The Metro Framing Urbanists Didn't Know They Needed


If you’ve ever taken any interest in how cities grow and evolve, I’m sure you’ve noticed this before.

Urbanists want data. We want data that helps us understand how the places we love and live in got to be what they are. We want to know what makes them tick, what’s replicable. All kinds of data points are gathered all the time to evaluate and compare what’s happening within and between metropolitan areas. It could be population change, in- or out-migration patterns, GDP data, whatever. Data helps us answer our questions.

Yet there’s quite a bit of variability in how urbanists view the places we study. We haven’t quite agreed on the appropriate scale of analysis for urban comparisons, and that can lead to widely varying results. Exploring data at a neighborhood level gives you great information about a particular neighborhood, but your findings can’t be extrapolated to an entire city, much less a metropolitan area. Metro level data can mask not only neighborhood or city level trends, but subregional trends that aren’t often explored at all. You can find the data you want to support or dismiss any claim you like, at the scale you want.

This is a problem that needs solving.

Scale, History and Perceptions

The differences might seem meaningless, but they’re not. Take metro Atlanta (6.3 million people) and metro Philadelphia (6.2 million); they’re very nearly the same size. In that respect they should be fairly comparable. But at the city level, is it fair to compare data between the city of Philadelphia, with 1.6 million residents under its jurisdiction, with the city of Atlanta, with just 500,000? Philly has municipal authority over a much larger population than Atlanta does and has to govern like it. Atlanta’s suburbs have much more authority over the entire region’s population than Philly does, but they rarely get mentioned independently of the “Atlanta region” they’re in.

Here's another example. Metro St. Louis has about 2.8 million people, of which 300,000 live in St. Louis itself. Metro Austin is slightly smaller than metro St. Louis, with 2.4 million people. However, the city of Austin is primed to become the next American city to cross the one million population threshold. Is it fair to compare the city of St. Louis to the city of Austin? In population terms, wouldn’t it be fairer to compare Austin with Philadelphia, and St. Louis with Atlanta?

Then there are vast historical differences to consider as well. In 1990 it would’ve been ludicrous to compare metro Austin with metro St. Louis, from a population perspective. Back then, metro St. Louis (2.6 million) was nearly four times larger than metro Austin (780,000). At that same time it would’ve been more conceivable to compare metro Philadelphia (5.4 million) with metro Atlanta (3 million). But differences in growth patterns before and after 1990 created vastly different metro areas.

Read the rest of this piece at The Corner Side Yard.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

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