5.15.2009

The Ten Most Populous Cities a Hundred Years From Now


For over 100 years, New York City has been our country’s most populous city. After that, all heck breaks loose. Check out these stats from 1910 and 2007:

Top 10 in 1910 (with their 2007 ranking in parentheses)
1. New York City (1)
2. Chicago (3)
3. Philadelphia (6)
4. St. Louis (52)
5. Boston (21)
6. Cleveland (40)
7. Baltimore (20)
8. Pittsburgh (60)
9. Detroit (11)
10. Buffalo (69)

Top 10 in 2007 (with their 1910 ranking in parentheses)
1. New York City (1)
2. Los Angeles (17)
3. Chicago (2)
4. Houston (68)
5. Phoenix (not in the top 100)
6. Philadelphia (3)
7. San Antonio (54)
8. San Diego (not in the top 100)
9. Dallas (58)
10. San Jose (not in the top 100)

To overgeneralize, we’ve largely moved from cities to suburbs, away from industrial hubs, and towards the Sunbelt. There are suburbs of Phoenix that have more people in them than four of the ten most populous cities in the US circa 1910 have in them today. And two of the most popular tourist destinations in the US are in a desert (Las Vegas) and a swamp (Orlando).

A hundred years ago, you couldn’t have predicted land use patterns and human distribution circa 2009. But it’s still fun to guess who’ll plummet from the list in the next hundred years.

One way to go with this is to assume that density will matter, both in terms of energy considerations arguing against far-flung places and knowledge-based economies preferring agglomerations of smart people. We’re starting to see some whispers of this, as two-thirds of houses with mortgages in Las Vegas are underwater, and auto-oriented parts of Arizona, Florida, and California are huge losers in the foreclosure explosion.

Deliciously, just as the 2007 list included three cities that didn’t even crack the Top 100 less than a century ago, the list a century out will almost certainly include cities that don’t even register on our collective radar screens today. But here’s guessing that, wherever they are today, they’re tooling up for a world in which lots of things are close together.
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