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A happy medium for city size: When it comes to populations of Alaska cities, less can be more

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Those who spend much time on social media or listening to radio might have heard this week that Fairbanks has slipped behind Juneau to become Alaska’s third-biggest city. It’s the sort of thing that makes for a catchy headline and a lot of head-scratching by people who have been to both places, but when it comes down to it, it’s an apples and oranges comparison.

The crux of why Juneau can be considered a bigger city than Fairbanks lies in the state capital’s expansive boundaries — and the Golden Heart City’s relatively tight ones. The city limits of Juneau encompass a whopping 2,700 square miles of land and another 550 miles of water, making it the second-largest city by area in the United States (the biggest is Sitka, where the city limits encompass the entire island of Sitka, half of nearby Chichagof Island and all the water in between). Fairbanks’ boundaries are fairly narrowly drawn, with rough boundaries of University Avenue for the west, College Road for the north, Fort Wainwright for the east, and Van Horn Road for the south. All told, we tip the scales at 32 square miles total — about 1 percent of Juneau’s measured area. The majority of the Fairbanks area’s population falls outside the city limits, while everyone who can drive to Juneau falls within theirs — including those in Douglas, who have to drive over the ocean to get there.

Fairbanks and Juneau swapping the second-place spot in terms of city population isn’t a new phenomenon, either. As recently as the 2000 census, Juneau was more populous than Fairbanks, and the two switched positions in 2010, with a couple hundred more people moving inside the Fairbanks city limits. Now with a few hundred shifting the other direction, places have swapped once again. Despite all this back-and-forth, the populations of both cities have remained stable for the past two decades, with both cities oscillating between about 30,000 and 32,000 residents apiece.

Online, of course, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing about what Fairbanks’ drop into the No. 3 spot meant. Some blamed high energy costs for a perceived outmigration, while others blamed the harsh climate of the Interior. While both of these factors are significant for those who call Fairbanks home, the notion that residents are abandoning the area in droves isn’t borne out by numbers, as the borough officially reached the population milestone of 100,000-plus residents last year — the most who have ever lived here.

But really, the notion that Fairbanks is second or third in population among Alaska cities raises a philosophical question: where do we want to be on that list? There’s a fairly pervasive notion that bigger, larger and more are better, but one doesn’t have to go any farther than Anchorage to find the flaw in that logic. Southcentral’s population growth in the past few decades has also brought a raft of big-city problems like a burgeoning homeless population, violent crime and expensive transportation headaches. The addition of more people has meant more chain stores, franchise restaurants and strip malls. All of these are things that make Anchorage feel more like cities in the Lower 48. Amenities, to be sure, but ones that give the city less Alaskan character.

So whether it’s second or third place, or even fourth or fifth, we’ll happily take a lower spot on the charts if it means lighter rush-hour traffic, fewer instances of violent crime and less people crowding our hunting and fishing spots. We’re happy with Interior residents being the ones who know the whole story.


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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

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