Greater Greater Washington

Demographics


Another way to see the US: Map of where nobody lives

There are more than 300 million people living in the United States today, but America is such a huge country that we still have staggeringly vast areas that are completely devoid of humans. This map illustrates those places. Everything colored green is a census block with zero population.


Map by Nik Freeman of mapsbynik.com.

The eastern US is pretty well populated except for a few spots in mountains and swamps. But the west is a different story. It's covered with enormous stretches of land that are simply empty.

And Alaska's emptiness makes even the western contiguous states look densely populated. Those green areas near the Arctic Circle look bigger than most other states.


Map by Nik Freeman of mapsbynik.com.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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What an interesting way to show population disbursement! Although I would disagree that the green areas are "simply empty". Lack of human occupants does not equate to a lack of life forms or ecosystems or even economic systems like ranching, logging, fire management, etc.

by Sally on Apr 16, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

It is still staggering how much important habitat and open-space is consumed by sprawl. That is one of reasons why I so strongly support smart-growth and infill development.

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 16, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

Interesting, I'd love to see if a slight tweak, say including places that are like less than 50 people (and thus very sparsely populated), changed the overall pictures at all.

by BTA on Apr 16, 2014 12:29 pm • linkreport

Great map. It's notable that a huge portion of that unpopulated land is federally owned by some combination of the military, Forest Service, and the bureaus of land management and reclamation. The map below overlays really closely to this one:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Map_of_all_U.S._Federal_Land.jpg

by JPC on Apr 16, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of state parks as well, but the combination of the two is probably largely responsible for these unpopulated areas. All the more reason to preserve our parks programs.

by BTA on Apr 16, 2014 12:33 pm • linkreport

It is still staggering how much important habitat and open-space is consumed by sprawl. That is one of reasons why I so strongly support smart-growth and infill development.

This map doesn't tell you much about sprawl. It does tell you a lot about agriculture, however.

It's not a surprise that the density of green on the map picks up as you move west, once you pass (approximately) the 100th meridian; this is where the climate shifts to a much more arid state. Agricutlure can only really be supported by irrigation.

by Alex B. on Apr 16, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

People have a hard time imagining the sheer size of the US. I stump my European friends with the fact that New York-San Fran is about as far as Amsterdam-Bagdad. Amsterdam-Moskow is about half that distance - So, from a coast to St Louis. From NY to Honolulu is similar to Amsterdam to Madras.

by Jasper on Apr 16, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

@BTA:

But think about all the places we could drill, mine, graze, etc!!!! Think of all of the jobs we could create if only we could frack on Yellowstone park land!

by 202_Cyclist on Apr 16, 2014 12:50 pm • linkreport

Yeah it's always funny when I talk to my European friends how much difficulty they have with the scale of the states. My favorite is politely explaining that my home state is larger than their entire country. Helps them understand why our politics are so crazy in part.

by BTA on Apr 16, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

Pretty cool! I am surprised the Adirondacks aren't more empty - it really feels like a wilderness up there.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 16, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

There are a bunch of lakes in MI & NY that i recognize that are labeled/identified as areas "devoid of human inhabitants". I think its misleading.

by Tina on Apr 16, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

I'd imagine that most of the green-shaded areas in the western US is federal land.

by Fitz on Apr 16, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

BTA wrote:

But think about all the places we could drill, mine, graze, etc!!!! Think of all of the jobs we could create if only we could frack on Yellowstone park land!

Yellowstone? No. Some parts (e.g. deserts) of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada or eastern Cali? Why not.

by Fitz on Apr 16, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

The NIMBYs who freak out at the idea of any new housing development near them ought to consider looking at closely at this map and moving to one of these green areas.

by KingmanPark on Apr 16, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

@KingmanPark

That's hilarious.

If only that they might take you a bit too seriously and want to level a mountain or, say, fill in the Grand Canyon, to make their lawn nice and flat.

by Cap Hill Resident on Apr 16, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

@Neil, as you probably know, the Adirondacks is an unusual combination of private and public land, with homes and even small towns interspersed among the vast park land. It works surprisingly well and is one of the many reasons I love it up there. It feels like a mixed use wilderness community with a bit of everything (except urban living or suburban sprawl, of course).

by dno on Apr 16, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

That's true - perhaps it's the actual rustiness that makes it feel more authentic.

Also, f you look at the original post, the "uninhabited" areas do include industrial areas, where nobody lives but they might be impacted by people.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 16, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

Here's a great map of all federally-owned land, including the agency with jurisdiction:

http://www.radicalcartography.net/index.html?federalland

There's a lot of correlation with the map of populated census blocks, but it's far from exact.

by Alex B. on Apr 16, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

But in those green areas, there are still Starbucks coffee shops every 2000 feet right?

by David C on Apr 16, 2014 9:44 pm • linkreport

And thus the reason why I hate visiting family in Maine

Wonder how the map would look if you added American Samoa, USVI, Puerto Rico, Wake Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Baker Island, Howland Island, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, US Line Islands.

A map of DC like this would be nice with a giant L shape in the middle of the city.

by kk on Apr 16, 2014 11:59 pm • linkreport

Interesting map. Although it's important to note that a good portion of the land in green is in fact mountains, deserts, or other terrains that have little potential to host dense urban agglomerations.

by Jerome on Apr 17, 2014 8:31 am • linkreport

@Neil F. - ...where nobody lives but they might be impacted by people..

This is my point about the large lakes id'd as uninhibited; There are a couple of these lakes that I know for certain are definitely impacted by more and more development around them.

Yeah, no one lives in the middle of Burt Lake. It's 16miles long x 7 miles wide and 100 ft deep (at deepest). But the health of the lake is definitely under pressure from the inhabited area around it and in its water shed.

by Tina on Apr 17, 2014 8:49 am • linkreport

I threw this together with census data and Google Fusion Tables - this is just DC, and the 2010 Census data. Blocks with zero people are green. Click on any block (including clear ones) to see the data.

https://www.google.com/fusiontables/embedviz?q=select+col10+from+1S6hTCF0uU_XwKMKFgA2xgco0NGxnfg_9rB7R6RoW&viz=MAP&h=false&lat=38.90102724348183&lng=-77.0056312167053&t=1&z=13&l=col10&y=2&tmplt=2&hml=GEOCODABLE

by MLD on Apr 17, 2014 9:01 am • linkreport

There are a couple of these lakes that I know for certain are definitely impacted by more and more development around them.

Yes, but... so what?

The cool thing about this map is that it is a simple, binary relationship. It seems like you take issue with the resulting interpretation, not with the map itself. I don't think the map's creator has argued 'here's a map of places with no inhabitants and therefore no human impact.'

I certainly don't think the map is misleading. Definitely not because of lakes, unless you want to make a case for houseboats that somehow aren't recorded in the Census.

by Alex B. on Apr 17, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

@MLD: Fascinating. So the Census had 158 people living in 104 dwellings in McPherson Square (Tract 010100, Block 1016) - was this during Occupy DC? And the Census counted 4 (apparently homeless) people living in 0 dwellings in Franklin Square - fewer than the 15 people living in 0 dwellings in Union Station. As for the White House, it has 5 people living in 1 dwelling - I know who 4 of those are, but who's the fifth?

by rock_n_rent on Apr 17, 2014 9:52 am • linkreport

...who's the fifth

Michelle Obama's mother.

by David C on Apr 17, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport

Living in Alaska, we have relatives back East who are always on us about overpopulation and one who was absolutely rude that we would choose to have a second child. Her view changed, temporarily, when she came to Alaska and looked around. People in the coastal states and big cities believe we're an overcrowded planet, but when you live where there is room around you, you have a harder time believing that.

The entire world's population could stand in the State of Texas. We only actively use 25% of US land for everything ... farms, pastures, commercial forests, etc. Human infrastructure (roads, homes, businesses, cities) uses less than 10% of US land. Of course some states are more densely developed than others. Alaska is pretty-much empty. Massachusetts has 22% of its land developed.

That lack of use is a primary reason why Alaskans are puzzled that people from other states seem hell-bent against us using any of our land. Really ... there's a lot of it and there's not so many of us, but the insane policies some people want us to follow has us forced into increasingly dense urban zones ... which is not why we live in Alaska and should not be anyone's idea of a healthy or sane way to live.You make unrealistic demands of Congress that affect others because you have chosen to live in an urban environment that gives you an unrealistic view of the world that we actually live in. Get out into the real country sometime. Maybe take your next vacation in a flyover state. Stop and think about the consequences of your pet program. "Smart development" makes humans into rats living in too-cramped quarters. It's not smart! It's insane!

by Lela Markham on Apr 17, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

It's true that lots of these "empty" areas are federal land. It's also true that many of them are federal land because they were empty, not the other way around.

Much of the land in Western territories newly ceded to the U.S. became "public domain" land -- not owned by anyone, but held in trust by the federal government. For decades, the feds would give the land away under very favorable terms to pretty much anyone who was willing to use it -- homesteaders, railroads, etc.

Of course, lots of this land was so isolated and barren -- hundreds of miles from WATER, never mind people -- that it wasn't much use to homesteaders or railroads and nobody ever took it over. Eventually the government changed its policies in favor of holding on to the land instead of giving it away.

So, yeah, places like Nevada and Utah are hard to develop because they're nearly all federally controlled. But they're federally controlled because they were hard to develop in the first place.

by JewdishoowarySquare on Apr 17, 2014 3:27 pm • linkreport

Other land is empty by design - because it is wildlife refuge or the water is needed elsewhere (I'm thinking of the Owen River Valley). And there is probably more land that would be empty, but for agricultural subsidies that make it marginally profitable. One of my favorite ideas of how better to use such land is Buffalo Commons

by David C on Apr 17, 2014 3:40 pm • linkreport

"People in the coastal states and big cities believe we're an overcrowded planet, but when you live where there is room around you, you have a harder time believing that. "

Our planet is not crowded because there is no room to stand - but becaues of limits on resources, most especially the ability of the atmosphere/ecosystem to handle green gases.

"rats living in too-cramped quarters"

How big a house do you need to live?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 17, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

That lack of use is a primary reason why Alaskans are puzzled that people from other states seem hell-bent against us using any of our land...Get out into the real country sometime. Maybe take your next vacation in a flyover state. Stop and think about the consequences of your pet program.

What do you mean by "use"? I don't think anyone opposes using the land for hiking, camping, other recreation, or any other use that doesn't extract value from the land for personal gain. There's a difference between using land and using it up. Most of my vacations are to flyover states or sparsely populated areas, which is exactly why I want to see their natural beauty preserved.

Personally, I don't think the world is overcrowded or that the explosion in human population has led or will lead to a decrease in the average quality of life for humans. However, the areas of the planet that retain all of their natural value are vanishing at an alarming rate.

by Falls Church on Apr 17, 2014 4:39 pm • linkreport

Living in Alaska, we have relatives back East who are always on us about overpopulation and one who was absolutely rude that we would choose to have a second child.

These sound like crazy people, not anyone we should be taking policy advice from.

We only actively use 25% of US land for everything ... farms, pastures, commercial forests, etc.

I don't buy it. USDA says differently: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib14.aspx#.U1A8OlVdWSo
25.9% is grazing pasture, 19% cropland. A bunch of the rest is probably Alaska (you may know it's about 16% of the US landmass) and so not really useful for much of anything except being forest. And whatever percent is desert.

That lack of use is a primary reason why Alaskans are puzzled that people from other states seem hell-bent against us using any of our land. Really ... there's a lot of it and there's not so many of us, but the insane policies some people want us to follow has us forced into increasingly dense urban zones

I don't think the issue is so much the land as a percentage of what is out there as much as trying to make sure that people don't make stupid decisions that lead to excessive use of other resources down the line. Unfortunately I am not super familiar with the exact situation in Alaska so I can't comment on why people are "hell-bent against us using any of our land." And I'm not sure I would call any city or town in Alaska a "dense urban area" people have been "forced into."

Get out into the real country sometime.

I grew up in rural Maine for 18 years; I'm pretty sure I'm familiar with the difference between actual rural life and wasteful McMansion sprawl in "rural" exurbs, which is what smart growth is about preventing.

by MLD on Apr 17, 2014 5:05 pm • linkreport

@Alex -It seems like you take issue with the resulting interpretation, not with the map itself.

yes exactly. The map itself is beautiful visually and interesting. however Many comments are about how much area is uninhabited and thus/ or implied thus, "un-impacted by human activity". see discussion above about AK...

by Tina on Apr 18, 2014 9:59 am • linkreport

What the commenter from AK spouted off is the amazingly arrogant and ignorant attitude of a lot of ill-informed persons living out west (I say this as someone who grew up out west): "No one else is there, so why not build there?" or "No one else is 'using' it, so why can't we?"

Have we learned nothing from the past? A lot of the history of building in the West destroyed a lot of the ecosystem and natural resources there. For instance, the Hoover Dam killed off all of the salmon that used to migrate up the Colorado River - Yes! There used to be salmon in the Colorado! - and spawn there. The Grand Coulee Dam pretty much killed off what was a $300+ million salmon industry in the 1930s on the Columbia River. ($300 million in 1940 is approximately $5.06 billion today)

The AK commenter said that Massachusetts has 22% of its land developed. Eh, not really.... It's more likely that 22% of Massachusetts is urban. Nearly all of Massachusetts has been developed in some fashion - agricultural, suburban, urban. When the pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock, the East Coast was fully forested. Is that what you want to happen to Alaska?

by Janel on Apr 18, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

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