How Big Is Your City, Really?

When our sense of a place distorts its actual size.

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In almost every way in which we humans view the world, scale and context are crucially important.

When we build a skyscraper, it’s impressive because it’s so much taller than what’s around it, or what’s come before it. When we learn of a new chameleon, it’s wonderful because it’s so much smaller than anything else we’ve ever seen before.

But every now and then, we stumble across a fact that changes our sense of context, connecting two parts of the world with an understanding of scale that we normally lack. It turns out, for example, that the first moonwalk by the Apollo 11 crew only traversed a region no larger than a soccer field or baseball diamond.

It also turns out that a neutron star, a super-dense feature of the cosmos, can fit comfortably within the Boston metropolitan area. Robert Krulwich has explored this idea of scale in great detail, and I’ve previously examined the many aspects of our universe that, far from being overwhelmingly large, are on the human scale.

We often have a certain sense of cities’ importance and size, but this is too often founded on a fairly parochial context; our perceptions of cities are based on other cities we are familiar with or that are around it, and we neglect to recognize how big or small cities really are.

This was made clear to me when I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, last year. Kansas City is not particularly large in terms of population compared to other U.S. cities and has a certain small-town feel. However, after doing a bit of research online, I was astonished to discover that if Kansas City were moved north of the border, it would be a contender for the third most populous metropolitan area in Canada. In other words, the Kansas City metro area has around the same number of people as Vancouver’s. But we don't think about Kansas City that way at all. Similarly, my hometown of Buffalo is more populous than the entire country of Iceland (at least when you count the entire metropolitan area) and yet Buffalo is certainly not on an international stage.

When it comes to population size, we can actually automate this process of providing scale and context for cities. Using a dataset of the most populous cities in the world, I created a simple computer program that embeds a city from one country into the urban population ranking of the cities of a second country.

Here’s Kansas City in France:

So Kansas City would be the second-largest city in France. Similarly, many European cities that we think of being incredibly important and central to global affairs are not as large as they feature in our minds. Dublin, Amsterdam, and Brussels are all smaller than Cleveland, for example.

In another intriguing example, placing Boston in China allows us to see that it is smaller than many cities we’ve never heard of:


Geographic area is a bit harder to automate, but there are plenty of surprising examples there as well. Did you know, for instance, that the unoccupied section of Detroit is actually the size of the entire city of San Francisco. Or that the size of Greater Tokyo would take up a significant portion of England. Or even that the area of ancient Rome is fourteen times smaller than the area of the city of Rome, New York.

Jason Kottke has explored similar themes by seeing how the island of Manhattan would fit into other urban areas, in his terrific Manhattan Elsewhere project. For example, here is Manhattan when laid out according to scale next to Chicago and Boston:

So why are we always so astonished by these strange pictures and charts? Much of our context is due to history-induced inertia. We view cities within the context of states, or countries, or even regions. And these are often born out of certain historical paths, how states are defined, and how countries are created and merged. We often view the capital or at least the largest city within different countries on some sort of equal footing. But Copenhagen is a far cry from Shanghai or Beijing. While some cities might dominate their own countries (and some cities can even dominate their own states) and are known as primate cities, they are not all equal, but our geopolitical blinders sometimes prevent us from recognizing this.

In an intellectually stimulating paper titled “From Baghdad to London: The dynamics of urban growth in Europe and the Arab world, 800-1800”, the authors explore why Europe eclipsed the more advanced civilization of the Middle East. One of the factors they point to is the fact that within each region, there is a difference in the relative sizes of cities. For example, the Arab world was dominated by large cities that were separated by large distances. In Europe there were numerous large cities in close proximity, all sharing information and goods. Perhaps the reason many of the smaller cities within Europe loom so large in the Western mind is due to their once-equally important status hundreds of years ago.

So don’t be concerned if your city seems somewhat ordinary. Mediocrity is only mediocrity in comparison to those immediately around you.

Top image: Maugli / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. He is a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at HarvardUniversity. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe AtlanticWiredNew Scientist, and The Boston Globe. He lives in Kansas City with his wife.