PHX real Phl
Joan Brady and Flickr via Dru Bloomfield

The ridiculous reason why Phoenix will soon pass Philly in population

Guys, they cheated.

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Philadelphia is going to lose out this year. We’re going to fall down a notch on one of those the top 10 lists that is actually about real information and not something pulled out of thin air (best city for trick-or-treating, y’all!).

As the Inquirer pointed out in an article dissecting population changes from the latest Census, Phoenix is likely going to surpass us in population this year and become the fifth-largest city in the United States. We’ll probably go down to No. 6, with a 2016 population of 1,567,872, compared to Phoenix, which is expected to grow by about 20,000 residents to about 1,580,000. No more top five and that kind of sucks.

But here’s the thing: Philadelphia is not really losing. We’re on an entirely different playing field, a land-locked, dense, actually urban playing field. Phoenix is not. It and some of the other big cities sneaking up behind Philadelphia in population aren’t playing the same game. They shouldn’t be compared because they are so much bigger in physical area and, in some cases, they continue to count their growth because they’re adding land.

As of today, the city of Phoenix — not the metro area, which would include all their massive suburbs like Chandler and Glendale and Scottsdale — spans about 517 square land miles. Philadelphia spans 135 square miles. That’s about one-fourth the size.

Of the top 10 cities Philadelphia is the smallest in geographic size and it is No. 2 in population density, behind New York City and basically even with Chicago.

City2015 PopulationSquare land milesPopulation Density (people per square mile)
New York8,550,40530528,034
Los Angeles3,971,8964728,415
Chicago2,720,55623711,479
Houston2,298,6286553,509
Philadelphia 1,567,44213511,610
Phoenix1,563,0015173,023
San Antonio 1,469,8244673,147
San Diego1,394,9073254,292
Dallas1,300,0823853,376
San Jose1,026,9191805,705

Houston, San Diego, San Antonio and the rest are all much bigger in geographic size than Philly, but Phoenix presents a particularly egregious case. The city has been buying up insane quantities of land to get bigger in the last 50 years.

In 1970, Phoenix was about half its current size but continued to annex land through the ensuing decades. The shopping spree has continued into this millennium, into this year, when boundaries were updated. This city map displays Phoenix and then recommends people call the City Clerk Department to see if anything new has been annexed and the map is already outdated. In other words, they’re cheating growing so fast they’re not bothering to keep up with themselves

What does it feel like to have 517 square miles of land in a city? Well, I was just in Phoenix a few weeks ago. It is a never-ending strip mall.

I’m not saying this as an insult. I like Phoenix. It has wonderful Mexican food, Saguaro cacti (the coolest type of cactus), In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack, a mountain you can hike in a couple of hours just outside the (ridiculously huge) city limits and a cute little restaurant next to a Farmer’s Market that is stocked with farm-fresh foods from said farmer’s market. This eatery is a phenomenal idea.

So, yes, Phoenix is good. But it just happens to be a fact that Phoenix is one big, sprawling strip mall and outside of maybe a couple areas of the city identical to its bordering suburbs.

Philadelphia might sprawl in certain areas of the Northeast and Northwest but for the most part we’re full. Bar’s closed. Our density rate in Center City is even higher than the rest of Philly, at 29,000 per square mile.

In other words, we’re a bustling city. We could certainly be bigger in population — and used to be bigger — but one thing we’re not doing is buying portions of Montgomery County and South Jersey and claiming them for Philadelphia.

So sorry, Phoenix. Enjoy your crowded 12-lane highways and Friday nights at mall bars in Scottsdale (but seriously enjoy the great weather, we’re all jealous). On paper, you will soon enjoy the distinction of being one of America’s top five biggest cities.

In the mind of any person who doesn’t live in a desert, you will not even be close.

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