Archived Story

Chicago makes Mpls.-St. Paul look small

Published 10:11am Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Just how big is Chicago anyway?

It has 2.715 million people, is the largest city in the Midwest and is the third largest city in the United States. But that’s just measuring within the city limits. Some cities are locked within their suburbs, like Miami, and seem quite small compared to the metro area. Some have great annexation power, like Houston, and can disallow suburban areas to incorporate. In Houston, many suburban-seeming areas still are part of Houston. And many major cities of the world don’t abide by limits. They just grow and grow.

Geographers often say a better way to measure a city’s size is by its metropolitan area, which is based on labor market. The federal government likes the term metropolitan statistical area.

What’s the size of the Chicago MSA?

The feds say the Chicago MSA is 9.52 million people. It is the third-largest MSA in the United States. To put it in perspective, the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA is 3.42 million. We could make the Twin Cities into the Quintuplet Cities and still not match Chicago. (For math nerds, I did: 3.42 divided by 2 to get 1.71 million. I took that times 5 to get 8.55.)

Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 16th largest MSA, but I’d call it the 15th because the feds allow Riverside-Ontario-San Bernardino in California to be its own MSA. It’s really just more of the whole Los Angeles area to most folks pointing at a map. If we go by the ranking of media market size, Minneapolis-St. Paul also ranks 15th.

I bring up the subject of Chicago because I visited my in-laws in the suburb of Arlington Heights over the Thanksgiving Day weekend.

On Saturday, I drove to northwest Indiana alone, and even where I had looked on a map and imagined there would be countryside, there was simply more of everything: people, cars, homes, strip malls, traffic lights, congestion, sprawl, stuff. It floors me just how many people are in Chicago and the Chicagoland area. Clearly, it is the capital of the American Midwest.

So let’s see where this great city ranks in the world.

It comes in 19th in the world by metro area.

We would like to believe metropolitan means one big build-up of homes and workplaces, but it means the entire labor and commerce market. In other words, metro area includes some of the countryside around the built-up areas, including the exurbs. There might be countryside between the Twin Cities and Delano, but go to Delano, and you will see how it is benefiting young families seeking affordable housing. Agglomeration is the term for a continuously built-up area, so that leaves off the country and the growing cities nearby.

In terms of agglomeration, Chicago is 27th in the world.

There’s yet another way to define the reach of a city. Chicago is the lead city of its region — the Great Lakes megalopolis. I don’t mean all the Great Lakes, either. I mean the southern parts. If you have traveled our expansive continent, ever notice how the population is more dense and traffic is thicker in southeast Wisconsin, northeast Illinois, northern Indiana, southern Michigan, most of Ohio, southern Ontario, northwest Pennsylvania and western New York?

Well, geographers call it a megaregion. Some call it the Great Lakes megaregion. Others call it the Rust Belt. You head in any direction from the Rust Belt and the population density and traffic levels drop off.

Major cities are Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Other cities are Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., Rochester, N.Y., Flint, Mich., Grand Rapids, Mich., Dayton, Ohio, Madison, Wis., Peoria, Ill., Toledo, Ohio, South Bend, Ind., and Erie, Pa. Some might throw in St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Des Moines and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois.

Density-wise, I don’t see how, considering the rural population drop between Minneapolis and Madison, Wis., but as for the economy, the regions are quite connected.

According to America 2050, an effort to plan for the future of the country’s infrastructure, Minneapolis-St. Paul indeed is part of the Great Lakes megapolis. It says the megapolis puts out 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and has a population of 55.53 million. And it has maps of megapolises showing spheres of influence. Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa definitely are in the Great Lakes sphere, led by the great city of Chicago.

As much as I enjoyed visiting Chicago and seeing sights, I always like returning to Albert Lea. I grew up seven miles from a town of barely less than 1,000 people, where I attended school. Albert Lea is 18 times the size Pomeroy, Iowa, was back then. Albert Lea is pretty big in comparison.

When we say big city and small town, those terms are in the eye of the beholder. Albert Lea, which we often consider a small town, is actually quite big compared to Pomeroy or many neighboring cities like Conger and Hollandale. Albert Lea indeed is a small town compared to Rochester or Minneapolis. But even Minneapolis is a small city compared to Chicago.

But the radio stations in Minneapolis are way better than in Chicago. That’s another topic.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.