New England place name inflation

I disagree; this is an arbitrary rule that I see having no place in defining the relative importance and size of a population center. That place= node isn’t a statement about legal structures, it’s a statement about the cluster of population and infrastructure that exists in a place. I think these are completely independent concepts, especially considering how widely government structures vary.

I think we will find there are places that aren’t incorporated as a city but should be place=city as well as places that ARE incorporated as a city but should not be place=city.

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There does seem to be a “ceiling” of an unincorporated town which simply shouldn’t try to “stand on its toes” to become tall enough to become a city if it isn’t incorporated. I say that because of how large place=city can become (millions), as that is so far away from an unincorporated town (maybe 10,000 people, maybe it stretched there because of a university or hospital) but town (unincorporated) and city (incorporated) seem like they have a sort of “hard boundary” separating them that the idea of incorporation captures.

I either need to have examples presented to me of both, or stretch my mind a bit (it wouldn’t be the first time I have to stretch my mind in OSM, or change it, or deal with a new concept and re-asses a decision I’ve made). And I’d be fine with doing it again! For the former, would it be that they are (simply?) a “big town,” and so we call it a city? For the latter, is it because they are incorporated, but very (VERY) small?

Every city in Hawaii would be the most classic example. Honolulu, Kona, Hilo would all be examples. Hawaii only has state and county level governments. The place node for Honolulu represents the urban area located south of the Ko’olau mountain range and east of Aiea.

An excellent example, and one I know you can attest personally. Though (and it isn’t a deal-breaker), 49 of the USA’s 50 states don’t have this “direct by the state kind of governance” quite like Hawaii does, where only the island of Oahu is incorporated out of all of the islands, and even then, only certain parts (zones?) of Oahu are “urbanized,” which often is associated (sometimes closely, sometimes not) with the concept of “incorporated.”

I realize I’m conflating a lot, but I’m also doing my best to keep certain concepts separate here, which is what I believe incorporation does (for municipalities): make “cities” (urbanized areas) self-governing and “a body separate from the state.” Yes, “relative importance and size of a population center” (in that order) certainly does guide OSM quite strongly about “what is a city?” (in the USA). What I continue to listen to is whether others think this should also include “incorporation” and perhaps “being urbanized” or “as a larger conurbation.”

Again, it’s important to emphasize “what makes a settlement a conurbation?” (and related discussions) can be pretty squishy concepts and that stretching definitions to fit all cases can be difficult when our goal is to achieve wide consensus. And New England might not be exactly right for the rest of USA (though as was said, perhaps that ship has sailed, at least in this topic / thread), and agreements that can be achieved to work in USA likely won’t work in Australia or EU or India or elsewhere.

To expand on this, I think that a higher place= value can “encompass” areas which include lesser place= values. In other words, the nodes do not represent distinct bounded areas, they represent the center of a population cluster which holds identity influence across a wide or narrow area.

For example, suppose someone lives in the Corey Hill neighborhood of Brookline, MA, which is itself technically a separate town that for all intents and purposes is part of Boston, even though it’s not within city limits.

If that person were in California, they would say that they’re from Boston. If that person were in Boston, they’d say they live in Brookline, and if that person were in Brookline, they’d say they live in Corey Hill. This to me is the essence of what the place nodes represent - the degree of their identity influence as a named place (with apologies for making this even squishier than it already is).

I think necessarily that means the surrounding context has a lot of influence over how we decide upon a population center’s identity significance.

I drew this chart (which I hereby release as CC0) to lay out my personal mental model about how I think about place=* nodes:

That small settlement in the middle of nowhere, long distances from anything else, can indeed be a place=city, while that same-sized place might get a =hamlet node in a dense conurbation.


This uplifts Banstable (the place) rather than Hyannis which is the urban centre. Noted because I recently noticed that Hyannis had been downgraded to place=village and a town node added for Barnstable in more or less the same place.

I notice other places on the Cape need more work, the town of Yarmouth probably only really exists as an administrative geography: the actual commercial & population centre looks to be South Yarmouth (but all CDPs are significantly larger than hamlets, and are the names people use locally & for addrresses). Where the admin geography matters is in things like local residents parking permits for beaches within the boundary. I think better mapping of schools, places of worship & retail areas can assist weighting places (see Stefan Keller’s SotM talk on Areas of Interest).

As I think about this more, I believe it is important to emphasize OSM distinguishes the differences between a node and a (multi)polygon tagged place=city. For the latter, I do believe it must be incorporated, and the boundary=* relation reflects the “boundary of incorporation” (which may also include a label=* node for renderers to “place” the node). For a node so tagged (city, not label), I’m tempted to say “don’t do this, except as a shortcut, as there is a better, richer dataset expressible as a (multi)polygon, so do that instead.” For [town, village, hamlet], it isn’t very likely there is such a boundary, so these values can be “restricted” to only being on a node when there is no legal boundary. That’s a fundamental difference which our wiki states, but is good to reiterate here.

Does the “curvy” aspect of Brian’s (excellent) diagram accommodating the “how sparsely or densely settled is the region?” dimension of this capture at least part of what the OP was asking about? Yes, quite well. And it may be that regional or statewide “more local” preferences (New England being a particular example) best accommodate this. Adam’s maps show us there may be others.

Edit: Clarified that [town, village, hamlet] may or may not find themselves on either a node or a polygon — it isn’t always.

I am of the opinion that there is nothing particularly wrong and everything particularly correct with putting a place=* tag on a boundary relation; this isn’t a problem. What we see in that OT rendering of New England (particularly much of Connecticut, Rhode Island, western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and much of Maine) is that there are many such boundary relations, including for such things as town, village and even hamlet (I believe). As these data are correct, it is appropriate for OSM to have such a type=boundary relation (could be multipolygon-flavored with outer and inner members, even as it is tagged type=boundary rather than type=multipolygon).

But where these data (in the politics of the real world) are indistinct or not legally or otherwise definable, and the “location extent” of a town, village or hamlet is much more “amorphous,” well, OSM solves that quite well by tagging a node with place=* [town, village, hamlet].

Since the same words are used to mean different things below, I use monospace text to indicate an OSM tag and the ® symbol to indicate a type of municipal government. Thanks to @Minh_Nguyen for this idea.

It seems to me that we are talking about two related but distinct concepts here:

  1. Administrative boundaries of incorporated municipalities
  2. Settlements of various size/importance with somewhat blurry bounds

My mental model is that concept 1 is mapped with a boundary relation and tagged boundary=administrative + admin_level=8 (or sometimes a different number) and may additionally include border_type=city|town|village|township|etc to indicate what type of municipality governs this incorporated area. I don’t consider a place=* tag necessary on such a boundary relation as the previously mentioned tags include all the necessary information. If I were to include a place= tag on a municipal boundary, then I suppose place=municipality would be the appropriate one as it is documented as an administratively declared place on the wiki.

I wouldn’t include place=city|town|village on a municipal boundary because my understanding is that these tags represent concept 2, populated settlements with blurry bounds. The municipality I live in is called Colchester and it is modeled as an admin boundary in OSM. Although this municipality uses a Town® government and is officially named Town of Colchester, there is no distinct, dense settlement that fits the description of a place=town within this municipal area. There are two distinct settlements within the Town® of Colchester that fit the description of place=village. One is called Malletts Bay and the other is called Colchester. These are both modeled with place=village nodes in OSM. The village of Colchester is a different entity than the Town® of Colchester although they are related. The distinction between a settlement and a related administrative boundary becomes blurrier when an incorporated municipality is called a Town® and also contains a dense enough settlement to fit the description of a place=town, but even then these are still distinct (though related) concepts to me.


This uplifts Banstable (the place) rather than Hyannis which is the urban centre. Noted because I recently noticed that Hyannis had been downgraded to place=village and a town node added for Barnstable in more or less the same place.

I think your comment spurred some conversation recently on the OSM US slack – and as a result of that, I recently deleted the Barnstable place=town node, and returned Hyannis to place=town. This made perfect sense to me – as to me Hyannis very much stands on it’s own. If you’re talking to someone up and in Boston and they say they are going down the cape – if they say they are going to Barnstable, they mean Barnstable village, and if they are going to Hyannis they are going to say Hyannis. No one says they are going to Barnstable and means they are going to the general area of Hyannis/Osterville/Cotuit/Barnstable Village (I’ve probably been to Hyannis a hundred times and did not realize it was technically a village in the Town of Barnstable until I looked into it as a result of your comment).

On the other hand there are places like Newton – a similar structure Barnstable, a city made up of several villages. Though in that case, I’d very much argue that Newton warrants a place=town (or perhaps even place=city) node – even though Chestnut Hill or Newton Centre might really be the population center of Newton. People definitely say “I’m going to Newton” when they are actually going to Newton Lower Falls, and I would expect a Newton label to show up when looking at the Boston suburbs on a map.

Reading this thread I’ve been struggling how exactly you’d capture the idea that there are certain municipalities that are a sum of their parts – and warrant a place node, like Newton, versus municipalities that are purely just administrative boundaries, and their component villages (or hamlets/whatever) would stand on their own and perhaps warrant being a place=town. Though no idea how you’d codify that in the wiki besides “where people say they are from when you’re not immediately near by.”

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Yes, this heuristic needs work before it can be put into production. The first issue is that I didn’t bother to filter the places at all. As far as Wikidata is concerned, a New England town (Q2154459) is a kind of “town”, which is a kind of human settlement (aka populated place). That’s incorrect from a data modeling standpoint, but we can blame the English language for that. The relevant items can be refined further if it turns out to matter.

Hyannis lacks a distinct demographic boundary. The Barnstable Town metropolitan NECTA (Q123565646), Barnstable Town metropolitan area (Q6173877), and Barnstable Town urban area (Q123582792) are all named after the Town of Barnstable, and all of them extend beyond the town. As far as the Census Bureau is concerned, the only area geographies that represent Hyannis are the town boundary and the ZIP code tabulation area. (Insert obligatory digression about how ZIP codes are not areas.)

This is far from the only case where statistical areas fail to line up neatly with cultural expectations. It is what it is.

According to OSM, Hyannis does have a village boundary. This boundary was imported from the MSAG community boundary dataset. MSAG boundaries somewhat resemble ZCTAs, but the dataset makes clear that they do not correspond. (The explanation of how this public domain dataset was produced will make for fascinating reading for anyone who geeks out about OSM licensing. :wink:)

I don’t know how to come up with a precise population figure in a situation like this. It’s akin to coming up with a population figure for a neighborhood within a city. To the extent that we can come up with a heuristic that assigns a passable population figure to Hyannis and not the Town of Barnstable, perhaps by some leap of logic, this heuristic should be the responsibility of a data consumer rather than being baked into OSM, bereft of context, and forced upon data consumers.

Incorporation is somewhat orthogonal to administration. Yes, incorporated areas should have boundary=administrative relations. But as I pointed out earlier, there’s plenty of precedent for mapping unincorporated administrative areas as boundary=administrative too. States like Ohio use admin_level=7 for townships, but only because they can contain municipalities, not because the number 8 necessarily denotes incorporation.

If a data consumer wants to tease out nuances about the governance structure associated with an administrative boundary, it needs to either interpret border_type=* based on local context or do a crosswalk with Wikidata.

This is one of the issues that we faced the last time someone proposed munging population=* on the talk-us list for cartographic reasons. At a low zoom level, you might want to communicate the general idea of an Orange County as a big blob of sprawl in Southern California, but your only tools are a dot for a place and some shading for the urban area. If you’re making a small-scale map by hand, you’ll arbitrarily pick a city in Orange County to nod to that population center. Or I’ve occasionally seen maps that actually label “Orange County” as if it’s a single populated place rather than an administrative area. But for your map inset at a larger scale, you’d discard that arbitrary decision in favor of something more scientific.

The digital equivalent to this practice is simple: the data consumer hard-codes some overrides. But this project is all about data-driven mapmaking, so that’s an unsatisfying answer, even if it’s good enough for mainstream OSM data consumers.

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I’ve been following along on this post and wanted to add that in Maryland where I reside, there are big counties with no municipalities. I’ve added the county seat Towson as a city based on census population numbers, but there is no boundary that elected officials respect or are accountable to.

Baltimore County, Maryland, with no municipalities, has a population greater than North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming (individually). Those big states all have a city or two and are much bigger in terms of land area and thus regional importance.

I think the regional importance argument makes more sense than population alone.


Me neither. I also looked at the timetable of the Plymouth & Brockton buses and named stops are Hyannis & Barnstable in the places I’d expect.

On your other point, I was a bit surprised how diffuse Yarmouth is as a place vs admin entity. I’m sure there are others. South Chelmsford comes to mind as one which is not reasonably distinct from it’s parent, and something perhaps mainly used by realtors.

The fact that residential lots extend over so much of the land area of Eastern Mass makes assigning
a value for the place tag quite hard, particularly these days as a lot of destinations are single malls which may not be located near historic centres. I think there’s a virtue in adding more landuse=retail in the Greater Boston area as this makes it easier to pick out patterns. I don’t know quite how well shops are mapped, but I can see if I could generate some provisional polygons from those.

One tag which can be quite useful is designation: this is mainly used for public footpaths in the UK, but it’s generic usage is to clarify the legal status of an element. It may be useful for the “towns” in Mass. and “cities” elsewhere.

I appreciate the idea of designation=* as a general-purpose key. Unfortunately, the word “designation” has proven to be very confusing to mappers, not least because of all the other “d” words OSM uses for overlapping concepts. border_type=* isn’t ideal either, but that key has become entrenched through usage and time.

I think this is another point which is a general issue, where this thread & the Alaska one are throwing out a range of nice examples.

Many district councils in Scotland (although you can go back to older admin entities or urban statistical areas): for instance, Argyll & Bute has no real internal boundaries, but has a small number of obviously recognisable towns (Oban, Dunoon, Helensburgh, Campbeltown, Rothesay), smaller places which may be towns (Lochgilphead, Inveraray, Tobermory, Bowmore), and which are mapped as such.

It’s not uncommon for towns in England to only have a recogisable boundary as a negative: Windsor doesn’t exist administratively, but can be [defined by boundaries].(overpass turbo) of adjacent places (technically it is an “unparished area”).

I wouldn’t disagree! Perhaps highlights why choice of key/tag names should be done carefully.


Looking yesterday at Plains, GA where president Carter is living, I also found some county admin polygons with the place tag. This query of Columbus GA and south-east area shows both node and polygon defined places.

I have no problem with defining admin areas with polygons plus add to it the place tag. These admin polygons are usefull for navigation tools to locate streets and addresses. A place node is usefull simply to control where the name is rendered. And while I have no problem to define Columbus consolidated City-county of 207,000 people as place=city, it seems to me exagerated to define the adjacent Chattahoochee County (mostly military area landcover) as place=city. Even worse for Plains who does not seem to have clear boundaries and is defined in OSM with a circle. I dont think that the a notorious president in a village is enough to define it as a city and assure a better rendering.

This is true of space-filling concepts like place=state and place=county, but some other place=* values like city and town represent the acknowledged center of a settlement. For example, my city’s place=city node is located at the intersection of the city’s main north–south and west–east streets, the point of origin for the entire city’s address system, whereas the boundary’s centroid is in a residential area about 5 miles (8 km) to the southeast. In the past, some mappers misunderstood the purpose of these features and deleted place nodes in favor of boundary relations, forcing other mappers to restore them manually.

The analogy with Barnstable and Hyannis would be if, say, Downtown Cincinnati was called something special like “Fort Washington” and Fort Washington were much more famous than Cincinnati, to the point that few people would care to see “Cincinnati” labeled on a map of Ohio.

Plains has a clear boundary, and it is very nearly the shape of a circle. The U.S. has lots of circle towns, particularly in Georgia. If only every town were so defined, we could map each one as a point, tag it with a radius in an agreed-upon unit, and call it a day.

…unless the radius is specified in a customary unit like “poles” that has changed in meaning over time. :upside_down_face:

Could we say that the place node is a place of collision with various dimensions of mapping ? Montréal city is also Montréal island part of an archipelego and surrounded by two other cities. At zoom 9, the americana style only shows these 3 cities and it seem to move Longueuil tag to avoid collision. But the Carto-css main OSM style does show more infos including Ile de Montréal (Montréal island) thus adding possibility of mapping collisions in such urban context. Then the tendancy for some to better place is town/city moving the place node. :melting_face:

Americana should ideally label islands but doesn’t get that data from OpenMapTiles:

And yes, island is another example of place representing more than settlements per se.