Where are the largest cities in the US?

So we all know New York is top, right? But some others on the list may surprise you, as may some of their histories.

By Silvia Pellegrino

In the 50 states that make up the United States of America, there are over 19,000 incorporated cities.

There are two classification criteria: either population or area. From Anchorage to San Jose, here are the largest cities in the US.

biggest cities in the us
Phoenix, Arizona, is in the top ten for both population and area when it comes to the largest cities in the US. (Photo by Davel5957/iStock)

US biggest cities by population

The latest census was released in 2020 and, according to its data, these are the ten most populated cities in the US:

1. New York City, New York – 8.62 million

New York was one of the original 13 colonies in the 1600s, and it played a crucial role – both in politics and battle – during the American Revolution. After the conflict, between 1892 and 1954, millions of immigrants arrived in New York to become US citizens.

New York was also the first capital of the US in 1788 and, because of this, George Washington was inaugurated on Wall Street as the nation’s first president.

Wall Street is synonymous with financial services. The most influential of them is the New York Stock Exchange, as it leads the city’s GDP. There are more than 330,000 financial services workers in New York.

Other services that heavily contribute to New York’s industries are business services, retail trade and manufacturing.

New York state is also home to nearly 20 million people as of July 2019, and healthcare services are as busy as ever. In 2021, healthcare, educational services, and social assistance industry contributed $140bn to the state’s GDP.

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When it comes to population density, New York has the highest among any other major cities in the US, with over 27,000 people per square mile. That means that about one in every 38 people living in the US resides in New York City. Over three million New York Residents are foreign: in fact, over one-quarter arrived in 2000 or later.

2. Los Angeles, California – 4.08 million

Former Spanish settlement Los Angeles is the US’s second-largest city by population and the west coast’s biggest economic powerhouse. Even before being in the hands of the Spanish, the City of Angels was originally settled by indigenous tribes in 8000 BCE.

Los Angeles has multiple flourishing industries, fomented by the four million people living there. Los Angeles has a booming entertainment industry, ranging from film to fashion, especially in areas like Hollywood, the Westside and the Valley. Major studios such as FOX, Paramount, Disney, Sony and DreamWorks have studio operations in Los Angeles.

Entertainment is part of the larger creative economy, making the city stand out as arguably the artistic capital of the US.

With more than 2,200 start-ups in the city, it can also be considered a very motivating society. It also supports aspiring artists and creatives by investing in strong art, film, broadcast, animation and music programmes at universities like UCLA and Cal Arts.

But the creative industry is not all that Los Angeles specialises in. In fact, it also is the home of more scientific disciplines. LA has an expensive ecosystem of aerospace supplier companies, as well as top skilled engineers and bioscience researchers.

Its population density falls at around 8,359 people per square mile, spread across five counties.

3. Chicago, Illinois – 2.67 million

Chicago is the biggest city in the American Midwest, and it was founded in 1830. It was established as a water transit hub and later evolved into an industrial metropolis, processing and transporting the raw materials for its vast infrastructures.

Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 and as a city in 1837, when its population hit 4,000. By 1854, the city was the world’s largest grain port and reached over 30,000 residents, many of which were European immigrants.

The city was even destroyed by a fire in 1871, leaving over 100,000 people homeless. However, it was rebuilt with astonishing speed. In fact, in 1885 the world’s first skyscraper was constructed, a ten-storey Home Insurance Building.

However, apart from skyscrapers, Chicago still maintains its reputation as a rail hub and manufacturer of goods. In fact, it is at the top of the list in food manufacturing, as well as metals and plastics. Almost half a million people work in manufacturing in Chicago.

The supply chain depends on transportation; therefore, the latter can be considered another successful industry in the city. In recent years, companies like Tax Air have been moving into larger warehouses in Chicago, thanks to its central location and the presence of two international airports that make global shipping a simpler task.

Industries like health services and technology have also been developing in the Windy City. Over 40 national medical and health associations are based in Chicago.

Chicago, furthermore, is probably the densest city in the nation after New York. In fact, its overall density is just under 12,000 per square mile.

4. Houston, Texas – 2.37 million

Houston’s first settlement – Harrisburg – was destroyed in 1836 by the Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in pursuit of Sam Houston and the Texas army. After Santa Anna was captured and Texas was freed, in 1836, two New York land owners bought former Harrisburg and advertised it as the future “great interior commercial emporium of Texas”.

Today, Houston is Texas’s most populous city and the fourth largest city in the US. Its 2.3 million citizens are spread among the city and Harris County, with a density of 3,663 people per square mile.

When it comes to its industries, Houston houses the following:

  • advanced manufacturing
  • aerospace and aviation
  • energy
  • life sciences and biotechnology
  • digital technology
  • transportation and logistics

5. Phoenix, Arizona – 1.74 million

Phoenix was initially established as an agricultural community in 1867, and it became a city in 1881. It received the status of capital of Arizona in 1889.

Its economy blossomed thanks to five factors: cotton, cattle, citrus, environment and copper. Also thanks to its former inhabitants – the Hohokam people – the desert the city is built on is arable, as they built over 135 miles of irrigation canals.

Also because of this, today one of the most prominent industries in the city is agriculture. With its diverse ecosystem, the weather and soil in some areas of Arizona have created the perfect environment for agricultural activities. The biggest produce is lettuce, with Arizona ranking second in the US for its production.

Other prominent industries in the city are manufacturing and high-tech products, such as computers and aerospace.

Almost 1.8 million people live in Phoenix, and its density is about 3,119 people per square kilometre, which is one of the densest populations in the US.

6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 1.59 million

The ‘City of brotherly love’ is the intrinsic meaning of the name Philadelphia. Originally settled by Native American tribes such as the Lenape hunter-gatherers, this city has a deep-rooted history.

By the end of the 1600s, Charles II of England granted a charter to William Penn for what would become the Pennsylvania colony. Penn, in the course of his residency, signed a peace treaty with the Native American tribes that were living in Pennsylvania to establish a tradition of tolerance and human rights. However, in 1684, the Isabella docked in Philadelphia carrying hundreds of enslaved Africans. This led to the first organised protest against slavery in the new world.

Philadelphia became the biggest shipbuilding centre in the colonies. It became so well-known that, in 1729, Benjamin Franklin became the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Philadelphians were also the first to hear the Declaration of Independence, which was read aloud in the State House yard.

In recent decades, Philadelphia developed more industries than shipbuilding. And is known for the following:

  • life sciences
  • financial services
  • technology
  • advanced manufacturing

In fact, Greater Philadelphia’s financial services industry is one of the most ambitious in the country. Banks and investment houses have established operations in the city, including Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

Philadelphia is also very cutting-edge when it comes to technology, as the region’s high quality of life also serves as a magnet for tech talent seeking to live and work in an affordable and globally connected metropolis.

Among its 11 counties, Philadelphia’s 1.59 million people are living in a pretty tight society. In fact, with an average growth of 0.32% a year, its population density is around 11,900 people per square mile.

7. San Antonio, Texas – 1.57 million

This city derives its name from its origin. San Antonio was founded in 1718 when a Spanish expedition from Mexico started the Mission San Antonio de Valero. The latter, later called the Alamo, was one of the five founded in the area and takes after St Anthony of Padua.

On 5 May 1718, a military garrison known as San Antonio de Bexar was established nearby. In 1731, settlers from the Canary Islands brought a civilian community to live nearby, in San Fernando de Bexar, which later became a military post. In 1837, when it became a county sea of the Republic of Texas, it had been renamed San Antonio.

A lot has changed since then, but San Antonio is still one of the main commercial hubs of the Southwest. Its current most prominent industries revolve around healthcare and bioscience, aerospace, cybersecurity and the new energy economy.

San Antonio is a blend of Mexican and Texan culture, spread at a density of around 3,300 people per square mile.

8. San Diego, California – 1.46 million

Founded in 1542 and named San Miguel by Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the area was then renamed after the Spanish monk San Diego de Alcala de Henares in 1602.

San Diego was a military post until the 1820s, when residents began to build the area known as Old Town. However, after the US acquired California in 1846, the community was incorporated but lost its charter two years later. The new city of San Diego was finally laid out three miles south of Old Town in 1867, where it thrived with the presence of the Santa Fe Railway in 1885.

After 1900, San Diego grew significantly. With its population jumping from 20,000 to 200,000 in the course of 40 years. Today, San Diego has a population of over 1.4 million, one-fourth of which is Hispanic and more than one in eight are of Asian descent. The population is relatively young too, with about half of the residents being under 35. San Diego has also one of the highest percentages of college students.

With an average growth of 0.89% a year, San Diego’s population density is about 4,400 people per square mile.

San Diego’s economy has always been dominated by the military. However, now it is more diversified: aerospace is still important, but tourism and manufacturing also play major roles. At the end of the 20th century, industries like biotechnology and telecommunications grew significantly. The city is also still the main commercial outlet for the farm produce of southern California.

9. Dallas, Texas – 1.40 million

A small cabin was the first particle of the city of Dallas. In fact, in 1841, a lawyer and trader from Tennessee called John Neely Bryan, built the first house in the area on the riverbank. With the arrival of more settlers, a town site was then laid out in 1844. This early settlement was populated by Swiss and German immigrants, and in the late 1850s by French artisans. A large number of African Americans moved into the area after the American Civil War.

The origin of the name Dallas is uncertain, but it most likely derives from early settler Joseph Dallas or from vice-president of the US (1845–1849) George Mifflin Dallas.

Dallas’ commercial growth boomed thanks to the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s. However, its main commercial gain was due to the production of grain, leather and especially cotton, followed by insurance and oil. In the 20th century, Dallas was a hub of food processing and the manufacture of textiles, as well as having an automobile plant and a branch bank of the Federal Reserve System established there.

Nowadays, Dallas’ top industries are technology, financial services and defence.

Dallas’ population density is quite high; in fact, it reaches about 3,818 people per square mile. The city encompasses 340 square miles of land.

10. San Jose, California – 1.03 million

When European explorers arrived in the mid-18th century, Costanoan Indians were living in the area. The first civic settlement in California was founded by José Joaquin Moraga in 1777 as a Spanish community and was named Pueblo de San José de Guadalupé for St. Joseph (San José).

Its initial source of the economy was based on wheat, vegetables and cattle being supplied to the military garrisons at Monterey and San Francisco. San Jose was briefly chosen as the new state’s first capital after the American occupation of California in 1846, but then it was permanently moved to Sacramento in 1854.

San Jose expanded at a very fast rate, more than tripling its square mileage between 1960 and 2000. And its citizens are deeply diverse too: large Asian and Hispanic communities constitute three-fifths of the total population.

San Jose is one of the most densely populated cities in the US, with its 2,230 people per square kilometre and with a total population of just over one million people.

By 1850, San Jose became the first chartered city in California, as well as a bustling trade depot for the goldfields east of Sacramento. In addition, San Jose’s trade connections improved thanks to the railway link between the city and San Francisco.

During and after the Second World War there was a huge growth in the manufacturing sector, especially in goods such as electrical machinery, aircraft parts, and motor vehicles. San Jose then rose as Silicon Valley’s anchor with its large aerospace and business equipment companies located in the area and then solidified with the internet boom in the 1990s.

Biggest cities by area

So we know where most people live in the US. But what about those cities not stacked with skyscrapers, but are much more spread out? These are the largest US cities by area.

1. Sitka, Alaska – 2,870 square miles

Sitka is located in south-eastern Alaska and it is the biggest Alaskan settlement. It is also the only city in south-eastern Alaska that faces the Pacific Ocean.

Originally, the area was inhabited by Tlingit Indians, but then it was explored by a Russian expedition in 1741. Old Sitka – or Fort St Michael – was established in 1799 by Aleksandr Baranov, who then became the first Russian governor of Alaska. However, the fort was then destroyed by the Tlingit in 1802.

Today’s city was founded initially as Novo Arkhangelsk – New Archangel – two years later, when Baranov moved the headquarters of the trading company Russian-American Company there. The settlement took the name of Sitka in 1867, when Alaska was acquired by the United States. Sitka was the territorial capital until 1906.

The city had an important role in World War II, as the US government built a naval air base there, which swelled the population to nearly 40,000 people. Alongside the augment in population, Sitka thrived also in its economic activities. The principal ones are fishing, canning, lumbering, and tourism. Alongside these, Sitka is also a regional healthcare centre.

2. Juneau, Alaska – 2,701 square miles

Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris were the founders of this city. At first, the town was called Harrisburg, then it was named Rockwell and then the present Juneau. In 1880, the founders discovered gold and prospectors quickly moved to the area. In fact, within a year from its foundation, Juneau had a population of several hundred.

The city was finally formed and integrated in 1900, when it was named the territorial capital. Sixteen years later, the Alaska-Juneau gold mine was built, though it ceased operations in 1944. There was also an oil boom that facilitated a number of capital-improvement programmes in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, gold and oil are not the only activities that are central to Juneau’s economy. In fact, government activities employ around two-fifths of the total workforce of the city. Fishing and forestry are also important, as well as tourism, as Douglas Island – connected to Juneau by a bridge – is a popular skiing site.

Juneau homes a little over 32,000 people, with a density of about 12 people per square mile.

3. Wrangell, Alaska – 2,542 square miles

Wrangell is many things. It is the third-oldest community in Alaska, the second-oldest community in south-east, and the only city in Alaska to be ruled by four nations and under three flags: Tlingit, Russia, the UK and US.

Wrangell has been inhabited by the Tlingit people and their ancestors for thousands of years, since before all the glaciers in the area melted. However, the actual city of Wrangell was officially founded in the 19th century by Russians. In fact, they started trading for furs with Tlingit in 1811.

Baron Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, head of Russian government interests in Russian America, ordered for a stockade to be built near the clan house of Chief Shakes in 1834. This house was located in today’s Wrangell Harbour, and the stockade was built at the location of today’s city, at the mouth of the harbour.

Since then, commerce was based on military activities and mining. In the 20th century, fishing took over; however, its invasive nature caused severe damage to the sea fauna. In the 1050s, in fact, the state decommissioned all fish traps in Alaska. Fishing is still the city’s primary industry, as well as tourism and forest services.

4. Anchorage, Alaska – 1,704 square miles

The Russians established a mission in 1835 in the area that constitutes the modern-day city of Anchorage. However, the actual city was founded in 1914 to act as the headquarters of the Alaska Railroad running north to Fairbanks.

In the 19th century gold was found in the area, which caused its population to surge very quickly. Anchorage started as an agricultural hub since, during the 1930 Dust Bowl drought devastated agriculture in most of the central continental US, settlers from the American Midwest were given federal assistance to move to the Anchorage area to build an agricultural community.

However, by the 21st century, this sector was in decline. Therefore, the city became a key aviation and defence centre, thanks also to the construction of Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base during the Second World War.

These days, its economy is primarily based on defence projects and the exploitation of natural resources like oil. Thanks to the presence of the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University, the population is relatively young. And being Alaska’s most populous city and the state’s chief commercial centre, tourism is significant too.

5. Jacksonville, Florida – 747 square miles

Florida became part of the US in 1821, when plantations had become important economic centres along the river.

Jacksonville is named after the territory’s first governor, Andrew Jackson, who actually never lived there but became the seventh president of the US. The town was established in 1822, and later became part of an established commerce network, exporting cotton, lumber, oranges and vegetables.

Jacksonville, after recovering from the Civil War, was completely revolutionised following the Great Fire of 1901. Concrete and stone became the new construction materials, a public library was built in 1905 and the new industry of film production came into the city around the same years. The city became a major transportation hub as well.

Today, the major industries in Jacksonville are:

  • advanced manufacturing
  • aviation and aerospace
  • finance and insurance
  • information technologies
  • life sciences
  • distribution

6. Anaconda, Montana – 735 square miles

in 1883 Anaconda was established by Marcus Daly, one of the three ‘Copper Kings’ of Butte, Montana. The Copper Kings were:

  1. William A Clark
  2. Marcus Daly
  3. F Augustus Heinze

It was born as a site for a new factory to treat ores from Daly’s mine. The town was originally called Copperopolis, but another Montana town was already called that, so they settled on Anaconda.

Anaconda, even if it lost its role as capital to Helena, ended up becoming one of Montana’s most important cities. This is also due to the smelter continuing to expand capacity over the years, and in the 1920s a 585ft-tall smokestack was added to it, making it one of the tallest surviving free-standing masonry structures in the world to this day.

However, the last of the Anaconda smelters closed in 1980, forcing the city to go through a difficult transformation into a tourist destination, hosting several annual golf festivals every year.

7. Butte, Montana – 716 square miles

Butte was born in the late 1800s as a silver mining camp. It was the first major city in Montana and the largest city west of the Mississippi River between Chicago and San Francisco.

Butte has a rich history, from being born as a mining camp, to the rise of the Copper Kings and the birth of the labour movement, to the industrialisation and decline of mining, resulting in a present characterised by an environmental and urban renaissance.

This Montana city has always had the reputation of a place where anything was possible, with saloons and red light districts, such as the Dumas Brothel, which was open until 1982. It is also a melting pot of cultures, such as Slavic and Cornish, as well as Scandinavian traditions.

While the city still has many prominent visual reminders of mining, the environmental effects of those times of industry are being actively remediated and restored, thanks to the federal Superfund programme and a unique State of Montana lawsuit against the responsible companies. This resulted in over $1bn towards environmental restoration in Butte, which started in the 1990s and is still going on today.

8. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – 607 square miles

Oklahoma City’s original land run spanned 400 acres and it was opened for settlement in 1889. Overnight, it gained 5,000 inhabitants.

Two townsite companies claimed various plots of land, each making its own map. On 23 April of the same year, a meeting was held and a committee of citizens was nominated to reconcile the opposing sides of the newest city. Each member, in fact, came from a different state in order to form an impartial group. There was 14 of them, part of the citizens’ committee, with the job of mapping the streets and alleyways of the US’s newest community.

In the same year, 1889, President Harrison issued a proclamation that opened the unassigned lands to settlement. Today, this area comprises the first six counties in central Oklahoma.

Fast-forward to 1949, the City Planning Commission issued a comprehensive plan, estimating that the population growth would continue to increase. The success of business and industries in Oklahoma City was due, mostly, to the partnership of the Chamber of Commerce and City government officials.

Its industries, in particular, focused on oil within city limits, which brought many investors to the city, who launched the energy industry, which is still the main source of economic gain in the 21st century.

9. Houston, Texas – 599 square miles

Houston, also the fourth-largest city in the US based on population, was founded in 1837 after Augustus and John Allen had acquired the land to establish a new town.

The town developed quickly, becoming the capital of Texas for a short period of time. The town itself became a regional transportation and commercial hub, even though it was part of an independent nation until 1846 when the US formally included Texas.

It served as a regional military logistics centre, and it took a long time to recover from the Civil War. However, it grew consistently, going through the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in the 1900s. These two historical moments made Houston’s evolution into a real industrial city possible.

In 2001, a few neighbourhoods were destroyed by Tropical Storm Allison, but the city rebuilt quite quickly.

Today, nearly one in three manufacturers in Texas are based in Houston. Houston is an important industrial base with access to global markets, and over 230,000 industrial workers specialising in fabricated metal, machinery and chemical manufacturing.

10. Phoenix, Arizona – 516 square miles

Also number five on the population ranking, Phoenix is the anchor of the Phoenix metropolitan area, also called the Valley of the Sun, which is in turn known as the Salt River Valley.

Born in 1867 as an agricultural community, it is based near the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers. Phoenix was incorporated as a city in 1881, and it became the capital of Arizona in 1889. It has a hot desert climate; however, its farming community has thrived for centuries.

The city is divided into urban villages, each of which has a planning committee appointed directly by the city council. In addition to these villages, Phoenix has a variety of commonly referred-to regions and districts, such as Sunnyslope and Uptown.

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