Urban Nation: The Rise of the American City

Population of Major US Cities

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Source: Historical city populations from US Census Bureau, state data centers, and more.

Cities make up 62% of the population and only 3% of the land area

Source: 2010 census. Includes the 50 states plus DC. Does not consider a CDP (Census Designated Place) to be a city.

The Difference Between City, Suburban, and Urban

In short, urban areas are densely populated areas, cities are incorporated entities with defined boundaries, and suburban areas are urban areas outside of cities.

Since the Census Bureau started defining urban, they have made many changes to the definition of urban. Still, one thing remained constant: the different areas of the country had to meet certain population or population density thresholds. All areas that are not considered urban are considered rural.

It is important to note that incorporating as a city does not necessarily mean that the city is considered urban. The city still had to meet certain population or population density thresholds.

Up until 1950, a place had to be considered an incorporated city (ie. having a government body) in order to be considered urban. However, in 1950, the Census Bureau started designating unincorporated areas with populations over 2,500 as urban and labeling them Census Designated Places (CDPs). For the first time, the large population clusters around major cities were also considered urban.

In 2000, the Census Bureau made another major change: it started defining urban clusters based soley on population density and started ignoring city boundaries when defining urban areas. This change meant that some cities were split with parts considered urban and parts considered rural.

While some cities are not considered urban, we define suburban as any urban area outside of cities. The data below shows that the percentage of the population living in cities that are not considered urban is extremely small. As an example, in 1910, only 0.25% of the population lived in a city that was not considered urban.

Urban Areas vs. Cities

Rural     Urban     City

Atlanta, GA

New Jersey

Houston, TX

Source: 2010 census

America is Becoming More Urban and Suburban

Percent of Population Living in Cities or Urban Areas


The most notable change by the US Census Bureau to the definition of urban areas came in 1950 to better account for suburban areas.

Urban areas include areas any densely populated areas.

Cities include 8,915 of the largest cities whose population was tracked over time.

Sources: Historical city populations and the US Census Bureau.


1840: Industrialization and the First Cities




The earliest American economy was decidedly agrarian, as the overwhelming majority of people in Colonial America were subsistence farmers. Trade between colonies eventually became commonplace, but farming still was the primary industry for much of 19th century America. As the First Industrial Revolution drew to a close around 1840, the majority of Americans still lived a rural lifestyle, though cities began to emerge, as more than 1 in 10 were urbanites.

Changes wrought by the First Industrial Revolution would pale in comparison, though, to those on the horizon. Toward the end of the 19th century and before World War I, the Second Industrial Revolution, marked by massive industrialization and manufacturing innovations, combined with similar changes in transportation, allowed for unprecedented movement of people and resources.

The combined effects of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions were undeniable: New York City’s population went from just 60,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to more than 3.4 million at the start of the 20th century.

1920: Nation of Cities




Large-scale production of iron and steel. Fully functioning and (for the time) modern railroads. Steam power and widespread use of machine manufacturing. Telegraphs and electrification. The Second Industrial Revolution modernized daily American life and established the United States as a global economic and industrial power.

It also enabled a high standard of living in larger urban areas, making cities more attractive places to live. It’s during this time period that America truly becomes a nation of cities. In 1920, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas.

New York City’s population surged past 5 million in 1920, and other major cities began to emerge. That year, Chicago (2.7 million) and Philadelphia (1.8 million) were the only cities outside of New York with population levels over 1 million, but cities like Detroit (993,678), Cleveland (796,841), and Boston (748,060) saw their ranks swell.

1960: Suburban America




How are baby boomers, a housing shortage, federal loan programs, highways, and cheap cars connected?

In a post-World War II America, cities were seized by housing shortages, yet families were expanding thanks to a baby boom. New highways were being constructed that enabled people to travel in ways they couldn’t before. And programs like the GI Bill and FHA-backed loans made homeownership a real possibility for an increasing number of Americans.

By 1960, a suburban shift was well underway, as promises of cheap, widely available, and larger housing drew city dwellers from all over the country. The migration of African-Americans from the segregated South to northern cities like Detroit and Chicago spurred so-called white flight, and redlining made suburban living even more difficult for black families.

While a majority of people still lived in cities, suburbs were surging in popularity, and the population was pushing further west, creating major cities in California and Texas.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Dallas had a combined population of nearly 5 million by 1960, and cities near major metropolitan areas surged in population as well. For instance, the New Jersey cities and towns near New York, such as Newark, Paterson, and Garden City, saw their populations climb to a combined 1 million-plus in 1960, while New York’s population surged past 7.8 million. Near Boston, cities like Worcester and Newton grew as urbanites opted for a commuter lifestyle.

2010: Today




Today, while city-based populations have remained roughly the same since the 1960s (around 60 percent), more than 1 in 5 Americans lives in a suburb. In fact, many communities once considered suburban have grown larger than some of America’s largest cities.

One of America’s largest former suburbs, Virginia Beach, Virginia, had a population of more than 437,000 in 2010, nearly double the city’s population in 1980. With population nearing a half-million, Virginia Beach is becoming a metropolitan area in its own right, as it’s larger than places like Atlanta, Miami, and St. Louis.

Even with the increasing prevalence of suburbs, many cities maintain populations centered around downtown cores.

The Largest Cities are Major Population Centers

Source: 2010 census

Top 5 Largest Cities

New York City, NY
Los Angeles, CA
Chicago, IL
Houston, TX
Philadelphia, PA

Population of Major US Cities


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