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How Big is Pittsburgh?

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Question: How Big is Pittsburgh?
Many people consider Pittsburgh as one of the larger American cities in terms of population, and are surprised to learn that it doesn't even make the top 50. According to U.S. Census data from 2005, Pittsburgh ranks well below cities most would have said were smaller - Cleveland, Columbus, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Tulsa, and even Witchita, Kansas.
Answer: Pittsburgh is now America's 56th largest city, down from 8th in 1910. Nearby Columbus, OH, in contrast, is ranked at #15. Pittsburgh has technically lost almost half of its population from its heyday, but then so have many other cities as people move out to the suburbs. Yet Pittsburgh is still more densely populated (more people per square mile) than five of the top 10 cities in the country. What does this mean?

City Limits Explained

The biggest reason that Pittsburgh appears to be shrinking while other cities -- such as Houston, Phoenix and San Diego - are enjoying a population boom. is that its city boundaries remain virtually unchanged from horse and buggy days, while the Sun Belt cities are continuing to annex their suburbs. Houston went from 17 square miles in 1910 to 579 square miles in 2000. Phoenix now consumes more than 27 times the area reported in 1950. San Diego has more than tripled in size in the same time period. Pittsburgh, in contrast, hasn't expanded its city boundaries since annexing Allegheny City (now the North Side) in 1907.

Urban Sprawl

The average city included in America's Top 10 is 340 square miles, more than six times the geographic size of Pittsburgh, at 56 square miles. Those mega-metropolises have spread out and swallowed their suburbs, broadening the city tax base to include as many people as they can. San Diego, the smallest of the 10 cities would swallow almost all of Allegheny County (which, incidentally, ranks at #30 among largest U.S. counties).

What This Means for Pittsburgh

If the Pittsburgh city limits were expanded to cover about the same area as any other Top 10 city, it would expand the city's population from roughly 330,000 to more than 1 million, making Pittsburgh the ninth largest city in the country. That's a pretty big change from #56.

The Pittsburgh Urbanized Area (UA), an area defined by the U.S. census as a city and its suburbs, is ranked #22 in the U.S. in population and #24 in the U.S. in terms of land area or sprawl (181.7 square miles). Then there is the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (an area defined by the Census Bureau as covering the counties of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland). Using that demographic, Pittsburgh ranks #21 in terms of population amoung U.S. cities.

It's a Matter of Perspective

Basically, they're all just numbers. In terms of population living in the greater Pittsburgh area, the city probably ranks somewhere in the top 20. It's not New York City, and it's not Podunk, Michigan. Pittsburgh is a large American city, with a downtown that is small enough to easily walk from one end to the other. It has all of the arts, culture and amenities that you would expect from a big city, with the heart, charm and feel of a much smaller one. Fred Rogers once called Pittsburgh one of America's "biggest small towns." Welcome to the neighborhood.
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