National Capital Territory (NCT). This is an area of 573 square miles which contains 16,787,941 inhabitants. This alone is enough to place Delhi third on the US PSA list. However, it includes none of the suburbs of Delhi. The Indian government has a specific term for what we have been calling the PSA of Delhi: the National Capital Region(NCR), which consists of the area surrounding Delhi comprising almost 20,000 square miles, with a population of over 46,000,000 inhabitants! Now that is a Megacity! The combined population of all six of the New England states, plus all of New York state as well as the state of New Jersey is about 43,000,000 inhabitants to put the population of the NCR into perspective. The NCT alone has a density of over 29,298 inhabitants/square mile, a number higher than the density of the five boroughs of New York City (26,981/mi2). . Tokyo, Shanghai, Mexico City, and other large cities have similarly large and densely packed populations and I will come back to the discussion of Megacities in a future entry.

One thing is clear from this data: perhaps Boston is a World Class City, but it certainly is not a Megacity. In future I will attempt to define these terms with more precision and try to place Boston in a spectrum of large internationally important cities. One other thing I can say with certainty is that I do not believe that having the Olympics is a requirement for World Class Status. New York City has never had the Olympics, and they seem to be doing alright in the World City Rankings!

A side note: I included five cities ranked in the top sixteen of the largest city category at the bottom of the above chart: San Antonio, Austin, and Jacksonville drop dramatically down the chart once the MSA or PSA is taken into account, while San Jose and Fort Worth join their larger siblings to form an even larger PSA. Other ‘big’ cities such as Indianapolis (14th on the US City rank, but 29th on the PSA list), Charlotte (17/25), and Nashville(25/35) have an outcome similar to San Antonio and so are excluded to keep the table reasonably short. The final entry I included is the Riverside MSA, which is a true oddity as the primary city is Riverside, California, the 59th largest city in America and only the fifth largest city in the Los Angeles PSA, yet ranks as the thirteenth largest MSA in the country, ahead of Detroit and Seattle!

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