The 10 Most Populous U.S. Cities, Every Decade Since 1790
View the high resolution version of today’s infographic by clicking here
There are only two cities that have had the distinction of being named the most populous city in the United States.
The first city to hold the title was Philadelphia, as the City of Brotherly Love was estimated to be the biggest city in the country at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
However, by the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, New York City had surpassed Philadelphia by a few thousand residents – and the Big Apple has stayed the largest in the country ever since.
From Then to Now
Today’s infographic comes to us from Liberty Cruise, and it ranks the 10 most populous cities in the United States for every decade since 1790.
To start, let’s take a look at what the list looked just after the first U.S. Census in 1790:
|#1||New York City, NY||33,131|
|#6||Northern Liberties Township, PA||9,913|
It’s pretty surreal to think that some of the biggest cities in the late 18th century hosted no more than 6,000 residents.
It also may be a surprise to many that Rhode Island – a state that ranks 50th in size and 44th in population today – held two of the largest towns in the nation at the time: Newport and Providence.
The Modern List
Jump forward over 200 years, and New York City has not lost its top spot.
It helped that NYC was able to absorb Brooklyn – one of the country’s other largest cities – into its boundaries in 1898. Other major cities saw similar merges happen over the years, with Philadelphia absorbing Northern Liberties Township, for example.
Here is a list of the most populous U.S. cities in 2017 (est.):
|Rank||City||Population (Est. 2017)||Population (2010 Census)||Change|
|#1||New York City, NY||8,622,698||8,175,133||+5.47%|
|#2||Los Angeles, CA||3,999,759||3,792,621||+5.46%|
|#7||San Antonio, TX||1,511,946||1,327,407||+13.90%|
|#8||San Diego, CA||1,419,516||1,307,402||+8.58%|
|#10||San Jose, CA||1,035,317||945,942||+9.45%|
In contrast to the NYC of today, the 1790 population looks more like a Long Island suburb.
This rapid urbanization is mainly thanks to Industrial Revolution, which triggered a massive migration to cities, allowing New York to grow 26,000% in total population.
Here’s how the population distribution of New York City’s five boroughs has changed over time:
Interested in learning more about the country’s largest cities?
This Clever Map is a Window into 19th Century New York City
The early 1800s were a time of rapid change in New York City. This map shows the city in 1836, alongside the modern day metropolis.
The early 19th century was a time of great change for New York, which had already cemented its status as America’s largest city.
The opening of the Erie Canal helped turn the city into a shipping powerhouse, and there was a building boom on the horizon. Cholera epidemics, fires, and riots swept through the city at various points.
This fascinating interactive map, from Esri, is a snapshot of New York City during the tumultuous time (1836 to be exact), overlaid on the modern-day satellite map.
Getting the Lay of the Land
The base map used above is the stunning “Topographical Map Of The City and County Of New–York, and the adjacent Country”, published by the prodigious mapmaker, Joseph Colton.
For easy viewing, the map’s legend is below:
This map includes all the usual features, such as roads and prominent buildings, but it also has some clever secondary information built in as well. For one, shading indicates ares that were more built-up at the time. There are also a number of visual techniques to indicate topographical features as well. After all, NYC wasn’t as extensive as it is today, and much of the land depicted in the map is still undeveloped.
The full map is well worth exploring as well, as there are a number of beautiful illustrations throughout.
Tool tip: Click the X on the info bar to hide it. (Mobile: Click the map, then the magnifying glass.)
The Big Picture: New York City in 1836
At this point in time, development in Lower Manhattan extended until about 14th Street, where buildings began to give way to open spaces. The city’s grid pattern was beginning to take shape, following the Commissioners’ Plan laid out in 1811. At the time, New York was anticipating massive growth, and the straightforward grid pattern was an efficient way to prepare the city for rapid expansion.
In the 1800s, fire was an ever-present danger for city dwellers. In fact, a major fire tore through Lower Manhattan a year prior to when this map was published.
Points of Interest
There are a number of points worth visiting on this map.
Transit Begins to Take Shape
In the 1830s, New York City’s first railroad line—horse powered for its first few years—connected Prince Street to the Harlem River, accelerating the city’s expansion northward from Lower Manhattan. This route is still recognizable today as the Harlem Line.
One very obvious difference between the two maps is how much land has been reclaimed along shorelines in the area. Battery Park City, on the west side of downtown, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are two prominent examples of infill. Randall’s Island, located near the top of Manhattan, is also an interesting place to observe changes in topography. Randall’s Island is actually made up of three islands that were eventually conjoined in the 1960s.
This interactive map is a great place to explore changes to NYC’s shoreline over time.
Taming the Landscape
Midtown Manhattan is worth zooming into for a couple of reasons. First, the outline of Central Park is visible, although the park would officially be approved until almost 20 years later.
As well, this topographical map clearly shows the numerous outcroppings spread across the island. Manhattan was far from flat in the 1800s, and it took a tremendous amount of effort—starting with gunpowder, pickaxes, and horse-drawn carts—to level the land.
Looking at these historical maps is a reminder that the New York City we know today is the product of hundreds of years of human effort, and that cities continue to evolve over time.
Pandemic Recovery: Have North American Downtowns Bounced Back?
All North American downtowns are facing a sluggish recovery, but some are still seeing more than 80% less foot traffic than pre-pandemic times
Pandemic Recovery: Have Downtowns Bounced Back?
As we continue on our journey towards recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, North American offices that sat empty for months have started to welcome back in-person workers.
This small step towards normalcy has sparked questions around the future of office life—will office culture eventually bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, or is remote work here to stay?
It’s impossible to predict the future, but one way to gauge the current state of office life is by looking at foot traffic across city centers in North America. This graphic measures just that, using data from Avison Young.
Change in Downtown Office Traffic
According to the data, which measures foot traffic in major office buildings in 23 different metropolitan hubs across North America, remains drastically below pre-pandemic levels.
Across all major cities included in the index, average weekday visitor volume has fallen by 73.7% since the early months of 2020. Here’s a look at each individual city’s change in foot traffic, from March 2, 2020 to Oct 11, 2021:
|City||Country||Change in Foot Traffic|
|San Francisco Peninsula||🇺🇸||-70.00%|
The Canadian city of Calgary is a somewhat unique case. On one hand, foot traffic has bounced back stronger than many other downtowns across North America. On the other hand, the city has one of the highest commercial vacancy rates in North America, and there are existential questions about what comes next for the city.
Interestingly, a number of cities with a high proportion of tech jobs, such as Austin, Boston, and San Francisco bounced back the strongest post-pandemic. Of course, there is one noteworthy exception to that rule.
A Tale of Two Cities
Silicon Valley has experienced one of the most significant drops in foot traffic, at -82.6%. Tech as an industry has seen one of the largest increases in remote work, as Bay Area workers look to escape high commuter traffic and high living expenses. A recent survey found that 53% of tech workers in the region said they are considering moving, with housing costs being the primary reason most respondents cited.
Meanwhile, in a very different part of North America, another city is experienced a sluggish rebound in foot traffic, but for very different reasons. Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is facing empty streets and struggling small businesses that rely on the droves of government workers that used to commute to downtown offices. Unlike Silicon Valley, where tech workers are taking advantage of flexible work options, many federal workers in Ottawa are still working from home without a clear plan on returning to the workplace.
It’s also worth noting that these two cities are home to a lot of single-occupant office buildings, which is a focus of this data set.
Some Businesses Remain Hopeful
Despite a slow return to office life, some employers are snapping up commercial office space in preparation for a potential mass return to the office.
Back in March 2021, Google announced it was planning to spend over $7 billion on U.S. office space and data centers. The tech giant held true to its promise—in September, Google purchased a Manhattan commercial building for $2.1 billion.
Other tech companies like Alphabet and Facebook have also been growing their office spaces throughout the pandemic. In August 2021, Amazon leased new office space in six major U.S. cities, and in September 2020, Facebook bought a 400,000 square foot complex in Bellevue, Washington.
Will More Employees Return or Stay Remote?
It’s important to note that we’re still in the midst of pandemic recovery, which means the jury’s still out on what our post-pandemic world will look like.
Will different cities and industries eventually recover in different ways, or are we approaching the realities of “new normal” foot traffic in North American city centers?
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