How not to rank US cities

By Felix Salmon
November 29, 2012

More than half the world now lives in cities, and nearly all the growth and value creation in the world comes from what Richard Florida calls “megaregions” centered on large conurbations. So it’s really useful to see which cities are doing well, and which are not.

Sadly, that’s not what we’re getting. Instead, we get things like “The 20 Richest Metros in America“, from The Atlantic, based on the metric of personal income per capita, or — and this is much worse — CNBC’s First Annual Recovery Road Trip, which spent much of this week counting down the top three cities in America, based on a highly convoluted and opaque methodology based loosely on stock-price appreciation.

The results of these exercises are always useless. Here’s a list of random cities! (This is the Atlantic’s list.)

  1. Bridgeport, CT
  2. Midland, TX
  3. San Francisco, CA

Here’s another list of random cities! (This is CNBC’s list.)

  1. Atlanta, GA
  2. Charlotte, NC
  3. Philadelphia, PA

Here, by contrast, is the actual league table for US cities:

  1. New York
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Chicago
  4. Washington
  5. Houston
  6. Dallas
  7. Philadelphia
  8. San Francisco
  9. Boston
  10. Atlanta
  11. Miami
  12. Seattle

As you’d expect, this league table changes only very slowly, but it does change: Philadelphia fell behind San Francisco, for instance, in 2008, but then regained its seventh-place position in 2009. And lower down the table there’s more movement: Pittsburgh has risen from 25th place to 22nd since 2007, for instance.

The problem is that because this league table doesn’t change very much, there’s not much news value in reporting it, and instead reporters are drawn to gimmicks. Similarly, if you wanted to use public-company stock-market capitalization as a metric, then the obvious thing to do would simply be to list the cities with the largest market caps. My guess is that it would look very similar to the metropolitan GDP league table, and therefore, again, not be all that newsworthy. So instead, CNBC decided to go with the amount that stock prices have fluctuated, a methodology akin to simply throwing darts at a list of cities.

If you want to do valuable reporting on the cities which are getting things right, then the thing to do is to look at the growth rates of America’s biggest metropolitan areas, see which areas are consistently outperforming, and ask why. It’s much less gimmicky. But it’s much more useful.

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