NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play

August 6, 2003

A perennial argument for "smart growth" and compact urban development is that we are running out of open space. But how much open space is really left? Data available from the 2000 Census show that at least 94.6 percent of the United States is rural open space, says economist Randal O'Toole (Thoreau Institute).

Together, urbanized areas, urban clusters and rural places occupy 5.4 percent of the nation's land, while urban areas alone cover just 2.6 percent. Rural open space thus covers 94.6 percent to 97.4 percent of the land.

On a state-by-state basis:

  • Four states -- New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut 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 -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, New Hampshire and North Carolina -- are 6 to 10 percent urbanized and 10 to 13 percent developed.
  • All other states are less than 7 percent developed.

Unfortunately, data from the 2000 census are not comparable with numbers from the 1990 census because the Census Bureau changed many of its definitions, explains O'Toole.

Among other things, urbanized areas were redefined to exclude many undeveloped areas. This led, on average, to a 10 percent increase in population density of urbanized areas.

Despite growing populations, the 2000 census reported many developed areas were smaller than measured by the 1990 census.

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Another 'Smart Growth' Myth: U.S. Is Running Out of Space," Volume 12, Number 7, July 2003, Carolina Journal.

For text


Browse more articles on Government Issues