US Urban Area Influences

If you grew up in Bordentown, New Jersey, would you be more likely to say you were from “near New York” or “near Philly?”  How about if you grew up in Rensslaer, Indiana–would it be Indianapolis or Chicago?  And what about Blackwell, Oklahoma–would you be from Wichita or Tulsa?  The map above, developed by the CommonCensus project, tries to answer these questions by showing the “spheres of influence” of major American cities.

In a country as large as the United States, people use a great many ways to describe where they grew up. Sometimes they describe their region, like the Mid Atlantic, and sometimes they say a part of their state, like Southern California.  But particularly if they’re from a small town or a rural area, people often say the name of closest big city to where they grew up.  Sometimes the answer is obvious–if you’re from Weehawken, New Jersey, you’re from New York City as far as most Americans are concerned.  And if you’re from Orinda, California, you’re really from San Francisco.  But for more rural places, tucked between major urban areas, the borders can get a little more fuzzy.

For example, the map shows that people living as far north as the Oregon border identify San Francisco as their major city; but go just a few miles south of San Francisco and you’re clearly in San Jose territory.  Virginia and the Carolinas seem particularly divided.  People in central Maine generally listed Portland as their largest nearby city, but respondents from Portland itself more frequently chose to identify with Boston than with their own home town.  

Click here or on the picture above to open a large version of the map.  You can also click here to see regional maps of New York City and San Francisco.

Population density has little influence on the results: Montana has nine separate cities competing for influence throughout the state, from Spokane, Washington to Rapid City, South Dakota; but New York, with its much higher population and population density, shows itself to be divided among eight spheres of influence, in spite of the influence of the Big Apple.  On the other hand, you could drive from South Dakota to Arizona before you left Denver’s sphere of influence.

The map above was created using a public survey available on the CommonCensus website.  It asks respondents to fill out their street address, city, and state to compute exactly where they live.  The survey then asks them to give a name to their local community (i.e., their home town), their local area (i.e., the community of smaller towns they grew up in), and the name the largest nearby city that influences their lives.  The survey also asks for three broader geographic areas respondents identify with, like “the South,” “Appalachia,” or “Northern California.”  Using these answers, CommonCensus is building a map of how Americans use cities and regions to identify their homes, regardless of city limits or state boundaries.

CommonCensus claims to have received responses from nearly 50,000 people since the project began in late 2005. But high numbers of respondents don’t make the results scientific–the project also indicates that only 29.2% of cities have at least one contributor, meaning that many of the borders still have along way to go before the stabilize.

1 Response to “US Urban Area Influences”


  1. 1 Mike May 14, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Coming from central New Jersey, I lived right on the border between the zones for New York and Philadelphia. In New Jersey, the divide is apparent everwhere once you cross the “border” – the food changes, the sports team affiliations change, people even talk differently.

    In everyday language, this “urban affilitation” is reflected in the use of the term “the city”. People from Northern New Jersey always mean New York when they say “the city”, even though Newark, etc are cities in their own right. In sourthern Jersey, it’s more mixed. “The city” still generally refers to NYC, but sometimes to Philadelphia, aka “Philly”.

    Of course, the high population of Northern New Jerseians in DC complicates matters further. Tons of people here call NYC “the city” even though its more than 4 hours away.


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Cartographia is a blog about how we use maps to represent the world around us, and how people interpret maps today and throughout history. Please feel free to send any questions, comments, or recommendations directly to me at cartographia.blog@gmail.com.

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