I recently came acro<.ss a statistic indicating that “In 2020, about 82.66 percent of the total population in the United States lived in cities and urban areas.” That rather astounded me. But what I didn’t know (and what a commenter – sorry, I forget who it was) pointed out was that the statistic is based on a definition of “urban” that counts any town with a population over 2,500.
As you might remember, gentle reader, I discovered this definition ten years ago, after the 2010 census, and presented a series for my defunct Missouri Insight blog that I imported here on gritty urban clusters of southwest Missouri:
- Gritty Urban Scenes from Southwest Missouri (Republic, Missouri)
- A Photojournalism Study of Urban Aurora
- Vistas of the Recently Urban Rogersville
Ah, in those days, I ferried my young boys around for small, one-hour road trips to see little towns and, briefly, to talk about them on the blog I started after leaving the group blog 24th State. It got little traffic, though, so I got away from it a bit. But I’ve made up for it, I suppose, by taking all the small town newspapers I do (about 11 at last count).
At any rate, Neo concludes:
How many people are aware of these definitions? I certainly wasn’t. And how do they affect our perception of statistics and their meaning? When we read that America is so overwhelmingly urban, it conjures up one sort of country. If the cutoff for “urban” was at a higher number, it would change the statistics and bring to mind a different sort of country.
As I said in 2012:
So why does the Census Bureau want you to think that these are urban areas?
Because government leaders favor urban solutions.
Consider how much money is spent at the state and federal level on mass transit, particularly light rail trains or what have you. Mass transit makes sense in a densely populated urban area, like a real city, but makes no sense for Republic. How many train stops or bus stops are you going to put to serve the widely scattered population?
Consider fuel economy mandates, the drive for smaller automobiles, and higher fuel prices. A small electric car might make sense when you only put 5,000 miles a year on a car in short trips through a city. But out in the country, your electric car might not make it to the next town.
Consider the Missouri Department of Transportation, who spends millions of dollars on dynamic message signs for urban areas. The Springfield signs spend about 362 days a year displaying MODoT public service announcements. I’ve only seen three other messages on them in the time they’ve been up. One day when it was snowing, the signs announced a weather advisory. Once, I saw a test message. But just this week I did see a message about an auto accident. This same department of transportation also spends millions of state dollars and millions of Federal dollars on sound walls to benefit urban residents who bought near a highway. But when it comes to maintaining actual, you know, roads in rural areas, say hello to tolls.
If you live in southwest Missouri, you’re used to being battered and bullied by statewide ballot initiative wherein the residents of St. Louis and Kansas City dictate, based on their consciences, the livelihoods of residents throughout the state (the recent furor over 2010’s Proposition B comes to mind, as does this musing of a now-retired Indiana farmer). Actual urbanites take vote their simple hearts according to their personal urban experience without knowing, or mostly even caring, what impact it has on the people out in the country.
Now that the Federal Government has declared that we’re all city-dwellers now, these urban solutions can be applied even more lavishly. Of course, the fiscal outlays will continue to go to the actual cities, where the votes are, but the government officials who tell themselves that they want to do what’s best will govern conscience-free, knowing that their pet urbanism applies to everyone.
Further thought: Did this small series inspire Lileks’s current weekly feature on small town downtowns? Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? But, no.