Is Vancouver Really a “Large City”

Last week I suggested that Vancouver was a “large city” based on census figures and state estimates for our city zip codes. If one simply measures Vancouver’s population by the incorporated city, then it is still techincally a mid-size city with 200,000 peeps, as are Tacoma 214k and Spokane 220k. Or is it? Vancouver differs from Tacoma and Spokane as the former is essentially landlocked by other incorporated cities and thus must grow within its existing boundaries with just a few notable exceptions. The latter has room to grow but does not have anywhere near as large an urban unincorporated area as Vancouver.

I have mentioned on this blog before, that Vancouver’s city boundaries are confusing enough that the city has a webpage dedicated to helping people determine whether they live in the city or not. Some 140,000 people live in “Vancouver” but outside the city proper in full density suburban neighborhoods, not country lanes with homes on small acreage, but hundreds of full city density subdivisions of single family homes, condos, and apartments. The city was supposed to have much of these city density areas annexed years ago, but politics has gotten in the way.

Looking at the 2020 census data, here is Vancouver compared to Washington’s top 10 cities by zip code population:

  1. Seattle 724,658
  2. Vancouver 332,363
  3. Spokane 274,184
  4. Tacoma 214,950
  5. Renton 146,733
  6. Kent 144,074
  7. Bellevue 143,977
  8. Everett 140,927
  9. Bellingham 123,663
  10. Bothell 105,523

But things get real interesting when you compare Vancouver to other notable and well known “large” cities around the country again using zip codes in the city and excluding the metro area:

  • Kansas City, MO 489,137
  • Oakland, CA 425,552
  • New Orleans, LA 390,996
  • Cleveland, OH 385,057
  • Cincinatti, OH 353,742
  • Vancouver, WA 332,363
  • Reno, NV 277,178
  • Boise, ID 252,036
  • Des Moines, IA. 218,731
  • Little Rock, AR 214,681
  • Salt Lake City, UT 200,390
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL 182,301
  • Providence, RI 179,362

Looking at the list you will see a couple of “Major” US cities. Kansas City is well beyond Vancouver, but based on current trends we will almost certainly pass Cincinnati before the next census and have a legit shot at Cleveland and New Orleans. Cleveland has a franchise in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. We are already well past Salt Lake City which is considered a “major US city.”

Now the reason Vancouver, WA will likely never be a major city is due to our proximity to Portland which is a major city and will likely remain substantially larger than the ‘Couv’ for decades to come. Portland will remain the center of influence for our area as a result. But I mentioned last week that Vancouver is juxtaposed to Portland much like Oakland is to San Francisco. We carry a lot of local metro area clout. We are effectively a “large city.”

Part of a city being a “major” or “large” city is population, but also service area plays a role. Service area refers to the area around the city that relies on that city for commercial services, government services, transportation, etc. Service area alone isn’t enough though, Rapid City, SD has a very large service area, but with only 77,000 people no one is calling it a “large” city. So the term is a bit loose but really is a combination of city size and service area.

Vancouver is notably larger than Salt Lake City, but Salt Lake is the center of its metro area and has a statewide service area where as Vancouver’s is regional amounting basically to the five counties in SW Washington. The same can be said for Boise and Spokane which both serve as the largest cities for hundreds of miles and the center of their respective metro areas. Vancouver is not the center of our metro area, that again is Portland. But the old population standby for defining a “large” city is 250,000 and Vancouver is well beyond that particularly when considering the completion of the pending Orchards Annexation.

Some may wonder why it matters. Well in some regards it simply doesn’t. But regional and statewide “clout” does matter when cities and regions are scrapping for state and federal funding to fix bridges, roads, and other infrastructure. The government funding for these infrastructure projects also makes the area more attractive for businesses to locate major operations in that city bringing high paying jobs to the area. These large business operations sometimes need to be located in an area with a large service area and heavy local population so the company has a big enough pool of talent and the transportation infrastructure to make the facility profitable. This is why I have harped on Vancouver to complete the annexations that are already approved and ready. That won’t change the 332k zip code population but will cement the incorporated city as the second largest in Washington State and third largest in the entire three state Pacific Northwest, rather than the ‘defacto’ second largest city in Washington.

Vancouver does benefit from its proximity to Portland as the entire metro area of some 2.6 million people are part of our local population base and transportation network. Placing a large employment facility in Vancouver that requires more base population for the talent pool, than Clark Counties 505,000 people can provide is not a problem since we are immediately adjacent to Multnomah County, OR. Its population of 810,000 brings the immediate Vancouver area to roughly 1.3 million people within a 15 mile drive. We already have an excellent transportation network, with a seaport, large rail yard, and immediate proximity to PDX.

It seems logical for our city to want more jobs on our side of the river. Local governments benefit far more financially from commercial taxes than they do for residential. In fact residential government services are often subsidized by commercial taxes as residential taxpayers are a larger drain on city resources. It will also take pressure off the bridges that currently have a commute imbalance that leads to more rush hour congestion.

So that’s it in a nutshell and the rise of Vancouver as a satellite city rather than a suburb will make the city better in both the short term and long term. The city leaders just need to work on luring more large employers and continue their good work on making our city center the best in the region.

Ah the Couv life; it is good. Even though we are big now 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s