Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Hilliness of U.S. Cities

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Hilliness of U.S. Cities

Article excerpt

This paper examines comparative hilliness among large U.S. cities. Hilliness, or ruggedness of terrain, is an important geographical dimension that impacts urban development and socio-spatial patterns, with broad policy implications, including infrastructure development, social segregation, the land market, and potential economic uses of the urban landscape. Related scholarship by geographers on urban contexts has typically been more focused on urban differentiation or stratification by altitude than on the impacts of ruggedness. We ask here which cities are hilliest, and if there are different kinds of hilliness that should be analytically differentiated from one another. We offer a working definition of urban hilliness and a comparative analysis of the largest 100 cities by population in the contiguous United States.

This article begins with a literature review of previous work in the area of hilliness within American urban geography, and on ruggedness in geography more generally. We then introduce methods for calculating the hilliness of different cities, building conceptually on previous work by William Meyer (1994, 2012), Jeff Ueland and Barney Warf (2006), and Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell (2014). We analyze differences in these indices, and conclude with some implications for further work on hilliness in urban geography. In particular, we argue that geographers are uniquely positioned to analytically integrate how physical and social terrains interact in urban environments to produce varying political and development outcomes. The conclusion identifies several potential opportunities for more closely coupled physical and social research in urban geography.


Mid-twentieth century scholarship in economic and regional geography articulated a variety of spatial typologies and conceptual urban hierarchies (Harris and Ullman 1945; Shevky and Bell 1955; Bell, 1958; Berry 1971; Janson 1980). During this period, limits to computational capacity constrained geographers in their ability to model large and complex three-dimensional social and economic landscapes, shaping the level of abstraction in geographical typologies, which were often limited to two-dimensional representations of a few highlighted spatial dimensions (Openshaw and Turton 2005). Transportation geographers and demographers, among others, have continued to extend and refine this spatial tradition in the context of contemporary GIS methods and data (Horner 2004; Harris and others 2007). Simultaneously, scholars in the remote sensing community have revolutionized the kinds of observations available for analysis in urban contexts (Zhou and Troy 2008).

Recent scholarship on the social or political impacts of urban topography has largely been focused on the impact of flooding; this work is most often positioned in the literature on environmental vulnerability and resilience (Adger, 2000; Chakraborty and others 2014). In the aftermaths of recent American coastal disasters--Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, in particular--urban geographers and political ecologists have begun to bring a more environmental justice-oriented perspective to flood risk (Maantay and Maroko 2009). More generally, geographers' disciplinary interests in global climate change are also driving climate-justice analyses of low-lying coastal inundation (Walker and Burningham 2011).

Relatedly--though altitudinally opposite--urban planners and some geographers have shown interest in the impact of landslide risk on both vulnerable populations (as in Oso, Washington in 2014 [Haugerud 2014]) and the potential for economic growth (Smyth and Royle 2000; Cascini and others 2005). Sites from Rio de Janeiro's favelas to Los Angeles' steep ridges offer clear, differentiated possibilities of development in landslide-prone landscapes, with differential social and economic impacts. Similarly, scholars focused on walking- and bicycle-oriented development feasibility point to the utility of flatness, although sometimes without much specific empirical evidence (Jones 2006; Middleton 2011; Dill and Voros 2015). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.