Nashville is now the nation’s 25th most populated city.
Atlanta ranks 33rd. So stick out your chests, Nashvillians. We’re bigger than Atlanta.
Wait a minute. Nashville bigger than Atlanta?
Recently, the U.S. Bureau of the Census released estimated city populations. Nashville boasts 590,807 residents, while our Georgia neighbor has merely 519,145.
Puzzling. Unless you realize that census numbers, much like sports statistics and political party strategists, can be extremely misleading.
Misleading enough to show Nashville also has more people than Denver, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Portland, Kansas City, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, all ranked (as listed) below Music City in the latest Census Bureau estimates.
So what gives?
It’s simple. The census figures are based on the total square miles of each city limit.
Nashville’s “city limits” comprise up to 500 square miles of Davidson County (sans some satellite communities). In contrast, the city limits of Atlanta consume only 132 square miles, Cincinnati’s about 75 and St. Louis’ roughly 65.
So the figures are grossly skewed. Compared to Atlanta, Nashville has more folks living within its borders because its borders are almost four times as large.
Hypothetically, if the Atlanta city limits encompassed Nashville-like square miles, the Georgia capital’s population would mushroom to close to 2 million.
As is, the Nashville-Davidson County population yields a people-per-square-mile density of about 1,170. The geographically tighter Atlanta has about 3,920 people per square mile.
So is Atlanta 3.4 times as dense as Music City?
In general, no. Hypothetically reduce the Nashville city limits to an Atlanta-esque size and our town’s density likely would increase to at least 2,500 people per square mile.
Comparing multi-county metropolitan areas provides only slightly more accurate figures. MSAs are derived largely from vehicular commuter patterns (another distorter of a city’s true population) and vary significantly in boundaries.
Distorted or not, census numbers are used to apportion congressional seats, redraw congressional districts and allocate billions of dollars in federal assistance to state and local governments. Head counts are one reason Nashville is fortunate to have a city-county form of government — and why other cities clamor to institute such a model.
For those interested in how demographics impact the built environment (and vice versa), various other measurements reveal the truest gauge of a city’s “people size.”
These include the density and usage of buildings; the expanse and pattern of street grid; the lot sizes for single-family homes; the number of people living within, say, a five-mile radius of downtown; the connectivity of mixed-use districts; and the number of buildings with seven or more floors.
By such measurements, Nashville fails as a Top 25 populated place. In fact, there are upwards of 18 U.S. cities ranked outside the Census Bureau Top 25 that are as populated as Nashville, if not more.
So when an excited local civic booster or random resident exclaims, “Nashville is larger than Atlanta!” simply smile and politely say, “No, it’s not.”
Williams Williams is a citizen observer of Nashville’s manmade environment. His interest in population statistics began at a time when most little boys start collecting baseball cards. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org