City States in America

The Ancient World had city states. Sometimes they became empires. And then when the empires collapsed they sometimes became nations. (Although–the modern ethnic nation state is more or less a late European invention.)

When I was a kid, I used to imagine, particularly on car trips, that the cities around me were like ancient city states. I would spend time looking for geographic features that would make good natural, defensible boundaries. Sometimes I’d even think about crops and natural resources, but that usually got boring quickly because there just isn’t much variety in the American West, where we lived.

I could never make up my mind whether Grand Junction would be part of Denver, part of Salt Lake, or be far enough away to be its own city state, albeit smaller and weaker than the other two. Spoiler alert: I never imagined it would be part of the “Albuquerque Plateau”.

Now, I’m loving a map that draws on the same basic idea, although sadly without the romantic trappings.

This map shows a United States composed of metropolitan areas and the surrounding areas tied to them by commuting. I’m not going to embed the map here. Go see it for yourself.

Nifty eh?

"Essentially, they used data describing more than 4 million commutes to look at how small units of place—census tracts—are connected into much larger units of place. One of the results from their algorithm is the map above, which shows how the country is divided into economically entwined regions that don’t conform to city or state boundaries. Pittsburgh’s region spills into Ohio and West Virginia; Denver’s tips over the border into Wyoming; and Oklahoma City’s reaches into Missouri and Arkansas."

I’ve spent nearly my entire life in the areas Nelson and Rae call Salt Lake City, Albuquerque Plateau, and Denver Front Range, with time here and there in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City.

My past wasn’t so simple in reality. It’s the abstract categories that make it so. And, as I look at the the map, and see the organic rightness of it, I also think to myself I typically use different categories—sometimes east and west of the Continental Divide; other times Colorado River Basin, Great Basin, and Missouri River Basin; sometimes the Colorado Plateau, the Intermountain West and / or the Zion Curtain*.

It’s worth remembering these different schemes are just human ideas imposed on the landscape. They don’t have any reality in the landscape itself.


* Zion Curtain. A supposed cultural boundary separating Mormons, or the state of Utah, as a region dominated by Mormons, from the rest of the country. (Dictionary of American Regional English)

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Updated May 24, 2020 to resolve problem with link to definition of Zion Curtain.

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