“Human geographers spend so much time thinking about where people are. I thought I might bring some new insight by showing where they are not, adding contrast and context to the typical displays of the country’s population geography”.
Nik used data from the 2010 Census to identify ‘empty’ census blocks. Census blocks are the smallest area units used by the U.S. Census Bureau. They can be as small as a city block, but are typically much larger in rural areas. Their number is not fixed; population growth may lead to a census block being split up. For the 2010 Census, 11,078,300 census blocks were used. The reported population for 4,871,270 of those was… zero. That’s just short of 44% of the total number of blocks. Those empty blocks add up to 4.61 million square km (1.78 million sq. mi), which corresponds to just under 47% of the total area of the United States.
So, despite having a population of 310 million – the world’s third largest, after China and India – close to half of the U.S. is bereft of human habitation.
Does that mean that one of the most populated countries in the world is half wilderness? Hardly. Yes, those empty census blocks include large wilderness areas, filled with uninhabitable mountains, impassable deserts, off-limits nature reserves and other places where nobody lives. However, uninhabited does not equal undeveloped. Much of the empty census blocks are made up of farmland, commercial and industrial estates, military installations, traffic infrastructure, and other areas where plenty of people pass through – but where there are no ‘heads in beds’.
Don’t assume that non-residential places are necessarily empty either – the U.S. Census doesn’t. It finds residents in the most unexpected places. In 1990, census takers counted 63 residents in New York City Census Tract No. 143, more commonly known as Central Park. By 2000, that figure had dipped to 18, rising again to 25 for the 2010 census – a 39% increase, over a decade in which the city itself only grew by 2.1%. The Census Bureau is unsure about how these residents were counted, but suggests they could be homeless people who either were counted by Census Bureau employees on forays into the park, or who completed and mailed in a census form. By the way, Central Park is not the only open space with census-counted residents. In 2010, 56 people claimed Flushing Meadows-Corona Park as their residence, while five called Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn home.
In general, there’s relatively little emptiness east of the Mississippi, with notable exceptions in northern Maine (the largest empty region in the eastern half of the country). Another green blob, on the Florida-Georgia state line, is a swampy area corresponding to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the Georgia side, and the Osceola Wildlife Management Ara on the Florida side. In southern Florida, the Everglades light up green. Other notable green zones: northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Further west, habitation drop off dramatically about half way through Texas: the western (and southern) part is as empty as the east isn’t. Wyoming (at less than 600,000 inhabitants, the least populated state), Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico seem almost completely empty. In California, with its densely populated coastal zone and Central Valley, it’s about fifty-fifty. Alaska, which has only 0.2% of the overall U.S. population, contains a fair number of very large, entirely empty census tracts.