Columbus is not the biggest city in Ohio, and Indy’s not bigger than Boston

Following the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s updated population numbers for American cities, much has been made about the urban rise of the west. Even the Census Bureau itself touted the growing number of cities with more than 1 million people – the vast majority of which are located west of the Mississippi River.

These numbers can be misleading, and often don’t even pass the smell test.

Is Jacksonville, for example, really a bigger city than Detroit, Washington DC, Atlanta and Boston? Or out west, would most people actually consider Phoenix to be a larger city than San Francisco, Seattle, Denver or San Diego? Of course not.

In both scenarios, however, that is precisely the case. That is because the municipal boundaries for Jacksonville (885 square miles) and Phoenix (517 square miles) are disproportionately large compared to the population of their city. Closer to home the same is true for Columbus (223 square miles), Indianapolis (368 square miles) and Charlotte (298 square miles) – all of which skew the average population density for cities east of the Mississippi downward due to their huge municipal footprints.

If you were to simply pick-up a daily newspaper and read the listing of America’s most populated cities, you would not get this full perspective and perhaps be misled to think that Columbus is the biggest city in Ohio, or that Indianapolis is the fifth largest city east of the Mississippi River.

Using this same practice, some might consider Cincinnati to be a small city that doesn’t even crack the top 30 in the United States.

Of course, we know all of this is skewed by all sorts of factors. Some cities sit on state or county lines, others follow historical boundaries from hundreds of years ago that have never changed, while other are granted more liberal annexation capabilities. In short, it’s politics.

Now if we were to look at America’s 30 most populous cities again, but rank them by population density instead of overall population, the picture would change rather dramatically. Most cities in the west fall considerably, while older cities in the east would rise. The outliers that have artificially inflated their boundaries over the years also fall into a more normalized position on the chart.

While Cincinnati is not in the top 30 in terms of population, we considered it anyways since this is UrbanCincy after all. After adjusting for population density, Cincinnati would vault all the way to the 16th “biggest” city in America, just behind Denver and ahead of Dallas. This is also more in line with Cincinnati’s metropolitan population ranking that falls within the top 30 in America.

Those cities in this analysis that are in the east have an average population density, outliers included, of 6,579 people per square mile, while those in the west, come in at 3,804 people per square mile.

If outliers like Jacksonville actually were as large as they project, and followed the average population density for the region, it would need to add close to 5 million people. Likewise, Indianapolis would need to add around 1.6 million people and Charlotte 1.1 million. Local politics and market conditions in each of these cities will never allow for this many new people to move within city limits.

The Washington Post is correct in that the west is getting more populated and urbanizing at a fast pace, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The most populated cities in the west would only be average, at best, in the east if they were judged by population density instead.

Now, factoring for population-weighted density would be an entirely different ballgame.

  • Brian Boland

    Great article making an important distinction. I’ve told friends from out of state numerous times that Columbus, as nice as it is, is NOT bigger than us or Cleveland.

    And beyond the state boundary line being one big barrier, Cincinnati has been hamstrung the it’s inability to annex surrounding areas, unlike Columbus which has tentacles (however small) that reach into nearby counties. Or like Indianapolis and other who have joint City/County structure. Cincinnati simply can’t expand south and no one will let it expand north, east or west.

    • EDG

      From what I have heard, if there was a strong desire for Cincinnati to annex at least into contiguous Delhi or Anderson Twps, it would be possible with public support.

    • matimal

      I doubt it very much. I’ve heard people who live where Delhi Township and Cincinnati meet describe the border between the two as the “demilitarized zone.”

    • charles ross

      A key characteristic of “Cincinnati” is that a bunch of us don’t seem to want to be in Cincinnati – very parochial round here. Check out the flames that Randy faced when he talked about cincy encompassing Fairfax. That’s in some thread a couple years back here.

    • EDG

      Hyperbole doesn’t mean it would be impossible if the city had a strong desire/incentive to annex more township land along the river.

    • charles ross

      Yeah, how many other city govs have to deal with big gaping holes like Norwood smack in the middle of them? I’d be interested in knowing.

      Similarly, this ranking method of tallying “city” populations leaves out a place like New Jersey, which is a vast carpet of medium sized towns.

    • EDG

      Detroit has two racial/factory municipal islands- Hamtramck (Poles) and Highland Park (Ford). I’m not sure how common it is but an odd-shaped municipal boundary is not unique to Cincinnati. If you’re a perfect square city-county, that probably means you also have a lot of sprawl.

  • EDG

    It’s too bad that pure population growth, mainly related to the South the past 20+ years, is the main method by which the media and many flyover urbanists judge which cities are thriving. Jacksonville pioneered the Quality of Life study because of the problems they’ve had, we all know about the sprawl in Atlanta and Houston and the growing class divide occurring in Miami, yet we are led to believe by the media that we MUST move to the South.

    However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to grow if you align our historic population peak with the built environment. In that sense, I think about what San Fransisco is rather than other regional cities that only draw comparison because they’re close. I’ve lived in Indy and it feels very much like Columbus- dead flat, square ring highway, oversized one way streets in and out of a mediocre downtown, development not directly on the small nearby river.

  • Joshua Lapp

    Whatever way you slice it, it seems likely that Columbus will likely top Cincy in metro population and density in the next 10 years or so. Of course the census could always lump Dayton and Cincy into a metro area which would change the calculation. Cleveland also has the same type of issue as the MSA includes only CLE and the burbs, but the CSA includes Akron and Canton.

    Population pissing matches aside, the 3Cs (+D) would do much better to increase physical and economic connections (especially transportation) so that we can compete better nationally and internationally as a region. The ability to better advocate for urban issues in Ohio and enhance the flow of people and information back and fourth is sorely needed.

    • matimal

      It’s not just a pissing match. It’s a meaningful measure of growth, but not a self-evident one. Cincinnati and Columbus have matched each other in almost every measure of growth EXCEPT population since the great collapse. Figuring out why is more than just petty boosterism.

    • EDG

      Right, it doesn’t really matter if Columbus is 100K bigger or smaller than Cincy, but you get a better feel for what a city looks like by using pop. per square mile.

    • matimal

      No, I’m saying it DOES matter, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Cincinnati has about 150,000 more people. There’s never been any question about Cincinnati’s larger population.

    • Joshua Lapp

      Right… And they are nearly the same. As Columbus has more or less stopped annexation, its likely that their density rates will equal out shortly. Maybe the better measure is historic fabric if you are trying a pro-cincy argument.

    • alekccincy

      Joshua, you’re assuming current population growth trends. The development happening in Cincinnati – specifically in the downtown, OTR, and Uptown areas – will pay dividends in the years to come. Companies like GE will continue to consider Cincinnati when relocating their business units because of the improvements to Cincinnati’s existing urban assets, of which Columbus cannot compete. Not only is the dollar amount astounding that is being poured in to projects like The Banks, OTR’s revitalization, and the virtual city being constructed in uptown, these kind of opportunities simply don’t exist in a city like Columbus with a much shorter urban history. This can also explain why Cincinnati has twice as many Fortune 500 companies than Columbus even though Cincinnati has a much smaller footprint. I expect the city of Cincinnati and the surrounding MSA to start outpacing Columbus’ growth rate before it ever becomes larger than Cincy.

    • matimal

      Columbusers need visions of a much different future to keep them interested in a rather dull and transient city. It’s the classic boosterism of a new place with shallow roots. It’s a great old American tradition, in fact. American cities that celebrate their present instead of their imagined future, such as Cincy, are actually the exception.

    • Joshua Lapp

      Columbusites* (thanks). The irony of your own boosterism isn’t lost on me!

    • matimal

      How about Columbusianans? How are my comments ironic? Columbus boosterism wouldn’t look so silly if there was more to back it up. For example, so far in 2015, Cincinnati has added 49,400 jobs while Columbus had added 25,600 jobs. The narrative of Columbus as a beacon of light among crumbling cities of filthy peasants looks silly when it can’t even equal ‘sad old faded’ Cincinnati.

    • Joshua Lapp

      You are using your own boosterism to while at the same time attacking boosterism. I hear no one in Columbus bash Cincinnati. In fact most people I know (including myself) really enjoy Cincinnati and think its beautiful. Your ‘attacks’ scream of boosterism and a sort of self-consciousness.

    • matimal

      I’ve also heard people who live in Columbus describe Cincinnati as beautiful, but in the same way they might describe Pompeii or Venice, as a pretty relic of a former age. They then lament “the sad fact” that an attractive place like Cincinnati “can’t” also be economically prosperous. I remind them that Cincinnati is both prosperous AND attractive and they laugh or say I’m ‘confused’ or ‘misunderstand’ the facts.
      They take for granted that Columbus offers vastly superior prospects to Cincinnati. They don’t bash Cincinnati because in their mind that would be like kicking someone when they’re down. Why would you criticize Venice’s for its lack of jobs, right? You just enjoy the beauty and then return to the ‘modern world.’ When I inform them it ISN’T down and that it matches and in some way surpasses Columbus’ job market, the conversation either ends or they accuse me of “boosterism.”

    • Joshua Lapp

      Well, I would say on historic fabric you are correct, Columbus cannot compete. But your “revitalization” argument could be said about almost any large or midsized american city outside of Detroit (If you don’t think its happening as much if not more in Columbus I can send you some links). Columbus Metro had almost 4 times the growth rate over the past 4 years than Cincy and its unlikely that any dramatic change will happen between now and the next census or two when the Columbus metro overtakes both Cincy and Cleveland (and that is based on extrapolating numbers at current rates). Having said that I think population growth is an overrated measure. Because I’m an urbanite I’m much more interested in how and where the cities are growing, and it seems like there are great things happening in the urban parts of Cincinnati just as there are in Columbus. My hope is we will eventually see a return of the 3C and better connect our region, providing us (Ohio) a competitive advantage.

    • alekccincy

      My argument was not simply about revitalization. It was the scale of revitalization, where the revitalization was happening – the unique urban assets that stem from being America’s first inland “boomtown,” and the already imbedded corporate connections. This includes the number of fortune 500 headquarters, and major business units. I am well aware of the revitalization that is happening across the US. Cincy is outpacing most cities in development dollars being spent, but even if they are not, consider where those dollars are being spent, and who has corporate interests in and around where those dollars are being spent.

    • Joshua Lapp

      I think that whats happening in Cincinnati is great, and I’m glad that the Banks is coming along and the historic neighborhoods are being preserved. But to pretend that what is happening is unbelievably different from what is happening elsewhere is…. unbelievable. I could point to examples in Columbus. A great example might be what All Aboard Florida is doing in up and down the Florida coast. There are examples everywhere. Cincinnati is doing great, but to say its doing proportionally that much better than other peer cities is just boosterism.

    • alekccincy

      I travel around the Midwest for work. I see what’s going on in peer cities. I don’t go down to Florida particularly often, Charlotte is as far South as my work takes me. But then, I wouldn’t really consider the entire coast of Florida a “peer city.” I know what’s going on in Columbus around campus and I watched the arena district emerge. The point is I have some perspective. Your original comment of “whatever way you slice it is seems like Columbus will likely outpace Cincy in metro population” was simply what prompted me to add my perspective. I am ok with matters of opinion and will not simply call a comment like yours boosterism. I just thought adding my perspective was relevant in arguing that there are ways to “slice it” where Columbus will not overtake Cincy in area population. I’m sorry that I feel what is going on in Cincy is unique. I call it perspective, but if that is boosterism, so be it. That word seems to have grown legs around here.

    • Josh Lapp

      By following the math and statistics using long term trends, it’s fairly inevitable that Columbus Metro will overtake Cincy by 2030 census or before. That’s not an opinion of mine, it’s an extrapolation of the relevant data that is at hand. Columbus seems to me a much better city than Austin, that has a better built environment than Austin and is making better urban investments than Austin. But Austin grew by a rate of over 13% from 2010-2014, Columbus Metro grew by 4%. Austin will overtake the Columbus Metro in population unless something drastically changes in the near future. Cincy is +1% and slightly bigger, Columbus is +4% and slightly smaller. The probability is that it will happen, and happen soon.

      The larger point may be that there are potentially better and more important things to focus on than population. Strategic regional success is one of them and by worrying about how were able to compare ourselves by a measure that is somewhat meaningless to how our cities function. If building an Ohio HSR system means Cincy grows 10x faster than Columbus, sign me up.

    • alekccincy

      We’ve made a multi-comment over multi-day circle. And here we are. See my original comment. Extrapolating numbers works great if everything remains status quo… my argument is that it will not. For the record, I am also for high speed rail across Ohio and beyond, not that it’s relevant.

  • matimal

    Using MSAs takes care of all of these measurement problems. That’s why government created them and corporations use them heavily in making their locational decisions. You should use them, too.

    • EDG

      I’m guessing this is a carry-over comment from another thread, but the point of the article is that Census and MSA maps tell us nothing about density, true size or urbanity.

    • matimal

      I know. I’m disagreeing. i’m arguing that MSAs DO tell us important things about density and true sizeAND that density and urbanity are not as important in understanding a city as some think.

    • EDG

      Comparatively, this map means nothing

    • matimal

      No it isn’t. It shows the relationship of metros to each other. Cincinnati’s place between the Midwest metros and those of the Carolina’s and Georgia. That’s probably the most important thing you can say about Cincinnati economically today. Still, map only shows doesn’t actually compare MSAs. This link, http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/metromonitor#/M10420
      , shows meaningful descriptions of metros useful for comparison.

    • EDG

      But can you recite the state capitols in alphabetical order? That’s as useful.

    • matimal

      MEOOOWWW..you showed me. Who do I think I am trying to talk to the cool kids, right? Now I don’t have to take your comments seriously.

    • EDG

      You do know that social media commenting has the lifespan of 2 days and also doesn’t matter.

    • matimal

      How old are you?

  • alki44

    Your density factor for San Francisco is wrong. Check wiki………..its 18k per sq mile.

  • EDG
  • Scott McLain

    Your observations are generally correct, but I’d like to “dive in” deeper to your Columbus-Cleveland comparison. Columbus has a comparable density to Cincy and is more dense than its peer cities of Charlotte and Indy-quite impressive considering that its area is so vast. Much of Columbus’ outer “city limits” is still farm land and sparsely populated. I’d venture to guess that if you would take its core 150 square miles that it density along with two close in “island” suburbs of Bexley, Upper Arlington, and Grandview Heights that its density would be in the same realm as Cleveland and Milwaukee. And although Indy and Charlotte have flourishing downtowns, Columbus urban neighborhoods of German Village, The Short North, Italian Village and Grandview Heights hug the downtown core. Columbus is also home to more Fortune 1000 companies per capita than any other city in the USA. If I am correct Columbus and Indy are the only cities in the NE Quadrant of the USA to grow over the past 30 years. It would be interesting to see the trend lines in both population and density every 5 years since say, 1970. I’d venture to guess that Columbus, Indy, Charlotte and Austin have the most impressive gains. I’ve been to all four cities recently and Columbus and Austin in my opinion are making the most impressive strides filling their urban cores.

  • Bton

    You are probably the first person I’ve seen try to create an equivalency between population density and size. Does that mean Monaco is actually the biggest country in the world?

  • thui888

    This is a flawed study because I have found out that they included the cities with not just the land area but also the water area for the cities. If you take SF for example, it has a land area that is only about 49 square miles but a water area that is much bigger than that in my research. The water area cannot be developed. So, in reality, SF is the 2nd most densely populated city in the US. They should not include the the water area because those areas cannot be developed.

  • Christopher C (Chris)

    The results of the 2016 census count reveal that Columbus has become the 2nd most POPULATED city in the Midwest, ahead of Indianapolis. If this were about the metro population, then you could talk about Cincinnati (including parts of Kentucky and Indiana) being bigger than Columbus. And unless you count south/southwest Franklin County, the area of farmland isn’t very much.