Metropolitan Statistic Areas

October 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

As an addendum to Wednesday’s post on the old Town Commons of Hawley:

Usually, I study cities and the palimpsests of history upon them, the ways in which their histories are used by their publics and their powers that be, and historians as well.  Hawley is about as rural a place you can get.  But, Hawley (and all the tiny towns around it, none of which have much more than 1000 people in them) is included in something called the Springfield Census Metropolitan Statistical Area.  The Springfield CMSA is home to over 680,000 people.  Sounds impressive, no?  But this is an artificial “Metropolitan” area, as are all such beasts.  To wit, Springfield is actually home to about 155,000 people.  Certainly, there are cities within the Springfield CMSA beyond Springfield, like West Springfield and Holyoke.  But Hawley isn’t a city.  And it’s not exactly near Springfield.  It’s about 45 miles away, in fact.

Thus, the Springfield CMSA is an artificial catchment area.  Officially, the US Office of Management and Budget and the US Census Bureau make use of CMSAs for policy making and the like.  The basic idea behind the CMSA is an urban “cluster”, a region with a relatively high population density.  The outlying areas are included if they have strong ties to the central urban centre.  And this is where the Springfield CMSA doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Hawley and the towns around it are not all that closely connected culturally or economically with Springfield.  Instead, Greenfield in the Pioneer Valley and Pittsfield, in the Berkshires, are the urban centres that are tied to these towns.  Northampton could also make a claim.  It is to these places that the residents of Hawley, Charlemont, Plainfield, Ashfield, etc., commute if they commute.  Rarely is it Springfield.

But this might also explain their inclusion in the Springfield CMSA, as both Greenfield and Northampton lie within it.  And so the catchment area of Springfield just keeps spreading.  Pittsfield is its own CMSA.  But, still, it remains that deeply rural communities are artificially included in a statistical area that has little if any connection to them.  Life in Hawley and life in Springfield are not even remotely related.  Springfield, despite being a small city, is a downtrodden and gritty one.  Hawley is a rural community nestled into the hills of Western Massachusetts.

Either way, while I can see the argument here, I do not see the statistical value of including Hawley with Springfield.  They are 45 minutes and worlds apart from each other. 

And it also speaks to the danger of trying to compare urban populations.  For example, it is often said that Boston has a population over 5 million.  That’s just not correct.  The City of Boston has 650,000 people in it.  Boston is the centre of Suffolk Co., which has a population of about 760,000.  If you factor in the immediate suburbs of Boston, its population grows to about 1.5 million.  But Boston’s Census Metropolitan Area is home to something close to 4.5 million people.  However, Boston’s CMSA extends from New Hampshire in the north to include most of eastern Massachusetts, as well as ALL of Rhode Island, which itself includes the CMSA of Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island.

In other words, the Boston CMSA covers some 366 square kilometres, and includes regions that, like Hawley, are about as far from urban as you can get.  In short, CMSAs are wildly inaccurate when it comes to measuring and comparing urban populations, especially when definitions of what constitutes a CMSA in the US is not all that consistent across the board, or when other nations use different defintions of what constitutes an urban area.  

For example, in Canada, the equivalent is a Census Metropolitan Area, which is a statistical unit centred around a “large” city, of at least 100,o00 people.  Montréal’s CMA is a much more sensible defintion of such a statistical area, as it includes the core city and the Île-de-Montréal, as well as the neighbouring Île-de-Jésu, which includes Laval, and the south shore, which includes suburbs such as Longeuil.  And then it includes the expanded ring of suburbs that surround the Laval-Montréal-Longeuil nexus.  And while there are rural areas included in this territory, especiallty to the north-west of the Île-de-Montréal, they lie between and betwixt bedroom communities and other regions that are clearly centred on Montréal. 

But, either way, one cannot compare the Boston CMSA to the Montréal CMA because they are not similar birds.  In fact, they might not be birds at all.  To equate Montréal’s with Boston’s, one would have to include Sherbrooke, or Québec, or Ottawa within the Montréal CMA, much like Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH, are included within Boston’s.


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§ 3 Responses to Metropolitan Statistic Areas

  • Kate says:

    I have to say that your report was done well. I only have one issue with this, as I was born and raised in Springfield, I am quite upset about one thing. In the report you had said ” Springfield, despite being a small city, is a downtrodden and gritty one. ” Colourful but none the less very incorrect… is too bad that you had not been given the chance to see the real beauty of our wonderful city and made a bad judgement based on what little if any of it you did see. Small yes….downtrodden…..No

    Thank you,

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I call ’em like I see them. Springfield feels like a rough city. I’m sure there are beautiful parts to it, but it is a gritty little city.

  • […] of 15 million [ed.: see my post on the difficulty in using Metropolitan population statistics here]).  Here he cites journalist George Packer, who has noted that the inner-city urban slums of Lagos […]

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