What does the phrase 'The Twin Cities' refer to?

Twin Cities skylines
Top: St. Paul skyline, taken June 2008 | Bottom: Skyline of downtown Minneapolis, taken in July 2008.
Top: Courtesy of the city of St. Paul, Creative Commons | Bottom: Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri, Creative Commons

In the most literal sense, the “Twin Cities” references the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But many people use the phrase as a shorthand for “the Twin Cities metropolitan area” — Minneapolis and St. Paul, plus all their surrounding suburbs. 

The differences in colloquial usage gets at a broader issue: how to distinguish between big cities and broader metro areas, like people who say “I’m from Chicago” when they grew up in suburban Naperville or Orland Park, Ill.

In a conversation Wednesday on Twitter, many respondents emphasized the role of distance in shaping this terminology. To someone from England, California or even Duluth, the distinction between Minneapolis and Edina might not seem very important — but to someone from one of those cities, the distinction could mean volumes. 

Other people, who grew up in greater Minnesota, suggested a third term to add into the mix: “The Cities,” as a general term for the metro area, distinct from “The Twin Cities,” which meant just the titular two cities. 

While the distinction between “urban” and “rural” is fairly clear, the difference between “urban” and “suburban” is controversial even for experts. Some scholars emphasize the role of municipal boundaries in distinguishing between “cities” and “suburbs.” Others point out that low-density residential areas inside big-city limits can have more in common with similar neighborhoods in neighboring municipalities, while dense mixed-use districts in suburban cities can look more like neighborhoods in urban cores. 

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