How big is Honolulu, really?

In a forum at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu on Aug. 25, gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hanneman said he had been mayor of “the 13th largest city in the United States.”

That seems awfully big for our island community. Is this really the 13th largest city in the U.S.?

The first problem: Hannemann lacked the specificity (and speechwriters) Peter Carlisle had in his 2012 State of the City address, when he called Honolulu “the 10th largest municipality in the United States.”

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann speaks during of gubernatorial forum at UH West Oahu presented by the West Oahu Economic Development Association on August 26, 2014

Mufi Hannemann at a gubernatorial forum at UH-West Oahu.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The distinction between “city” and “municipality” isn’t merely semantic. What we call “town,” is officially referred to by the U.S. Census Bureau as “Urban Honolulu.”  It’s what’s known as a census-designated place, or CDP, in its statistics.  It had a population of 337,256 in 2010.

But the City and County of Honolulu, as we know, covers all of Oahu.  So the “municipality” of Honolulu actually governs a population of 953,207, again using 2010 numbers.


Honolulu size of city compared to other US cities

Honolulu is the 11th largest municipality in the United States because the city and county are combined.

It may seem unfair to compare the entire island to cities like Austin or Phoenix, but because we’re looking at these numbers in reference to the number of people the mayor was responsible for serving, we have to look at the entire scope of each municipality.  That eliminates larger metropolitan areas that are undoubtedly connected in culture and geography, but not governmentally.

Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, are connected metropolitan areas, but each city has its own mayor. Larger suburban areas that are not under the jurisdiction of the city government, but are still home to those who work and play in the city, are also not counted.


US cities population chart Honolulu


We came across some interesting tidbits. San Francisco has an incorporated city and county government, so we counted the entirety of the county. Jacksonville, Florida, has a municipality that governs most of Duval County, but there’s also a few oceanfront towns in the county that elected for some autonomy, and we left those towns out. Indianapolis incorporated its outlying neighborhoods under a program called Unigov. Some towns declined to join, and so are left out of our ranking as well.

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We primarily used census data for the years 2000 and 2010.  We split the difference to come to estimates for 2005, and the numbers for 2013 come from the projections from We’re looking specifically for comparisons for 2005 and 2010, as those were the years that Mufi Hannemann took and left office.

San Jose has topped Honolulu in population rankings, making Honolulu the 11th largest municipality in the country.  But in 2010, census figures reported that Honolulu had 631 more residents than San Jose.  That, most likely, was the figure Carlisle used in his State of the City speech.

Hannemann’s campaign has not responded to emails from Civil Beat asking, specifically, which year and metric he was referring to when he called himself mayor of the 13th largest city in the country.  Regardless, it’s safe to say his assessment was slightly off.  It was 11th.  It was 10th for a moment, but that was fleeting.

So Hannemann was wrong with his statistics and his vocabulary. But just barely.

His larger point, however, stands.  He was, in fact, in service to one of the largest populations in the country.

As to the question of how he handled that responsibility? That’s up to the voters in the governor’s race.

BOTTOM LINE: He was wrong about the ranking but the reason he raised it — to point out that he has been the chief executive of one of the largest population areas in the country — is still valid. For that reason we rate this Fact Check Mostly True.


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