How to determine the most important cities in a state?
April 3, 2009 4:59 AM   Subscribe

How to determine the most important cities in a state?

I'm involved in a project in which I need to determine the top 25 or so most important cities in several U.S. states. Do you have any suggestions as to how I should go about doing this? Would the top 25 cities by population necessarily be the most important cities? How would you go about determining and ranking the economic/social/political/cultural importance of U.S. cities? Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
posted by capitalist.pig to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
That would depend entirely on the nature of your project. In other words, "define 'important'". Obviously there's no way to formulate a completely generalised ranking here. Importance is entirely a matter of context and bias.

So what you're left with is choosing a statistic that will make sense in relation to your project. Combining different figures to come up with your ranking would require all sorts of justification, so I'd suggest using one or more separate statistics. Pick your list based on one statistic, then rank those same 25 citied according to other relevant figures. Population is an obvious one to use for your initial list. Per-capita income might be another. But again, without knowing the context, how can anyone offer specific advice?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:13 AM on April 3, 2009

I mean this question in the most general possible sense. Say, for example, you were making a general reference map of the state of Illinois... out of all the cities in Illinois, which 25 would you put on the map? How would you choose these 25 places?
posted by capitalist.pig at 5:17 AM on April 3, 2009

I mean this question in the most general possible sense.

I would suspect that in most cases it would be by population.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:23 AM on April 3, 2009

It sounds like you're trying to replicate the concept of a global city on a state-by-state basis. You might try looking at the criteria they used in the two studies mentioned in the Wiki article to get a feel for what criteria they used. Of course, your results will vary depending on which criteria you prioritize, but it's somewhere to start at least.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:23 AM on April 3, 2009

i would evaluate most cities in a table system, using points. i'd give points for population, capitol status, (don't forget county seats) and the presence of industries or major transportation hubs.

in the end, though, you don't want to select cities, but rther urban areas. in illinois, for example, the quad cities region would be one--though it's really more then just one city.
posted by lester at 5:35 AM on April 3, 2009

25 seems like a lot of cities for almost all states. As an example, here are Texas cities listed by population, in 2000. At 25 you're at Midland, which I don't think very many would consider an important Texas city. And as an aside, that method does have flaws. Consider College Station (34) and Bryan (36); adjoining cities, and often referred to as Bryan/College Station, or BCS. Together, they'd be 17th, and I think most Texans consider them to be basically one city, and considerably more important than Midland with a major university. You'll have to do a lot of cross checking with maps to see if separate cities are part of the same metropolitan area, and if people generally consider them to be the same city (see also Dallas/FW and Minneapolis/St. Paul).

But population seems generally reasonable for importance. Other metrics might be number of universities and colleges or importance to trade and transit (ports for coastal and Great Lakes cities, on the Mississippi river, traffic through airport, number of interstates or major highways passing through/near, railways, etc).
posted by 6550 at 5:52 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the Ranally city ratings would come in useful if you just wanted something off-the-shelf? It's an established system with set criteria, and nicely hierarchical to boot.
posted by Sova at 5:59 AM on April 3, 2009

Twenty-five is too many. Most states have one to three "important" cities, with the rest being significantly less... significant. Take Pennsylvania for example. Philadelphia is almost certainly number one, as it's one of the largest cities in the country. Then there's probably a tie between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg for number two, because though Pittsburgh is significantly larger than Harrisburg (by a factor of five if you include the metro area), Harrisburg is the capital and thus home to a lot of activities that influence the entire state. After that you've got half a dozen cities in the 100-200k range, none of which are particularly significant to people who don't live there: Erie, Lancaster, Lebanon, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, etc. On a state-level analysis, none of them particularly stands out.

California is probably similar. LA and San Francisco take the top two spots with Sacramento coming in third as the capital. San Diego is probably in there somewhere too. But after that there are dozens of mid-sized cities whose influence doesn't really extend terribly far beyond their suburbs.

Florida too. Miami is probably number one, followed by Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa. Possibly Gainesville too. After that, you're on a tier where the cities' influence is largely limited to their surroundings.

A list of the top five cities in a state will probably capture the vast majority of information of any real use.
posted by valkyryn at 6:35 AM on April 3, 2009

For a given state, yeah, there are rarely more than a few cities that are easily identifiable as at all "important," because the whole point of cities is to bring things together. In the smaller states, "top 25 cities" is going to run you out of incorporated places pretty quickly, and you'll find yourself working with a few thousand folks in a modest exurb.

I'll echo valkyryn's suggestion to make it the top 5, and if you're going below a top-3 count, you can almost certainly just take population and go with that and call it done. This assumes ranking isn't super-important and you don't mind if #4 maybe should actually be #3, of course, but valkyryn's examples of FL and PA - both big states with lots of population to fill up cities - should indicate why identifying "important" cities gets hard-to-impossible once you're past the first couple of tiers of size/significance.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2009

While I really do appreciate all of your thoughts, I wish the discussion would focus less on the number 25 and more on ideas for criteria that could help determine why some cities are more important than others.

I was looking at a Rand McNally Road Atlas earlier, and I noticed that Pennsylvania and Texas and Illinois all had at least 25 cities that were labeled in a bold typeface (there were probably at least a thousand cities on each map). Some of these bold'ed cities were very large and some only had populations of five to ten thousand people. The atlas's key seems to indicate that the bold cities are more important than cities that are not bold (even though there are some cities with populations of 25,000-30,000 that are not bold). I'm really curious why Rand McNally chose to make these cities bold, and not others on their maps. Does anyone know the criteria that they use?
posted by capitalist.pig at 7:38 AM on April 3, 2009


Thanks for the Ranally City Ratings suggestion. I discovered the Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide yesterday, and so far, it seems to be the best solution to this. Some of the rankings are a little strange though. For example, I found a city of population 9,700 that was ranked higher than a city of about 80,000. Will dig deeper on this.
posted by capitalist.pig at 7:45 AM on April 3, 2009

Based on Rand McNally's history and orientation (their Wikipedia page is actually pretty interesting), I suspect when they decide which cities to print in bold letters, they are considering the importance of the city to travelers. Plenty of cities have few people, but many hotels or other services that make them important places for travelers.

And, you're not the first person to ask how they decide which ones to bold. No answer, though. Maybe send Rand McNally an email?
posted by Xalf at 7:49 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's nice to know I'm not the only one who has wondered about their "bolding" decisions. Wonder if they'll read my email.

BTW, you were right about their Wikipedia article being interesting. I found this passage to be particularly fascinating:

Rand McNally was the first major map publisher to embrace a system of numbered highways. One of its cartographers, John Brink, invented a system that was first published in 1917 on a map of Peoria, Illinois. In addition to creating maps with numbered roads, Rand McNally also erected many of the actual roadside highway signs. This system was subsequently adopted by state and federal highway authorities.

So, Rand McNally invented highway numbering in the U.S.? Wow. Never knew.
posted by capitalist.pig at 8:01 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

That question is gigantic and really hard to answer, but here's a recent list of the best city in each state to start a small business.

If you pick a desirable trait - public schools, for example, or culture/arts - you can probably find a list or a map to match.
posted by lunit at 8:26 AM on April 3, 2009

Yeah, definitely don't reinvent the wheel here. I bet someone more familiar than I am with building GIS data libraries from scratch can point to some city file that has a hierarchy of cities. (Even if you don't have GIS, you could look at the dbf table.)
posted by salvia at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2009


So, do you know someone who can help, then? Because I certainly don't.
posted by capitalist.pig at 11:44 AM on April 3, 2009

Brainstorming... It seems to me that those "Places Rated" books and web sites typically use a number of statistical measures (e.g., cost of living, crime rate, number of cultural events, whatever...) and then develop a methodology to combine these rankings into one number.

For your purposes, maybe you could try to get a better handle on the specific pieces of what "important" means (like those books do with "best"). Population is "important," for sure. You might also count things like the number of business headquarters. Maybe you could give extra points for a state capital (some are smaller cities). How many universities and colleges are there, and how many graduates do they produce? How many hospitals and trauma centers...? You'd probably want to consider if there is an airport hub in or near the city. How about whether or not it has a port, which you could rank by the value of shipments, or by the number of cruise passengers (if applicable)? Then there's things like which towns have military installations, which have significant industrial facilities, etc, etc.

Once you decide what's "important" and what isn't, give a point value to different types things that you are measuring. Then count them up for each city, add the scores, and there's your ranking. It's kind of arbitrary, but it's one way to decide on the top 25 (or 'x') for each state.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:40 PM on April 3, 2009

capitalist.pig, yeah, there are a number of Mefites who have more GIS experience than I do. If you want to look up past GIS questions and maybe Mefi-Mail the users who show up regularly, or just point them to this question, they might have some suggestions. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 12:17 AM on April 4, 2009

On the maps you're looking at, "city" is not a very accurate term. More to the point, most states have a legal definition for what constitutes a "city." Pennsylvania only has 57 municipalities which count as a "city" under state law, the rest of them being either towns, boroughs, or completely unincorporated. Which one a given municipality is will determine the extent of the powers of the local government, i.e. cities generally have extensive home-rule powers but unincorporated areas are pretty limited. Look at the list for New York. NYC has north of 8 million people. The next largest city has less than 300,000, and only five have more than 100,000. But there are 62 municipalities with "city" status, along with 932 towns and 557 villages. But if you count off NYC, Rochester, Albany, Buffalo, and Syracyse, you've got the cities that matter a damn.

Again, take Pennsylvania as an example. The state has about 12.5 million people living there. If you cut out Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, counting only the people inside their city limits, you're down to 10 million. Throw in the cities with north of 100,000 population (Erie, Allentown)* you're down to 9.8 million. This means that the cities that are left have an average population of 9850. While there are a bunch of municipalities that will have more than that, the vast majority are going to have less.

By what standard are you going to count all those bolded municipal names as "cities"? Plenty of them are going to be unincorporated townships. They show up on maps for completeness' sake, i.e. this spot has a name, not out of any commitment to their significance. Most of them probably constitute a crossroads with a stoplight or three and a gas station, if that. Perry County in Pennsylvania has no stoplights (yet) and a single McDonalds for crying out loud, yet you can pick out dozens of municipalities there. "Appearing on a map", and even "having a bold name on a map", does not equal "being important".

As has been mentioned above, you're going to have to determine your own criteria for what constitutes "being important". I think maybe the reason no one has come up with such a list before is because defining "important" will basically be an exercise in deciding what you're interested in, and unless your definition is massively under-determined, it's not likely that it'll be of use to anyone else. Population will weigh heavily, but other factors like seats of government and major universities will probably count for something. Rankings of cities on the basis of population, geographic area, etc. aren't that hard to find or generate, particularly if you limit yourself to twenty-five (though I still think that's too many). Until you can come up with your own definition of "important," nothing anyone has to say here is going to be of much help.

* I was wrong in my earlier answer, by the way: Scranton, Lancaster, Lebanon and Wilkes-Barre all have less than 100k people, some of them significantly so.
posted by valkyryn at 5:52 AM on April 4, 2009


Rankings of cities on the basis of population, geographic area, etc. aren't that hard to find or generate

Do you know where I can find some of these rankings, then? I mean, if you know that they're not that hard to find, then you should probably know where some of them are. That, you know, would actually be helpful instead of repeatedly telling that you feel "25" is too much (there's no getting around this "25" amount, that's just what I need).

I don't mean to be snarky, and I know that you're only trying to be helpful.

But if you count off NYC, Rochester, Albany, Buffalo, and Syracyse, you've got the cities that matter a damn.

I also must argue with this, as there are many more cities in New York that I think a lot of people would consider important... i.e., Rome, Utica, Jamestown, Elmira, Ithaca, Binghamton, Schenectady, Troy, Yonkers, White Plains, Levittown, Hempstead, and Niagra Falls immediately come to mind (and I've never even been to New York state!)
posted by capitalist.pig at 9:24 PM on April 4, 2009

I hate to recommend Wikipedia as a reliable source for anything, but I don't think there's much reason to doubt that their statistical information is correct. There are pretty deep pages there for most states with a list of cities by population, and geographic area is listed for just about every city that has its own page.

If you're looking for something a little more... concrete... just get a damn atlas. Any library should have one if you don't have one yourself. There isn't some deep, secret source for statistical or demographic information that I'm hiding from you. Just look in the usual places: atlases, encyclopedias, and state web pages. Check census records. I really don't have any more specific sources, because as I've said, I don't think your project is worth doing, and thus there aren't any ready-made lists for the sorts of things you're looking for.

Yes, it is possible to list cities in New York other than those I listed that matter to some people. But if you are including Rome and Elmira on any list that also has New York City in it, I have to wonder whether you're list is getting at anything that anyone cares about. I'd have trouble believing that any of the cities you list could possibly count as "important" to anyone who didn't have a personal connection there. I don't know much of anyone in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Miami, but yeah, those cities are important regardless. But Utica? I think not. Yonkers and White Plains are only significant because of their relationship to New York. Levittown is certainly of some minor historical interest, but it has no ongoing relationship to the trends it once embodied. The kind of history that people read about doesn't happen in those places. But it does happen in New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, and Albany.

I'm done here.
posted by valkyryn at 12:21 PM on April 5, 2009


I don't think your project is worth doing

Gee, thanks. That's helpful! Just because you don't think its worth doing, doesn't mean I can just quit and wish it away.

If you truly felt this way, I wish you wouldn't have bothered to comment at all.

I have to wonder whether you're list is getting at anything that anyone cares about.

I think you're wrong here, as I wouldn't have been asked to this project if that were true. You no longer seem like you're trying to be helpful.

But if you are including Rome and Elmira on any list that also has New York City in it, I have to wonder whether you're list is getting at anything that anyone cares about.

Please remember that this project is on a state level--not a national level. Considering this, I don't think it would be inappropriate to put Rome, Elmira, and New York City together on the same list, Important Cities in New York. Even Wikipedia, the source you recommend, puts them on the same list as New York City for important NY cities. (To see this list, go to , and look at the bottom of the page; there is a box linking to other NY-related articles. Look at the "Metro Areas" section. New York City, Elmira, and Rome are all listed together.)
posted by capitalist.pig at 3:15 PM on April 5, 2009

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