Creating Context for Cities
Data is nothing without context. How can we understand a city without first understanding the characteristics of a normal or typical city? I crunched the numbers on eight measures of 917 cities to learn what constitutes a typical city in America. Here’s what I found.
Population; population density; median age; median income; poverty rate; commuting by car; high school graduates; postgraduate degrees. Of course, this is something of an arbitrary selection of metrics. The American Community Survey (the source of this data, vintage 2015) provides over 1,200 tables of measures of cities alone. Each table has one to dozens of different measures. Consider, too, the hundreds, if not thousands of other data sources, public and private, that could provide data germane to understanding a “typical” city. Let’s accept that, while we could spend a lifetime investigating the makeup of a typical city, these eight measures are, at the very least, a good start.
The average values for each measure are simply that: averages, not medians, not modes, nothing fancy. To calculate the difference from the average for each city, I’m using a statistical measure called a z-score. Technically, a z-score is the number of standard deviations a datum is above or below the average value for a set of data. If that’s Greek to you, suffice it to say that a z-score allows us to understand the shape of a set of data, whether a given datum lies within or outside an expected range of values, and by what degree it differs from expectations. To understand how “typical” a city is, I add z-scores from individual measures to get an overall “typicalness” score.
Finally, I’m using Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas to define what a “city” is. Municipal boundaries frequently fail to capture the real economic and social borders of a given city. Who would argue that Hoboken and Jersey City, both across the river from Manhattan, aren’t inextricably connected to the larger economy or community of New York City? Metropolitan and Micropolitan Areas define a geographical region based around an urban core and are assembled from existing county boundaries. With some exceptions, a Metropolitan Statistical Area has a population of at least 50,000, while a Micropolitan Statistical Area has between 10,000 and 50,000 residents.
According to the averages across these eight measures, the Lynchburg, Virginia Statistical Area is the most typical statistical area in the country. Made of four counties and eleven communities, Lynchburg’s statistics are less than half of a standard deviation from average across every measure. In fact, the median income of Lynchburg’s residents ($46,913) lies closer to the average ($46,871) than any other city.
Lynchburg, nicknamed “The City of Seven Hills” for its undulating topography, was the only major city in Virginia not captured by the Union Army during the Civil War. The city is near the Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, ending the war. Today, healthcare, energy, and Liberty University, a large, private Christian college, lead the economy of this highly typical city.
Now that we’ve found the most typical city in America, let’s dive into the eight measures, one by one, to learn more about the characteristics of cities across the country.
Take a look at the map below: one city, New York City, stands alone, with nearly 20,000,000 people living in its greater metropolitan area, a number nearly twice the size as that of the second largest city in the country, Los Angeles, at just over 13,000,000 residents.
An average city in America has around 320,000 residents: Kalamazoo, Michigan, is the closest, with 331,000. Our smallest micropolitan area? That would be the sleepy North Texas town of Vernon with 13,000 residents.
Notice how the picture changes when we introduce population density. Though New York City still takes the top spot with 2,791 people per square mile, we can see increased density all along the East Coast, as well as down in Florida, in California’s two major cities, and in those Rust Belt stalwarts, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.
Square in the middle is Odessa, Texas, with 161 people per square mile, while the mining town of Winnemucca, Nevada, claims only 1.8 people per square mile, due to its small population and large containing county.
The median age of a typical city is right around middle age: 38.4 years old. The city of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, sits closest to this figure. Our youngest city is Pullman, Washington, where the median age of 24 is likely due to the presence of Washington State University: 20,000 students make up 30,000 of the residents of the city. Meanwhile, The Villages, Florida, a mega-retirement community, boasts the the highest median age in the nation: 64.5.
The map below highlights where you might expect older Americans to live: in sunny climes, like the Southwest or Florida, or in wooded, rural areas, away from major cities, like southern Oregon or west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Incomes are not evenly distributed in our country and it should be no surprise that major cities have the highest median incomes, whether due from increased economic opportunities or higher costs of living. Observe the concentration of wealth along both coasts, in the Corn Belt, and in the West, between Denver and northern Nevada.
Lynchburg, Virginia, sits closets to the average median income for cities, at $46,900 per household. At the bottom: Middlesboro, Kentucky, at $25,000 per household. At the top: the atomic city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the median income is $106,000 per household. It’s not the last time that we’ll hear about this highly atypical city.
It may not be surprising to find that cities with lower median incomes also have higher rates of poverty. The Census uses thresholds, based on age and family size, to determine poverty rates. For example, in 2015, any family of four with two children with a household income below $24,036 would be considered living in poverty.
Cities with high poverty rates are often smaller cities in the South and Southwest. Every city with a poverty rate higher than 30% is in the South. The city with the highest rate of poverty is Rio Grande City, Texas, with a combined population of 62,000 and a poverty rate of 38.5%. Phoenix, Arizona, is closest to the national average of 16.7%. The city with the lowest poverty rate, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the city with the highest median income: Los Alamos, New Mexico, at 5.5%.
Commuting By Car
The working lives of Americans are bookended by commutes—on average, we spend nearly an hour getting to and from work each day. The structure of our cities is largely defined by the transportation we use to get to work, most often the automobile. In a typical city, 80.2% of the workforce reports commuting to work by car: Sedalia, Missouri, sits closest to this figure. Dyersburg, Tennessee, claims the highest portion of car commuters, at 90.1%. Unsurprisingly, the city with the largest subway network in the world, New York City, claims the least car commuters: only 50.6%.
High School Education
A fairly remarkable pattern of high school graduation shows itself at the national level: the farther north the city, the larger portion of the population that is likely to have a high school diploma. Rio Grande City, Texas, with the lowest percentage of high school graduates—46.8%—supports this trend, as does the city nearest the average, Marion, Indiana, square in the middle at 85.6% and near the middle of the country. However, Los Alamos, New Mexico, again appears as an outlier, with 97.2% of its 18,000 residents having completed high school.
Finally, the prevalence of postgraduate degrees reveals where America’s highly educated populations lie. Major cities make a strong appearance, as do a number of smaller cities, like Corvallis, Oregon, Lawrence, Kansas, and Iowa City, Iowa, all home to large universities. Once again, Los Alamos, New Mexico, sets the high with 38.7% of the city’s population holding a postgraduate degree. Bartlesville, Oklahoma, sits at middle at 8.1%, while Raymondville, Texas, sets the low, with only 2.0% of its 22,000 residents holding a postgraduate degree.
Last, let’s take a look at all the Metropolitan and Micropolitan Areas together to see where “typical” cities are concentrated.
Typical cities are scattered across the whole country, from the West Coast, the Plains, the South, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Some of the most typical cities are found in the center of the Midwest, along the Eastern Seaboard, or in the middle of Texas. It’s remarkable that, despite some specific differences, many cities are, for the most part, quite alike one another. In the above map, 526 cities fall into the “most average” bucket—more than half of the 917 cities measured. In fact, 776 of the 917 cities fall within one standard deviation of the average overall “typicalness” score. Perhaps our individual cities are more similar than we might think.
Unless, of course, you live in New York City. With its enormous population, sky-high population density, and ultra-low share of car commuters, New York, New York, stands alone as the strangest, most unusual city in the United States.
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Source: United States Census 2015 American Community Survey. Download the data and z-scores I used through Google Sheets.