Trying to talk about American cities can be a bit frustrating because America does this weird thing where its primary use of the word city is to indicate a governmental area rather than a socio-cultural urban space. By this reckoning, you end up with factoids like America only has 9 cities with populations over one million people and China has more than 160. This is how you end up with folks saying that Phoenix and San Antonio are among the 10 biggest cities in America, and behemoths like Atlanta and Miami are way down in the 40s — which is only interesting if you want to talk about administrative challenges at the local government level or maybe make comparisons between the history of annexation and incorporation by city governments in the west as compared to the east. But mostly it just means trying to talk about a Los Angeles in which Santa Monica doesn’t exist or a Detroit where Hamtramck doesn’t exist, and that’s just silly.
So I tend to avoid defining US cities by city population. But what to use instead?
The US also talks about the city using the far more intuitive frame of the metro area. But even this doesn’t entirely solve the problem; because there are a few definitions of metro area around, and not all properly encapsulate the city as entity. Just like I’d like a definition of Sydney that includes Parramatta (by which the city has a pop of approx 4.5 milion, I think it’s most sensible to use a measure, that, say, considers Seattle and Bellevue and Tacoma to be part of the same space, or Washington and Arlington and Falls Church to be of a piece but Baltimore to be a discrete place.
Primary Statistical Area seems too broad to me; good perhaps for discussing economic interdependence but too far-reaching to properly describe lived experience. I think a statistical measure that treats Trenton and Brooklyn as part of the same metropolitan entity is flawed for most purposes. Combined Statstical Area is likewise too expansive; Atlanta and Athens are not part of the same city in the way, say, Boston and Cambridge are. This is why I think the most useful definition is the Office of Management and Budget’s Metropolitan Statistical Area. It’s not perfect; I do wonder if the Inland Empire is distinct from Los Angeles and San Jose distinct from San Francisco–Oakland to the extent Chicago and Milwaukee are distinct from one another — if so, Riverside–San Bernardino is America’s fourteenth biggest “city” — but its definitions usually feel right and its population figures are logical for comparative purposes. Sydney and Boston being similar in size works. Sydney being four times bigger than Dallas does not.
In other news, Serbia is now on Streetview. Exciting!