2014-05-05

Mapping All The Places In The U.S. With A Population Of Zero

Even in overstuffed metro areas, it turns out people won't live in strip malls or in the middle of the highway.

Most maps tend to focus on where people live, but this one does the opposite: Here are all of the places in the U.S. that have a population of zero. Mapmaker Nik Freeman pulled the data from the latest census, using the Census Bureau’s division of "blocks," the smallest unit of land that the organization counts. There are over 11 million blocks in the U.S., and 47 percent of them are uninhabited.

Freeman was inspired to create Nobody Lives Here in response to a map published last summer revealing that half the U.S. population lives in just 4 percent of the country’s counties. Freeman found it a little misleading, since it suggested that most people lived in just a few places, and decided to create an alternate view.

"The same data can show different results if you draw different boxes around it," he says. "In the case of that map, the 'boxes' were counties, which aren't a natural phenomenon; their boundaries are arbitrary constructs of human governance. Change the boundaries, change the results."

As Freeman worked, intending to show the same data with census blocks, he started to notice how many blocks had no inhabitants—and decided to change the map to focus on that instead. "What I found fascinated me," he says. "At the national scale, the stretches of the unpopulated West stood out. I mean, I know the West has a relatively low population and is relatively inhospitable, but I was taken aback by the vastness of unsettled territory."

The map includes national parks and inhospitable places like deserts, but also includes developed areas with no homes, like roads and malls.

"At local levels, I was struck by how divisions of land use were so clearly demarcated," Freeman says. "Of course people don't live in the middle of an interstate or at the airport or a strip mall. But this map crystalized the idea that even in major metro areas, there are places where people can't or won't live."

Within a day of publishing the map, Freeman saw others publish similar versions for France and Canada. He hopes that more geographers and cartographers will continue to explore what he calls "unpopulation geography."

"The geographic forces that push people away from settling in some places are as strong as the ones compelling them to stay at others," he says. "There are a thousand stories that could be told to explain why the NLH map looks the way it does, what processes culminated to create that look at the American landscape."

"And I can't tell them all," he adds. "I'm curious about why northern Maine remains unpopulated after 400 years. I know it's mostly logging companies there now, but how did it get to be that way?"

If he had time, Freeman says he would like to add annotations to the map explaining why certain places are uninhabited. He may also continue working on one aspect of the map—what's happening in cities. "The patterns of uninhabited developed land is what I found most fascinating about the map," he says.

[Images: Courtesy of Nik Freeman]

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2 Comments

  • Would love to see it broken down with live / work / neither. And then compare to other countries - I assume it would show more clustering of live/work, but also how much less completely empty swathes of land with most places having much less protected public land.