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Most Westerners are City Slickers, not Cowboys

16 Sep

When most people imagine places like Utah, Arizona, or Colorado, they often picture residents living bucolic lifestyles as cowboys and ranchers against a backdrop of spectacular Wild West scenery. In reality, most people in these states know very little about ranching or rural life in general. In fact, the proportion of inhabitants of Arizona and Utah living in urban areas is greater than that of New York state.

(I hate using data from the 2000 Census when we’ve just undergone a new Census, but I’m too impatient to wait for the results)

The map shows the percentage of residents in each state who live in urban areas (indicated by colouring) and each state’s ranking in terms of urban population (indicated by the numbers 1-50).

California and New Jersey are tied for the rank of largest urban population (94.4%), while Vermont has the smallest proportion of urban residents (a mere 38.2%). Not surprisingly, most of the small East Coast states with major cities rank fairly high. However, even much larger states with a tremendous proportion of agricultural land, like Illinois and Texas, have remarkably urban populations. This shows just how concentrated these states’ populations are in large cities.

Note that the percentage of urban population is a rather poor indication of population density overall. Nevada, which was only the 43rd most densely populated state in 2000, has the 3rd most urban population. There aren’t many brave souls living out in the Nevada desert — most prefer the bright lights of Las Vegas and Reno. By contrast, a relatively densely populated state like North Carolina (17th densest in 2000) only ranks 39 in urban population, indicating that a lot of Tar Heels still live in small towns.

When it comes to the Wild West, there is a striking difference between the Northwest (specifically the northern Great Plains) and the desert Southwest. Montana and the Dakotas still have very rural populations, while most people in the Southwest flock to cities. I assume this is due to the availability of water (or lack thereof) in the rural Southwest.

Finally, note that only four states — Vermont, Maine, West Virginia, and Mississippi — have a rural majority. In 1950, that number was nineteen.