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Nearly Half of U.S. Cities Have Fewer Than 1,000 Residents

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the vast majority of cities in this country are small. In fact, most would be better described as "teeny tiny." Here's a look at the number of cities by population category.

Big cities have big tech contracts. Big cities attract corporate innovation efforts. Big cities have resources to try interesting new things.

But they’re the minority. In fact, the number of small cities, towns and villages in the U.S. is astronomically higher than the number of large and even mid-sized cities.

According to 2017 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau — the latest available — about 47 percent of all municipalities in the country have fewer than 1,000 people living in them. 

Cities of more than 50,000 make up about 4 percent of all municipalities in the U.S.

And these figures don't include a lot of other kinds of local government, like counties, special districts and "minor civil divisions" as defined by the Census Bureau. There are 3,142 counties in the U.S. (including the county-equivalent parishes of Louisiana and boroughs of Alaska), and more than 20,000 minor civil divisions such as towns, villages and townships — only some of which have governments. Add those in, and the number of small municipalities would grow further.

That’s important for the gov tech market because cities are all in need of their own technology systems in order to operate, and different municipalities are at different stages of modernization with their existing systems. Many technology companies live on giant contracts with big cities, but the vast number of potential customers are small.

That's not to say small cities don't try new things. Many of them are the first to try new things, and many technology entrepreneurs find smaller jurisdictions easier to work with.

But the numbers illustrate the challenge of updating the technology on which governments run their programs, from emergency services to welfare programs. Though many local governments turn to cooperative procurement or shared services to speed up the adoption of new technology, America is still a vast patchwork of discrete jurisdictions. To bring new technology to all those places will take a lot of inching forward, place by place.

Note: The data only includes cities the U.S. Census Bureau has coded 162, 170 and 172. It excludes places coded 61, 71 and 157.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.