• The United States is the third most populous country in the world.
  • It is made up of close to 20,000 cities and towns, and 333 million individuals.
  • This map shows how the country is split up into 392 metropolitan statistical areas and 547 micropolitan statistical areas.
  • Metropolitan Areas have at least one urban core area of at least 50,000 population.
  • Micropolitan Areas have at least one urban core area of at least 10,000 but fewer than 50,000 people.
Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs)
The US is made up of close to 20,000 cities and towns, and 333 million individuals.
Image: Visual Capitalist

The United States is the third most populous country in the world, made up of close to 20,000 cities and towns, and 333 million individuals.

Dividing these population clusters into a coherent framework of statistical areas is no small feat, and the US Census Bureau’s latest map shows just how complex of a task it is.

This enormous map—which covers the entire country, including Puerto Rico—includes 392 metropolitan statistical areas and 547 micropolitan statistical areas.

For reference, here are all the current metropolitan statistical areas in the United States, organized by population:

a chart showing the top ten most populated metropolitan areas in the US.
The top ten most populated metropolitan reas in the US.
Image: Visual Capitalist

For the full interactive list, click here.

From Metro to Micro

The wide variety of population patterns around the country can make it tricky to divide regions up into uniform units. There are two main divisions to consider when viewing this map:

Metropolitan Areas (metro areas) have at least one urban core area of at least 50,000 population. These are the largest population centers, sometimes encompassing many counties. In some instances, these metro areas are further subdivided into Metropolitan Divisions.

Micropolitan Areas are the smallest areas measured on this map (indicated by a lighter shade of green). These smaller regions, which are generally located further away from large cities, have at least one urban core area of at least 10,000 but fewer than 50,000 people.

One thing to note about all of these definitions is that the cities in these regions must have significant ties to a neighboring region—usually in the form of commuting ties. This is what warrants binding adjacent counties into a measurable area.

Another unique layer of data on this map is the shading that indicates the actual urbanized area within metro areas. In the example of Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, it’s easy to see how urban sprawl has expanded the urban area into a number of neighboring counties.

With this context in mind, we’ll take a closer look at three points of interest on the map that show this concept at work with varying degrees of complexity.

Level one: The central city

The Texas Triangle offers what is perhaps the most straightforward example of metro areas.

a map showing the texas triangle
The Texas triangle.
Image: Visual Capitalist

As seen above, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio anchor their respective regions, and surrounding counties are bundled into a metro area. The surrounding counties have all been identified as having ties to the central county, and, in some cases, the urban area has spread into the neighboring county over time.

Level two: The city cluster

The region anchored by Salt Lake City requires more thought to divide into statistical areas.

a map showing city clusters
The region anchored by Salt Lake City requires more thought to divide into statistical areas.
Image: Visual Capitalist

While there are a number of population centers in the area, including Salt Lake City, Provo, and Ogden, they all have enough of an economic “magnetic pull” to warrant splitting the region into distinct statistical areas.

Of course, regions are always evolving, and occasionally these areas are updated. Salt Lake City and Ogden were previously combined into a single metro area, but were separated in 2005.

Level three: The Megaregion

New York City is the ultimate challenge for planners looking to categorize population centers into a neat and tidy statistical box.

For one, the contiguous urban area is massive, stretching from the west side of Long Island out to the east side of New Jersey. In addition to New York City itself, the metro area includes 19 other municipalities with over 100,000 people.

Next, NYC is an unparalleled economic magnet. Measuring commuting activity is a challenge because a wide variety of people visit the city for so many different reasons. The interconnectedness of the Northeast Megaregion also adds to the complexity.

an image showing areas in new york
New York City is the ultimate challenge for planners looking to categorize population centers.
Image: Visual Capitalist

New York-Newark-Jersey City is such a big pie to carve up, that four of the country’s 11 metro divisions (as indicated by the italicized text and dotted lines) occur in this one area.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to encourage healthy living in cities?

It can be tough to stay healthy when living in a big city. The Forum is responding through its Healthy Cities and Communities initiative by working to create innovative urban partnerships, which are helping residents find a renewed focus on their physical and mental health.

In 2020, the project continued to expand to new locations and has effectively helped communities impacted by COVID-19. Our work is continuing with concrete actions in 2021 where best practices and learnings from all partner cities will be shared, allowing other cities to replicate and scale.

In Jersey City, USA the Healthy Cities and Communities initiative is working with AeroFarms to deliver locally sourced vertically farmed greens to people in need. The initiative is also helping homeless people who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In Mumbai, India (home to more than 20 million people) the initiative is working with the local startup community and engaging them on multiple sanitation challenges.

Learn more and find out how to join the initiative in our impact story.

Blurring the lines

Population patterns are constantly changing across the country, so the next version of this map may have a number of changes on it. Our “straightforward” Texas Triangle example may become tougher to divide up as the population boom continues in the region.

Here’s how the population of US counties changed over the past decade:

a map showing how these areas have changed,
Population patterns are constantly changing across the US.
Image: Visual Capitalist

Further complicating matters is the rapid move to remote work and distributed teams. A key element of these census divisions are commuting ties. With work increasingly not bound by geographic limitations, it remains unclear how that trend will impact this type of statistical exercise in the future.