A functional view of city and town size
A number of threads on here deal with the question of a city's size, such as what features it takes for a city to be considered "large" or "major," or how two cities compare in how big they "feel," or "seem." Often, people specifiy a certain population range to classify a city as, for example, "small," "mid-sized," or "large." Population plays a role, but by itself can be an unreliable indicator of how big or small a city or town feels, or what size it actually is in a functional sense. In a metropolitan area, where businesses and services will be spread across numerous suburbs, a town with a population in the tens of thousands may be mostly residential, with surprisingly little in the way of commerce, industry, and general activity, while a much smaller town located away from any larger city, so that it is the largest community in its area and functions as a commercial and service center, may have a substantial downtown, a variety of businesses and industries, and such facilities as a hospital or a small airport. The same phenomenon occurs with larger cities. A city that serves as the largest population center for a region may look and feel--and in effect be--larger than its population would indicate.
With this in mind, below is a description of features I believe are typical of communities of various functional sizes, from the tiniest hamlet to the greatest metropolises. I have not taken metro area populations into account. This is a basic model that can be built upon. I mean it to be a starting point, not the most sophisticated analysis possible. Feel free to add ideas about how this idea could be expanded to include classifications of metro area size.
I base the size classifications mostly on retail and service businesses, public services, and size and variety of residential sections. I've avoided including basic industry, both to keep the fundamental model simple, and because there can be significant variation in type and importance of basic industry between cities that are otherwise similar, depending on the functions those cities serve in their areas or regions.
Here are my classifications. Please add your thoughts:
Minimal business district: a very few of the most basic businesses, such as a grocery store, a gas station, a small eatery, and little or nothing else; this row of stores is most likely no more than one block long.
A few scattered residences; maybe a row of houses along the main street for a block or two on either side of the business district, and/or a side street or two going back just a couple of blocks from the main street where the businesses stand.
A somewhat larger commercial district than a hamlet’s: a few more businesses of the sort that meet everyday needs, such as a bank, gas station, or post office; may have a very few businesses that would be patronized fairly frequently but not daily, like a laundromat, and/or a very few small specialty shops.
One, possibly two, full residential neighborhoods, made up of several square blocks of intersecting streets (or similar number of houses if the streets are winding rather than laid out in a grid); may also include a few houses scattered along rural roads leading away from the central area of more dense settlement.
Large village, or very small town:
Most or all basic businesses, with a few extras: downtown will likely be a true small commercial district, with a variety of stores, including a few that serve needs beyond the most basic (such as a travel agency, realtor’s office, or insurance agency, maybe a law firm or two); most likely there will be a few services, such as several doctors and/or dentists, there may be a very few service-oriented specialty businesses (graphic design, landscaping); there may be a few small businesses away from downtown, which might include a large service-center business, such as a home-and-garden center.
Several distinct residential neighborhoods.
Variety of most basic businesses, and a decent variety of businesses serving needs beyond the basic: downtown with businesses that serve most or all everyday needs, such as a grocery store, a drugstore, a bank, most likely at least one eating place and maybe several, and a post office, as well as businesses a customer might patronize less often than daily or every few days, but which are useful on a fairly basic level and which the typical customer will visit at least every few weeks, such as barber shops and beauty parlors, dry cleaners, laundromat, possibly a small hardware store, etc.; might have a very few small specialty shops; may have more than one each of certain basic-needs stores, for example, two supermarkets or two drugstores, and most likely several gas stations; most likely will have one or two or a few very small office buildings, housing lawyers’ offices, insurance agencies, and perhaps real estate offices or a travel agency; likely will have at least one small medical office building somewhere in town; good chance that there may be a few small businesses, such as convenience stores, motels, gas stations, or fast food places, in areas away from downtown; decent chance that there will be at least a few specialty service-oriented businesses (home-and-garden center, auto repair garage, etc.); might have a very few businesses that individual customers would patronize infrequently for expensive purchases, such as a jewelry, furniture, or appliance store.
If this town is outside a metropolitan area, so that it is the largest town in its immediate vicinity, there is a fair chance that it will have a small hospital (which may or may not be full-service such as having an emergency room) and/or a small general-use airport.
Several distinct residential sections, some of which may be large enough to be subdivided into distinct smaller neighborhoods.
Most or all basic-needs businesses, and a wide variety of less basic services: In addition to the collection of businesses typical of a small town, will definitely have some small businesses scattered around areas away from the main commercial district; may have clusters of small businesses in areas away from downtown, similar to the size of a hamlet’s or village’s downtown, such as a small shopping center or strip mall, a row of stores the length of a short city block, or stores on all four corners of an intersection. May have a few larger stores, such as a small department store downtown, or a large home-and-garden center somewhere away from downtown, and will have a number of eating establishments; likely will have at least a few businesses that would not necessarily be patronized daily by most people, but sell products that still meet basic needs, such as clothing and shoe stores, or have uses beyond meeting the most basic needs, such as florists, photographers, book stores, record stores, and various service-oriented businesses; will have a few businesses of the sort that an individual would patronize less frequently, for major purchases, such as furniture, jewelry, or appliance stores, and may have a few auto dealerships; downtown may have one or two or a very few small multi-story office buildings (five stories or more).
If located outside a metropolitan area, has a good chance of having a small hospital and/or a general-use airport.
Several distinct residential neighborhoods; some of these residential sections will be large enough to be subdivided into distinct smaller neighborhoods.
Commercial center for a surrounding local area: wide variety of businesses serving basic needs, and those selling useful occasional-purchase items, as well as a range of service-oriented businesses; will have some variety of recreation/entertainment-oriented businesses (definitely a variety of restaurants, possibly including a few fairly upscale establishments, good chance there will be a bowling alley, and there may be a movie theater); definitely will have a number of businesses that sell expensive occasional-purchase items, such as furniture stores, appliance stores, and auto dealers; a good number of business venues throughout the town—in addition to downtown, will have several small shopping centers, strip malls, local-neighborhood small business districts with a row or small cluster of stores, individual small businesses such as fast food establishments and convenience stores scattered around town, several main thoroughfares with small stores, small office buildings, etc., scattered along them for some distance away from downtown, and may have a street lined almost entirely for a number of blocks with fast food places, chain restaurants, convenience stores, auto dealers, and motels and small hotels; downtown will almost certainly have at least one or two office buildings between perhaps five and ten stories in height.
Unless this town is in a large metro area with larger municipalities nearby, it is likely to be the service center for a wider local area, and almost certainly will have a small to medium-sized full-service hospital. If located outside a metro area, or even on the fringe of a metro area, this town will most likely have a small general-use airport. If located a good distance from any larger city, so that it is the primary service center for a wide area, it’s possible that the large town’s airport will offer a few puddle-jumper commercial flights to a limited number of destinations.
A number of distinct residential sections that are further subdivided into several distinct small neighborhoods.
This is very similar to a large town. The difference is that the small city is a large enough place to be the service and commercial center for a wider local area even if it is located in a large metropolitan area. It will certainly have a hospital. If outside a metro area (or if it is the principal city of a very small metropolitan area), this city will definitely have an airport with a few puddle-jumper commercial flights. Like a large town, a small city will have a wide variety of businesses, in numerous and varied venues, all over town, but the small city may have enough population so that individual residential sections will have some small businesses supported primarily by the neighborhood population rather than having to depend on the entire town for a customer base. If far enough from larger cities that it does not compete with their sports teams for a fan base, it may have a minor league sports team or two.
Larger small city:
This is the size city which many people might begin to feel has a truly urban character, even if they do not view it as a really big city. It will likely have a substantial downtown area that will be measured in square miles (at least a couple of square miles) rather than square blocks. Downtown might to some degree be divided into distinct districts, such as a retail district or a restaurant district. There will definitely be a number of large office buildings. Barring local ordinances restricting the height of buildings, a city at the large end of this category will have several skyscrapers. This city will have numerous commercial venues, of various types—several large and small shopping malls, neighborhood business districts the size of hamlet, village, or large village downtowns, commercial strips, possibly up to several miles long, lining thoroughfares away from downtown. This city will have several everyday entertainment-oriented businesses—a few bowling alleys, two or more multiplex cinemas—and may have such entertainment venues as a small stadium or ballpark, or an indoor arena with the minimum seating capacity needed to attract major bands for rock concerts, etc. May have some cultural venues, such as a larger museum or two, and/or a locally prominent symphony orchestra. Will definitely have some minor league sports. If this city is not located within a very large metropolitan area, but stands alone as the principal city of its metro area, it will have at least one medium-sized to large hospital, and may have several hospitals. This city’s airport will be served by commercial flights making direct connections to a number of destination, likely by small jet (Embraer, Canadair, etc.).
Medium city, or minimal metropolis:
This city is similar to the larger small city, but with more of everything. The downtown will very likely have some distinct districts where businesses of the same type are clustered. It will have downtown skyscrapers, a number of large hotels, etc. This city’s central area will likely have a fairly dense mix of commercial and urban residential property not quite part of downtown proper, but adjacent to or surrounding downtown, though in sprawling Sun Belt cities these areas with a near-downtown level of activity may be spread through the city in several locations away from downtown. This city may have a few esoteric specialty businesses, such as stores that sell rare books or records, a few martial arts instructors who teach less well-known styles, etc. This city will have a number of residential districts served by a mix of local business clusters similar in size to the downtowns of small or medium, or even large, towns, individual small businesses, strip malls, perhaps a large shopping mall within a residential district. In short, a number of this city’s outlying sections could stand alone as large towns. Will have at least one decent-sized indoor arena, minor league sports with some teams at the highest minor-league level (e.g., triple-A baseball), at least a few museums, and a locally prominent symphony orcestra, some theater, as well as possibly ballet, opera, etc. This city will have several major hospitals, and an airport with numerous commercial flights throughout the day, and will be served by ordinary-sized large jets (757, 737, MD-80/100), but likely no wide-bodies, unless the city’s location makes it an air hub.
Large city, or metropolis:
Large downtown with numerous skyscrapers, and several specialized districts where businesses of the same ilk are clustered (retail district, theater district, restaurant district), but will have large and small businesses, and inner-city residential areas mixed together throughout a central city area covering several square miles. More sprawling cities of this size will have outlying business districts as large as the downtowns of small cities. In fact, a feature of this level of city is that it will have a number of outlying districts with such a variety of residential and business uses that they could function as independent small cities, or larger small cities, on their own. This city will have major hospitals and a number of smaller hospitals, a major airport with direct flights to many other cities nationally, and most likely internationally. It will have a wide variety of businesses—there will most likely be one or more of even the most esoteric and specialized kinds of businesses. This city will have important cultural attractions, such as a number of large museums, as well as theater, opera, ballet, a major symphony orchestra and probably a number of smaller orchestras. It will have at least one large indoor entertainment venue, and several medium-sized and smaller indoor arenas and exposition centers, and will frequently host large conventions and expositions, major rock concerts, etc. There will almost certainly be at least one major league sports team, and most likely there will be several.
Mega city, or giant city:
The large city on a grand scale. Many, many businesses to serve every need, and many, many times more individual businesses of most types than any one person could patronize in a lifetime. Will have distinct sections which could stand alone as large cities. Not only will this city have distinct business districts, such as a theater district, a retail district, etc., but these specialized districts may be as large as the entire downtowns of larger small cities, or even some medium cities. The U.S. cities in this category not only have major league sports, but have more than one team in some sports. Two U.S. cities in this category have more than one major airport. The basic idea is that you could chop this giant into several parts, and each of those parts by itself would still be a really big, metropolitan city.
Last edited by ogre; 06-23-2008 at 08:13 PM..