With election season looming, the Presidential candidates are canvassing America, trying their best to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the country. But what "is" the majority of the country?
While it’s simple to say, the majority of America is a lot bigger than a lot of people realize. As a professional city planner, I got a wake-up call on this topic recently when I received a link to an engaging game that provocatively asks participants: how many US cities can you name?
The link to the game is here:
Or here if you want to type it in: https://iafisher.com/projects/cities
The point of the game is simple: you enter the names of all the US cities you can think of, and the game tallies them up, spitting back at you the population for which those cities collectively account. If you're a geography wonk, once you've started it's tough to turn away.
The way I figured it, a responsible planner with a pulse on the nation should at least be able to name half of the urbanized places in America. In doing so, I could claim basic working knowledge of a majority of the country. But getting to half has been a tall order, so tall in fact that neither I nor anybody I’ve seen play this game has ever been able to do it.
I gave the game a valiant effort. After weeks of trying, picking my brain to name every city I could think of, plus lots of random guessing using combinations of names that could or might be cities, even if I don’t know them specifically, I managed to get to name cities encompassing a little over 45 percent of the urbanized population of America. Notably, the game does not even address the 33 percent of Americans or so who live outside of “urbanized” places, but of the 67 percent who do, the best I could do was get to a little under half: Approximately 104 million people of a country out of 300 million.
I’d urge you to try the game yourself. You’ll quickly find it’s really, really hard. While the biggest cities in the country quickly can get you to 10 or 15 percent of the country, the reality hits quickly that beyond those most elite places the country is really broadly spread, mostly in places you’ve never heard of and would never think to think of. In total, this 67 percent of America considered “urbanized” is itself spread across 19,000 cities, the overwhelming majority of which are hamlets of 5,000 residents or less. I’ll share with you below my tactic for getting to as many cities as I did - around 2,500 of the largest – and also provide some commentary on what my inability to “win” this game means for everyone vying to make policy for the country.
The path to 45 percent:
In order, I followed a number of strategies to build a base of cities that nearly accounted for a third of the national electorate:
First, I named virtually every big city I could think of. From New York to Los Angeles, Chicago to Charlotte, I ran through the biggest of cities until I couldn’t think of any more off the top of my head. To round off the list, I ran through in my head the standings of major league sports teams. This helped me polish off a solid foundation of America’s 50 or so biggest cities, that helped me crawl upward to around 17 or 18 percent of the national population.
Next, I dug a little deeper, Focusing state by state, I tried to name the largest 2 or 3 cities in every state. This included an emphasis on state capitals, the majority of which I was able to name. By focusing in this way, I pulled my figure up to around 125 cities and 23 or 24 percent of the population. This covered a deeper grain of cities from Spokane to Flagstaff, Casper to Manchester.
Next I went for the largest suburbs. We often forget about how many people live in suburbs, so I figured I could account for more of the big city metropolitan areas by focusing on the biggest suburbs that I could think of for each of the biggest cities. This included entries for places like Naperville, Bellevue, and Alpharetta, Overland Park to Coral Gables, the Woodlands to Plano, King of Prussia to Arlington. Going through these brought me up to around 200 cities and 26 percent.
Next I did a scan for university towns. Thinking through the many colleges I’ve encountered over the years, I boosted my number of places, if not my overall population figure a bit, by enumerating university towns from Oxford, Mississippi to Hanover, New Hampshire, Charlottesville in Virginia to Gainesville in Florida. It got me up to around 250 places and 27 percent of the population.
Next I went for vacation hotspots: anyplace I could think of like Santa Barbara or Traverse City, Virginia Beach or Ocean City, that even if not a big destination, at least could add to the total. Up to around 28 percent of the population and 300 places.
Along the way you start thinking of significant cultural places that fall into place on the map: places like Daytona, home to the big Nascar Race, or Napa in California, Galveston in Texas, home to the big hurricane, or South Bend, where Mayor Pete presides.
The next step is to start going through the letters of the alphabet. Places you might not have thought of: Augusta came to mind when I thought of “A”, and others like Lakeland came to mind under “”L”.
Next was to start walking back through road trips. I was surprised how many small towns I could remember when I started thinking about car trips along I-75 in Ohio. Towns like Findlay came to mind, as well as smaller towns like Tipp City, Cygnet, Anna, and Napoleon and Lafayette. In particular, if there are particular towns from which family hail, this would be a good time to stack them on this list.
At some point you’ll do a check against the stats they offer you: you’ll be missing one of two of the largest cities in America, and it’ll bug you and bug you until you can think of it. You might be able to ace the 33 cities over 500,000 residents, though beware some are suburbs that probably won’t be top of mind (Mesa, Arizona, for instance, tripped me up). But very little chance you’ll get even close to naming all of the 282 cities in America over 100,000 residents. If you can get to half or two third of that list, that’ll put you ahead of most people.
A good next resort is to start guessing randomly, and I found with 19,000 cities overall guessing randomly can offer you a lot of success. Guess random names: names like “John” and “Johnson” are cities, same with random guesses like “Stevenson” or “Morris”. And beyond names, there are nearly infinite combinations of words often found in US suburban names: “Forest”, “Green”, “Field”, “Brook”, “Woods”. “Glen”, “Falls” and the like can all be combined in any number of combinations. So too can the cardinal directions.
One thing to keep in mind through all of this is that a lot of city names appear in multiple states, so remember to keep that in mind. Cities like Arlington, Springfield, Portland, and Columbus each appear in four or five states.
If you do all of these with a good base knowledge of US cities, you’re likely to get in the 30-percent range. But it slows down hard once you’ve mastered the big cities. I guessed and guessed and guessed for days and days, and it was a grinding process to crank myself even close to the 40 percent mark. I found some of the random guesses I was entering showed populations in the single digits. And yet some of the bigger cities – a good quarter of those over 100,000 eluded me. Maybe someone has deeper working knowledge of US cities and suburbs around 100,000 residents, but you’ll be shocked how many American suburbs you don’t know, much less how many small town you have no idea even existed. After weeks of trying, my list encompassed nearly half the country, but it was missing nearly 17,000 American cities of which I’ve never heard.
So what does it all mean?
The main thing I learned from this is that America is a hell of a lot more spread out than I previously realized. America has big cities, but most people do not live in them. In fact, while I tend to pride myself on solid knowledge of the pulse of the country, the reality is that I can’t even name the places, much less the traits of the people who live in them, for the overwhelming majority of this place. And I have some of the deepest knowledge of places of anyone I know, merely due to my profession.
It’s an important lesson for politicians. The second you start thinking New York City represents America, or that you took a bus tour and therefore know this country, try naming cities and you’ll realize how quickly you have no idea how much more of this country is out there than you know. Hell, a third of the country doesn’t even live in places considered “urban” enough to be “towns”. No wonder politicians get confused that their views so often fall out of sync with the people who vote. The reality is it’s very hard to know a country this large and this dispersed. And for elected officials, more humility in recognition of that reality might be a really good thing. It might be the thing that in these fractured times our country needs more than any other. In the age of populism, we all could do a better job understanding the really diverse geographic spread of our American population.