Out of Control Policy Blog

United Stripmalls of America?

I don’t know of a poll that asks Americas how much of the nation they think is developed (there must be one out there somewhere), but I bet the responses to such a question would be revealing – not to mention way off base.

If I were prodded to guess how Americans would respond, I would say most people would think most of America is developed.

Randal O’Toole sifted through Census data to find the real answer:

94.6 percent of the U.S. is rural open space.

This is another one of those big-picture statistics I’ve mentioned lately. There’s no visual aid this time, but this breakdown helps reveal what America’s development map might look like:

On a state-by-state basis:
? Four states--Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island--are 30 to 40 percent urbanized and, counting rural places, 40 to 44 percent developed.
? Delaware and Maryland are 15 to 20 percent urbanized and 18 to 23 percent developed.
? Florida is 11 percent urbanized and 16 percent developed.
? Six states--New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee--are 6 to 10 percent urbanized and 10 to 13 percent developed.
? All other states are less than 7 percent urbanized and 10 percent developed.

Although California is the nation’s most populated state, it is hardly running out of land. More than 94 percent of Californians live in urban areas that cover just 5.1 percent of the state. When rural places are added, no more than 8.6 percent of the state is developed. Since California’s rural places have an average density of just 93 people per square mile, most of their land area probably qualifies as rural open space. The nation’s second-most populated state, Texas, is even less heavily developed: 2.7 percent urbanized and 5.0 percent developed.

It’s easy to see why most of us would (probably) be so wrong when guessing how far development has spread. Most of us live in urbanized areas. We see new housing developments, new Starbucks, new Red Lobsters sprout up all the time. We’re stuck in traffic. We’re scolded into “smart growth” measures.

Urban planners sometimes criticize the “but most of America is undeveloped” argument by saying some parts of the nation are more useful than others. That’s true, but what’s also true is that the hand of man is quite expert at turning formerly useless plots of land into cropland, housing developments, or Las Vegas.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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