Most children learn in fourth-grade geography that the largest U.S. cities include places such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Yet that refers to their population size. Can you guess the largest U.S. city in terms of land area? It’s Sitka, Alaska, which at a massive 2,870 square miles in land area is more than 12 times the size of Chicago (228 square miles). While there is often some correlation between a city’s geographic size and its population, there are some substantial exceptions between the two categories. It should come as no surprise that the four largest U.S. cities in term of area are in Alaska, with Sitka followed by Juneau, Wrangell and Anchorage. Here is a look at the 10 largest cities in the contiguous U.S. in terms of land area.
10. Suffolk, Virginia
Square miles: 400.2
Some of the largest cities in the U.S. are the result of city-county mergers. Such is the case with Suffolk, which is located in the Hampton Roads metro area. It was created in 1974 through a merger between the towns of Holland and Whaleyville and Nansemond County.
9. San Antonio
Square miles: 460.9
San Antonio is one of several cities on this list that also rank among the most populous cities in the U.S. With almost 1.5 million residents, San Antonio ranks seventh in population.
8. Los Angeles
Square miles: 468.7
Los Angeles helped establish the post-World War II blueprint for a car-based, sprawling metropolis built across a vast area. Its network of busy highways has made it a commuter’s nightmare.
Square miles: 475.1
A 2014 study found that Nashville trailed only Atlanta in terms of urban sprawl. The city’s rapid growth across such a large area in recent years has led to concerns among residents and city leaders about issues such as inequality, traffic, the environment and allocation of resources.
Square miles: 516.7
Most of the cities on this list share a similarity — they’re located in the Southern or Southwestern U.S., and have more than doubled in size since World War II. These cities all came of age during the second half of the 20th century, when the automobile greatly influenced the design of cities. While older, more traditional cities in the Northeaster U.S. were built on a grid pattern, and prevented from expanding into surrounding countryside by existing towns, the undeveloped cities of the South and West became a magnet for rapid and largely unplanned sprawl. Today, Phoenix has become one of the leaders in working to rein in unrestricted growth on the perimeter, promoting development in the city center.
Square miles: 599.6
Driving into Houston for the first time is a unique experience. You’re driving down the interstate, when a mass of skyscrapers looms ahead; that must be downtown Houston, you think. But you drive a few miles, and another mass of huge buildings lies up ahead. You can literally do that several times in Houston, such is incredible growth the city has seen across a vast area. To illustrate just how much bigger Houston and the other cities at the top of this list are compared to older, more traditional cities, TexasMonthly.com reprinted several maps that went viral a few years ago. They show a map of Houston superimposed over New York, San Francisco, London, etc.
4. Oklahoma City
Square miles: 606.4
City planners looking at Oklahoma City’s sprawl concluded, “If the community is to avoid eventual bankruptcy, there must be some reasonable limit placed on the area occupied by urban development.” That city planning note was made in 1947, notes The Oklahoman. Oklahoma’s largest city has since spread across parts of four counties. City officials are looking at several ways to tackle the problems brought about by sprawl, including requiring developers to pay for new infrastructure costs, and even the potential of de-annexing outlying areas.
3. Butte, Montana
Square miles: 716.2
Just as it should be no surprise that the four largest U.S. cities in area are in the vast expanses of Alaska, it makes sense that a couple of Montana cities make this list. Butte rose to glory as a mining town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That mining legacy lives on in the form of environmental concerns.
2. Anaconda, Montana
Square miles: 736.5
Like adjoining Butte, No. 3 on this list, Anaconda’s rise to prominence mirrored the local mining industry. Anaconda only has 9,300 residents, a sparse population for an area that size.
Square miles: 747
Jacksonville is a relative newcomer on the list of major American cities. The city didn’t land its first major professional sports franchise until the NFL’s Jaguars began play in 1995. Yet Jacksonville today is a booming city of 880,000, 12th largest in the U.S. But in terms of size, Jacksonville is more than twice the size of most major American cities, and more than 10 times the size of traditional “big” cities such as Boston (48 square miles) and San Francisco (47 square miles). The seeds for Jacksonville’s great size were sown 50 years ago in 1968, when the city government consolidated with Duval County, dramatically increasing the city from 39 square miles to roughly its current size.
That size today is a source of pride for some city residents. CoastalJax.com notes, “When Jacksonville residents are asked for the coolest fact about their city, many tend to respond by pointing out that we’re the largest city, in terms of land area, in the country. Usually, some annoying person chimes in to remind us about those cities in Alaska, at which point we quickly correct ourselves by explaining we meant it was the largest in the “contiguous United States.” And after a long explanation of what the word “contiguous” means, the conversation tends to die off quickly.”