Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

What is Boston?

Milestone near my house indicating 5 miles to Boston Townhouse. In 1735 This milestone would have been outside the limits of Boston. Today nit is well within the City limits.

Milestone near my house indicating 5 miles to Boston Townhouse. In 1735 This milestone would have been outside the limits of Boston. Today it is well within the City limits.

A search for the largest cities in America on Wikipedia (or any database, including the Census Bureau) will yield something like the following list:  1. New York (8,175,133; all data are 2010 US Census figures), 2. Los Angeles (3,792,621), 3. Chicago (2,695,598), 4. Houston (2,100,263)…. so far so good (with the possible exception of Houston, which I will discuss shortly). These are all very large cities and few people would object to their claim to be the very largest cities in America.  Continue reading the list and eventually, coming in at number 22, behind Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Memphis, sits the city that is the subject of this project, Boston, Massachusetts. I have a very big problem with this, not least because there are SIX cities in Texas alone (San Antonio comes in at number 7) that claim to be larger than Boston!

If I were to ask all 310 million Americans to name the 10 most important cities in the United States, I am sure the above-mentioned four largest cities would find their way onto most lists. I am also fairly certain that Boston would feature on a fair number of lists as well. I am quite confident also that Fort Worth, or Jacksonville will feature on very few lists (home team boosters excluded). Why do I say this with such confidence? Well, as one small piece of anecdotal evidence, I have been conducting an informal survey of the mentions of the city of Boston in the Economist magazine, a British weekly “newspaper” which covers the world quite comprehensively, and I can say with some certainty that Boston is mentioned at least once in the Economist EVERY WEEK. I almost never see references to Fort Worth. Sure, this is anecdotal, but anybody reading this knows that I do not need to venture much beyond the realm of anecdotal evidence to convince you of the truth of what I am saying. And that is not merely because you are interested in reading about Boston and/or live in the Hub of the Universe. It is because it is obvious.

How then is it possible for the 24th largest city (as of July 1, 2014: It has fallen even further down the list!) in the United States to have such outsize influence in the affairs of the planet? One obvious answer is Harvard University, which, to be clear, is primarily located in the city of Cambridge, on the opposite side of the Charles River from most of the city of Boston proper. Now we are getting to the core problem. How do you define a city?  For the purposes of the Census Bureau, the City of Boston is exactly defined by the geographical city limits. Thus Boston, which stretches in a northeast to southwest direction generally, has a total land area of 48.277 square miles according to the Census Bureau, and contains 655,884 inhabitants as of mid-2014. The city immediately above Boston in the 2014 ranking is Memphis, Tennessee, which as of July 1, 2014 has 656,861 inhabitants, or about 1,000 more people than live in Boston, spread over an area of 315.055 square miles, roughly six and a half times the territory of Boston. I am sure that Memphis is a great city but is it a GREAT CITY? It is arguably not even the most important city in Tennessee (Nashville?), so how can it possibly be more important than Boston?

I am not trying to be a snob here, but the longstanding definition of a city that the Census Bureau uses is not at all helpful in defining a city. Is Brookline not part of Boston? Of course it is its own little town but it is almost completely engulfed by Boston on three sides. In Los Angeles, towns like Santa Monica or Inglewood or Beverly Hills are in fact completely surrounded by the City of Los Angeles. Does that mean that an inhabitant of Culver City or Compton is not an Angeleno? Of course not- but in the Census Bureau estimation, they are not. Similarly, a resident of Cambridge or Chelsea or Malden is not by definition a Bostonian. I find this to be a technicality that renders the official Census Bureau list ridiculous.

Another problem with the Census Bureau list is a recent ‘scam’ being foisted upon unsuspecting list readers  to make the city and county governments ‘coterminous’: in other words, small to mid-sized cities, particularly in the Sunbelt, have been opting in recent years to merge the city and county governments into one unit, complete with border revisions to include large swathes, and in some cases, the entire county of a city in the definition of the city. Thus a city such as Louisville, Kentucky, which in the 2000 Census had a population of 256,231, magically doubled its population to 597,337 in the 2010 Census by acquiring a giant chunk of surrounding Jefferson County, creating Louisville Metro, an area of 325 square miles, or 6.75 times larger than the area of Boston.  The extreme example of this phenomenon has to be Jacksonville, Florida, which was an early trendsetter, consolidating their city and county governments in 1968. Today the ‘city’ of Jacksonville has 853,382 inhabitants (number 12 on the 2014 top cities list), crammed into a mere 747.003 square miles, three quarters the size of the state of Rhode Island, or only 15.5 times larger in area than the city of Boston.

The cities involved in these enlargement programs do not mind touting themselves as the 12th largest city in America (Jacksonville), as it helps to make them seem important and dynamic, when in fact they are really as small as they ever were, they just changed the definition of what it means to be a city. If Boston was to try to pull the same stunt (which it actually did in the 19th century, but that is for another day) and add vast tracts of the surrounding counties to its official limits, it would instantly vault up the charts and assume its rightful place in the rankings.

A more realistic way to assess the size of a city and, by definition, what comprises a city, is to include some fraction of the surrounding towns and cities that are part of the larger definition of a city, the one that is defined in part by, for example, allegiance to a sports team like the Red Sox. Technically the Red Sox are called the Boston Red Sox, but it is obvious to even the most casual sports fan that ‘Red Sox Nation’ extends far beyond the borders.  Somewhere between the boundary of Red Sox nation and the geographically defined city limits lies the true city of Boston, because Stephen King, the Red Sox fan and member of Red Sox Nation holed up in his castle in East Nowhere, Maine is clearly not a resident of Boston no matter how broadly one defines a city.

Here again however, we are presented with complexity that is not atypical of the Census Bureau, which by definition is a Bureaucracy and hence complicated.  The census Bureau does in fact provide lists of cities defined by a broader consideration of what it means to be a city.  There are several quite distinct lists however, and again, the results are wildly different depending on which list you choose.  The most basic list is the list of “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” which The Office of Management and Budget Defines as “one or more adjacent counties or county equivalents that have at least one urban core area of at least 50,000 population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.” Okaayyyy…… whatever that means.  Whatever it does mean the list comprises some 381 individual MSA’s and on this list we have at number one New York of course, now with 19,949,502 inhabitants spread out over the counties in adjacent New Jersey, as well as some of the counties bordering New York City proper, such as Westchester County.  Then follow, in order, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Atlanta, and at number 10 with 4,684,299 people, Boston.  San Antonio, number 7 on the largest city list, sits at number 25 on the MSA list, which seems more sensible, even to a San Antonian; Memphis comes in at #41, with 1,341,746 inhabitants, and Jacksonville is one spot in front at #40, with 1,394,624 residents. A little bit of order and sanity has been restored.  I mean, how can you be a big city if you do not even have a Major League Baseball team?

An even broader definition results in the ‘Primary Statistical Area’ which tries to encompass all the area that is a somewhat unified economically linked geographical entity, or something like that.  Basically it is the broadest definition of the reach of the core city (or cities, as for example in Minneapolis/St. Paul or Dallas/Fort Worth) in the area. Under this definition New York expands to over 23 million people spread out from Milford, Connecticut to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and points north and south as well. Boston now moves up in the ranking to settle in at number 6, with just under 8 million people.  This definition expands Boston as an idea from its 48 square mile core to include all of Eastern and Central Massachusetts, all of Rhode Island, most of the populated areas of New Hampshire, and even reaching into Eastern Connecticut, an area just under 10,000 square miles, nearly the size of Maryland.  All the other PSA’s are similarly large in area: Atlanta, number 11 on the PSA list at 6.1 million, includes parts of Georgia and Alabama totaling almost 9000 square miles and presumably will continue to expand as suburban Atlanta spreads further away from Downtown Atlanta. Incidentally, Jacksonville places 40th on the Primary Statistical Area list as well, with about 1.5 million people in 4542 mi2, the fourth largest metropolitan area in Florida.



I do not intend to make Boston the size of a small state to accommodate my interests; besides I already walked a huge chunk of the aforementioned Boston PSA in my previous project. I also reserve the right to leave the city limits of Boston to make my walks more inclusive of what, to me at least, feels like Boston.  One little game I have been playing is trying to decide where a city in general ends and suburban life begins.  I live in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, which in the 19th century, was known as a ‘Streetcar Suburb.’  While I find it to be relatively quiet as city living goes, compared to the town of Braintree, where I went to high school, it is positively an urban jungle. Yet Braintree is a mere twelve miles from the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, only a mile or two farther from downtown Boston from the residence of the last Mayor of Boston, Tom Menino. Jamaica Plain is definitely in the city of Boston both geographically and ‘spiritually’. Brookline to my mind is also part of Boston, as is Cambridge and Somerville.  Newton? Now we are getting into questionable territory.

Here is the game I have been playing of late. In order to decide whether a city is truly a city or whether a ‘suburban’ town or neighborhood is part of the city I have been using population density to test my choices. The 48.277 square mile city of Boston has a population density of 12,793 inhabitants/square mile according to the 2010 Census.  A list of the largest cities with a population over 100,000 on the Census list (There were 271 cities at the time) ordered by population density instead of by population is quite illuminating.  New York remains at the top of the list, with 27,012 people crammed into each of its 302.643 square miles. It is followed by Paterson, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River at #2, and nearby Jersey City, New Jersey at #4!  San Francisco takes the third slot, with adjacent Daly City at #6, while Boston comes in at #7, with its trans-Carolian partner Cambridge taking the #5 slot, with a population density greater than that of Boston!  Other major American cities on the list are Chicago at #11, Philadelphia at #13, Miami at #14, Washington DC at #20, and Los Angeles, California, the city everybody thinks of as being so spread out you could have a golf course between every house, a respectable # 27!!! And that includes ridiculous swathes of empty desert and mountains, but does not include Inglewood, Santa Ana, or El Monte which come in at #8, #9, and #10 respectively!! Overcrowded and densely populated LA:  I bet that is a fact you have never thought possible! Oh, and Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose, all cities nominally in the 10 largest cities in the country, do not break the top 100 cities listed by population density. I think I am onto something here.

Using population density as a barometer of “city-ness” is quite fun.  Brookline has 58,732 people jammed into a mere 6.8 square miles, a density of 8,637 people/square mile. A hypothetical city of Boston containing the City of Boston Proper, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, all areas with density of more than 8,000/mi2, would have a population of 857,242 according to 2010 Census data, in an area of 65.636 mi2, moving up the largest city chart from #22 to #11, while actually moving up the population density rankings to #6 (13,061/mi2) since it incorporates Cambridge.  This ‘city’ would be smaller in area than all but 2 cities in the top 35 on the Census list of largest cities (by population), San Francisco and Washington DC.  I could even throw in the cities of Chelsea, Everett, Malden, and Winthrop to create a city with 1,011,034 inhabitants in an area of 78.4 mi2 and the city would now be the 10th largest by population and  still be at #6 (12896/mi2) on the population density chart, while still being the 33rd smallest by area of the top 35 most populated cities on the Census Bureau list. We could stop there and have a very respectable city: over a million people in under 100 square miles. Gone are places like Jacksonville and Fort Worth. However, Boston still lags cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, which both seemed much smaller to me when I visited them and which are not in the top ten largest metropolitan areas in the country (see above).

Adding Revere, Arlington, Watertown, and Medford into our ‘New Boston’ increases the city to 1,193,721 in 101.7 mi2, a density of 11,738/mi2.  This pushes ‘New Boston’ down to 10th in the nation by population density, just after Chicago, but gives it a population the size of Dallas, which is three and a half times larger by area (note: if we were being more ruthless we could also just merge all the little places in the top 10 with the cities to which they reasonably should be attached. Thus Daly City gets added to San Francisco, Paterson and Jersey City get lumped in with New York, and Inglewood, Santa Ana, and El Monte join Los Angeles. This puts the above “New Boston” into 4th place in the density rankings, behind only New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, and just ahead of Miami and Philadelphia). If I were to throw in Newton, Quincy, Waltham, Saugus, Lynn, Nahant, and Belmont, ‘New Boston’ grows to 1,576,870 inhabitants spread out over 176.6 mi2, the same physical size as San Jose, California, but with over 600,000 more inhabitants, and a population density of 8929 inhabitants per square mile. In terms of population it would be fifth, slightly larger than Philadelphia, a city with 1,526,006 people in 134.1 mi2. In terms of population density, New Boston would be slightly more densely populated than Los Angeles.

This game is quite illuminating.  It tells me that Philadelphia is actually a really big city, since I cannot make a city as populous as Philadelphia out of the surrounding towns without having a physically larger area; in other words, New Boston starts to fall down the ranking chart of Population Density when it becomes as populous as Philadelphia.  Other cities that are more dense than New Boston once it becomes a 1.5 million strong city are New York (of course!), San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Miami. However, the city of New Boston is still much smaller by area than many of the putative “largest cities in the United States.” The fact remains that only a half dozen major American cities would be more densely populated than New Boston and only 4 cities would be larger in population despite the fact that “New Boston” still would be physically smaller than all but Philadelphia on the list of the ten largest cities in the United States according to the 2010 census.

Expanding the city of New Boston to its perhaps logical limit, a city that I will call Boston 128, would create a city that is almost circular in shape and would basically include any town inside Route 128, the ring road surrounding Boston, and a few towns that straddle 128 but fall within a radius of 12 miles of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.  Why 12 miles? basically that is a comfortable day walk for me and conveniently reaches most of the town centers in the 128 belt. Adding these towns: Melrose, Stoneham, Winchester, Woburn, Lexington, Wakefield, Reading, Burlington, Milton, Needham, Wellesley, Dedham, and Braintree, increases the area New Boston, or Boston 128 to 312 square miles, about the size of Kansas City, Missouri (315 mi2), and a little larger than the 5 boroughs of New York (303 mi2) but still smaller in area than Los Angeles (469), Houston (600), Phoenix (517), San Antonio (461), San Diego (325), Dallas (341), Indianapolis (361), Fort Worth (340), Memphis (315), Nashville (475), and Lousiville (325).  However, the population of Boston 128 would have, according to Census 2010 data, 1,934,699 inhabitants, placing it right up in with the four cities I started off mentioning in the original list! And it would not take much work to pass Houston on the list while remaining smaller in total area than the Texan juggernaut.

What the heck, let’s do it! I could go in any direction but one easy way is to add three more contiguous towns to New Boston: Weymouth, Natick, and Framingham. This brings the total population of New Boston to 2,102,566 in an area of 369.2 mi2, slightly larger than the population of Houston (2,100,263) in a little more than half the area (Houston is 600 mi2). Note that it is also only about half the area of Jacksonville, but is now over 2.5 times more populous (Sorry to rub more salt in, Jaguars fans, but I had to do it). In terms of population density, at 5,695 inhabitants per square mile, it would rank 14th of the 55 cities with more than 350,000 inhabitants according to the most recent census estimates. I rest my case.

What is the purpose of this exercise? Well, firstly, it is not meant to denigrate other cities: I quite like Houston and San Diego and Phoenix and San Antonio for example.  But it does help me get closer to what it means to be a city. Boston feels different from San Diego and I want to figure out why. I also want Boston to get its due. Data is often thrown around without much thought.  Is Jacksonville really the 12th largest city in America? I say no.  Boston is certainly bigger than #20-something. More importantly, these shenanigans are helping me to define what I think Boston is. I have not drawn any conclusions yet, except that Braintree is not Boston, even if it would be in my hypothetical Boston 128. But then I knew that already, without even anecdotal evidence.

Finally, I am sure that when I do visit Jacksonville, Florida (and I really do want to visit)  I will really enjoy my time there, unless somebody tries to tell me it is bigger than Boston.

One Response to What is Boston?

  1. […] suburbs (this website is called Boston Rambles after all, and we are unofficially no longer in “Boston“), I am put in mind of Sal Paradise’s similarly glum beginning to his own mythical […]


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