We're not as big as we think, but that's OK
By any common-sense measure, Indianapolis is not the 12th most populous city in America. This is not a matter of academic nit-picking. When we think about urban issues like traffic, crime, mass transit, professional sports or Downtown jobs, we need to see ourselves as we really are.
A recent story in The Star, “Why you can’t see a good indie flick in Indy,” repeats this unhelpful “fact” about us being 12th biggest, but the misinformation routinely shows up elsewhere too.
Indianapolis is in fact the 12th largest “incorporated area” in America. Unfortunately, “incorporated area” is not a useful way to think about cities. As the name says, this category has mostly to do with how city limits are drawn.
Uni-Gov created a uniquely large incorporated area for Indianapolis, so by this measure we seem very big. But to accept that Indianapolis is 12th, you would also have to accept that Boston is 21st, Baltimore is 24th, Washington, D.C., is 25th and Atlanta is 40th. That’s right. Judging by “incorporated area,” Atlanta is half the size of Indy. But our common sense about cities tells us that is not true.
Much more useful is the measure is of primary statistical area (PSA), which takes in all of the outlying areas that are part of a city and pays no attention to arbitrary city limit signs. The Indianapolis PSA, for instance, includes Anderson and Columbus.
By this measure, the Baltimore-D.C. corridor moves to fourth, Boston moves to fifth and Atlanta to 10th, which we all know is closer to the truth about their relative size. The Indianapolis-Anderson–Columbus PSA ranks 29th, which we all know is also closer to the truth. (If you like, you can use the even-broader combined statistical area, by which Indy ranks 23rd.)
Here’s the thing: Being 29th is not a problem. I love the size of Indianapolis. I live here by choice. For the 29th biggest city in America, I love that we have hosted the Super Bowl, have the greatest motorsports venue in the world, and have two major-league sports teams. I love that we have a great urban public university and several great private ones. I love that you can walk safely Downtown and we have excellent arts venues, shopping, and restaurants, all with cheap parking and moderate traffic.
When we think about indie films or mass transit or Downtown employment, we should not make the mistake of thinking “12th most populous,” which means comparing ourselves to cities more than twice our size. Our comparison group is not Houston or Atlanta, but Kansas City, Columbus and Cincinnati.
In our hearts we know this. But somehow we keep using “12th most populous” either to make ourselves sound bigger or to lament how such a metropolis can be lacking whatever it is the speaker thinks we need.
We’re 29th biggest, and I’d take us over any other cities in our weight class. But let’s be realistic about who we are as we think about who we can be.
Farnsley is a research professor in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.