Monthly Archives: December 2015

County Size

A short follow up to the post about land surveying and subdivision systems: Daniel Kay Hertz mentions that county sizes are similarly affected, and are discusses in William Fischel’s new book.

I haven’t read the Fischel book (and taking the deplorable lack of posting here as indicative of limited time for extracurriculars, I won’t be any time soon) but I did manage to put together a quick look at county sizes in the US. Here’s a table of average and median county sizes for the US excluding Alaska, which has such low population density that much of its territory is not divided into jurisdictions below the state level.


The table is color-coded: red = South (get it?), blue = North (obviously), green = Midwest (because farms), orange = West (sunsets), white = Hawaii and Texas (because they’re special). Let’s sort things out by region and see if any patterns show up.


The South seems to generally have the smallest counties. In the rest of the country, there are only 3 states with average county size under 500 square miles (NJ, RI, and IN, the most southern of northern states), while in the South there are 5. States that are further west within the south seem to have larger counties. Georgia is famous for its small, numerous counties, which help frustrate regional planning efforts. Virginia has the smallest average save tiny Rhode Island because many cities in Virginia exist as their own entity outside of any county.

The North and Midwest have similar county sizes, with an average of around 800 square miles in both. It should be noted that in legal terms, counties don’t exist in Connecticut or Rhode Island at all. County government has been completely abolished and the counties serve only as districts of services administered by the state. Massachusetts has a strange situation, having formally abolished 8 of its 14 counties.

The West is typified by much larger counties, with an average of almost 2,900 square miles. Arizona’s and Nevada’s average counties are larger than the 3 smallest states, and the largest county, San Bernardino, is larger than the 9 smallest states.

The West could be further subdivided into the Mountain West/Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. This division splits California in half, assigning 12 counties to SoCal (San Luis Obispo, Kern, Mono, Inyo, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial) and the rest to NorCal. The Mountain West/Pacific Northwest has an average county size of about 2,250 square miles while the Southwest has the true giants, averaging over 4,700 square miles.


Based on the county sizes of the South, North, and Midwest, it seems that the governing land survey system had relatively little impact on county sizes. The North and Midwest in particular ended up with almost the same average size, despite the former being almost entirely metes and bounds and the latter being almost entirely US Public Land Survey System (USPLSS).

My guess is that there were two factors that influenced county size: suitability of land for frontier industry like farms and mining, and the types of transportation available at the time the county was established.

The first factor was also proposed to impact suburbanization patterns, and it is probably the easiest to see. If the land was not suitable for agriculture or mining, it would not be densely settled, and there would be no need to create new counties. This is why Maine has by far the largest county size in the North: its vast northern woods were never converted into small farms because of unfavorable climate. This also explains why Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have the largest county sizes in the Midwest; they also contain large areas that were unsuitable for agriculture.

As has been widely discussed elsewhere, the suitability of the US for agriculture decreases as you move west towards the Great Plains and Mountain West. Looking at a map of counties in Nebraska or Colorado, one can almost visualize the wave of regular square USPLSS-centric counties marching westward, breaking up on the Sand Hills, and finally dying at in the dry steppes at the foot of the Rockies.

Texas is special because it straddles several regions. Its eastern counties, while not small, follow irregular borders. Further west, there are many almost regular square counties of about 900 square miles. West of the Pecos, Texas counties are larger and more like the Southwest.

The second factor, the time the county was created, can be seen in places like California. Many of Northern California’s small counties date to the Gold Rush, before there were even any railroads to speak of in the state. This is likely due to the need to have law enforcement and administrative services within a reasonable amount of traveling time. For example, Alpine County, on the east side of the Sierra Crest, was created in 1864 during a silver boom. Even today, there are only 5 roads into Alpine County, and 2 are closed during the winter with another 2 frequently affected by snow, and the last leading into Nevada. The relative isolation caused by very poor transportation infrastructure necessitated small counties, in order to have functional government.

In contrast, Southern California remained relatively unpopulated until the 20th century. At the time of its creation, Alpine County had a larger population than LA County or SB County. By the time LA started to boom, though, railroads were well established, autos were in development, and long distance communication by telegraph was much easier.

Simply put, there’s no longer any compelling need to create new counties. The Southwest’s large counties, established to govern vast empty areas, remain as such as they grow into some of America’s largest urbanized areas. This accident of history results in some fortuitous circumstances, because it makes it possible to have significant regional impacts by acting at the county level. A worthwhile infrastructure project on the east coast might involve multiple counties if not multiple states; in San Francisco it will almost certainly involve multiple counties; in SoCal, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, the county is usually enough.


Four North American Land Systems

Long ago, we took a look at different suburban typologies, contrasting California, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast, and considered the impact of these different typologies on the resulting suburban form and density. Let’s dig a little deeper and examine some different land division patterns and systems, which also have an impact on development patterns today.

There are four major North American land systems that I’m aware of; if anyone knows of others, please respond in the comments and I’ll update the post. The four are:

  • Metes and bounds: this system dominates in the old colonies of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and reveals itself in small, irregular four-sided lots, sort of like (old) England.
  • US public land survey system: this system of regular square land parcels is easiest to spot in the Midwest, and covers the vast majority of the US, with a similar system in Canada.
  • French colonial: this system appears in former French colonies like Quebec and Louisiana, consisting of narrow, very long parcels.
  • Rancho: this system of very large land grants is prevalent in much of California, having been established during Spanish colonial and Mexican rule.

Metes and Bounds

Metes (straight lines between two points) and bounds (things like streams, stone walls, and roads) refers to the one of the oldest surveying systems, imported to North America from England by colonists. Unlike later surveying systems, metes and bounds property descriptions often refer to ephemeral features such as walls, trees, and stones. For example, a metes and bounds property description might start with a reference to “the large oak tree in front of Cromwell’s Tavern”, and proceed to describe the locations of other points on the property boundary using a mix of bearings and distances (metes) and natural features (bounds).

Unsurprisingly, these descriptions can lead to considerable ambiguity as to the boundaries of properties. Stone walls disappear; trees die. Streams move; at first, the property line was considered to move with the stream, but later courts overturned this principle and ruled that the property line remains in the location of the stream at the time the property was described, something not always easy to determine. This system also depended on the accuracy of the surveyors, who may have been using poorly calibrated equipment or have spent too much time at Cromwell’s Tavern before starting work.

Culturally, the colonists in New England also attempted to arrange their settlements in a manner similar to English towns. Since so much of New England has reverted to forest, it’s not easy to see this pattern in its native state there, but you can still find it western Massachusetts and the Champlain Valley in Vermont. Further south, in New York, Dutch colonizers initially established enormous estates known as patroonships. However, these were thoroughly chopped up into smaller parcels long before suburbanization. By and large, the Mid-Atlantic states and the coastal Southern states also follow this pattern.

In these places, property boundaries are irregular. Small agricultural towns were scattered about the countryside, and farms tended to be relatively isolated from towns. For urban development, this pattern results in irregular roads, complicating transportation planning, and small parcels, which result in decentralized development that often occurs in a leapfrog pattern.

For example, here’s the area south of Dover, DE. Small subdivisions are widely spread out among farms.

This pattern holds for larger cities as well. This area is barely ten miles from downtown Philadelphia.

Because they developed at a later date, Southern cities like Charlotte and Raleigh have been developed almost exclusively in this manner.

The resulting low density creates challenges for transportation, especially for transit. If an urban area is growing fast enough, the spaces between will eventually fill in, but if growth slows, development will be frozen in that fractured pattern.

US Public Land Survey System

While the Articles of Confederation were largely a failure, Congress did manage to pass a law that helped do away with the problems of metes and bounds surveying, the Land Ordinance of 1785. This law established that territory in new states would be subdivided into square townships, 6 miles on each side, with each square referenced to a base point at the intersection of a north-south meridian and an east-west baseline. For example, the township two squares south and three squares west of the base point would be T2S R3W – township 2 south, range 3 west. In practice, the townships cannot all be square because the earth is not flat, but regular procedures for corrections were established.


In southern California, our meridian is the San Bernardino Meridian, which intersects its corresponding baseline at the summit of San Bernardino Peak. The latter is memorialized in Base Line Rd, which extends from Highland to La Verne. The 7th Standard Road in Kern County, which you may have seen from the 99, gets its name for its location relative to northern California’s Mount Diablo base line.

Each township is divided into 36 sections of one square mile (640 acres), further divided into quarter-sections of 160 acres, which settlers could claim under the Homestead Act, and even into quarter quarter-sections, the 40 acres that Kanye West rapped about trying to buy back. The Prairie Provinces and western Canada were laid out by similar systems known as the Alberta Township System and Dominion Land Survey.

While the transition from metes to bounds to the USPLSS occurs in wooded terrain, it is still possible to see the difference between western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with the USPLSS well-established in western Ohio.

Ohio's grid

Ohio’s grid

Pennsylvania's not

Pennsylvania’s not

Despite the change in surveying philosophy, the cultural patterns did not change. Farming communities established under this system still tend to feature isolated farms and towns, though the towns are more regularly spaced. For suburbanization, this pattern results in more regular subdivisions, but the resulting density may still be low if it’s in a region with low-density suburb types or if the property was divided into smaller sections prior to World War 2.

Since the Midwest had good conditions for agriculture, small farms are more common, and it is common to see development leapfrog across the landscape. For example, have a look at the south side of Chicago’s exurbs and the northwestern side of Milwaukee’s.

The further west you go in the US, the more marginal the land becomes for unirrigated agriculture. This meant that land was often held in larger farms, leased at large scale for grazing, or not used for agriculture at all. Thus, suburbanization seems to proceed in larger blocks, known as master plans, and can often present a remarkably defined development front. The poster children for this type of development are the new western cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The resulting density can be considerably higher than what happens on the east coast; the fringes of Las Vegas are denser than many close-in east coast suburbs. So while a lot of urbanists conceptualize places like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City as being the same as places like Atlanta and Charlotte, in reality, they’re quite different.


Left: Las Vegas. Right: Atlanta


Left: Salt Lake City. Right: Charlotte.

In California, you can see this relatively dense pattern of suburbanization on USPLSS patterns in places like the Antelope Valley, whose lettered avenues (A, B, etc) and numbered streets (10th, 20th, etc) count off one-mile square sections, and parts of the Inland Empire.

However, with a longer legacy of development, both agricultural and suburban, in California you can also find lower density suburbs and small undeveloped parcels. For example, Perris gives you denser master plans from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s east of the 215, but west of the 215, larger lots in Mead Valley date back to the 1950s and 1960s. West of the 15, you get the Eastvale boom of the 2000s, while to the east new master plans in Jurupa Valley butt up against the much older Mira Loma area. Older parts of Fontana slowly suburbanize piecemeal, while to the north, large master plans will march up towards Cajon Pass.

As a sidebar, Joseph Smith developed a plan for Mormon settlement based on one square mile sections, with wide streets and city blocks of 10 acres, to be divided into half-acre homestead lots. The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved on section near the middle of the township for public education; Smith reserved several blocks in the middle of the section for things like storehouses and temples. In what must seem like dark prophecy to modern urbanists, Smith issued instructions that “when this square is laid off and thus supplied, lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in these last days. . . no one lot in this city is to contain more than one house, and that to be built twenty-five fee back from the street. . .” Even if one doubts Smith was a prophet of the lord, he certainly had clairvoyance for the future of American planning. Nevertheless, despite being laid out according to a similar plan by Brigham Young, Salt Lake City was flooded with pioneers and, as it often does, necessity trumped principle and the lots were soon divided.


Smith’s plan varied the orientation of lots so that houses wouldn’t always face each other.

Interestingly, economists have been able to show that there are economic losses associated with the metes and bounds system relative to the USPLSS, because of the greater uncertainty of property rights associated with the former. Just a reminder that good public policy can cast a very long shadow – all the way from 1785.

French Colonial

The French colonial system is much less common, simply because France was responsible for colonizing less of North America. It is often found in Quebec, Louisiana, and parts of the Maritime Provinces. This pattern is defined by narrow, very long parcels having a common frontage on the narrow end along a feature such as a stream or a road. These parcels were known as arpents. Because of this configuration, farmhouses in agricultural parts of Quebec are likely to be a little less isolated, since they cluster near the road and the adjacent lots are pretty close.

Here is another example of this pattern in Moncton, New Brunswick.

If the advantage of the arpent is obvious – providing a large number of parcels with access to a useful resource like a stream, the disadvantage is equally obvious – the parcel may be hard to work with as a unit compared to a square parcel. For suburbanization, this can create some amusingly long, skinny subdivisions, though Quebecois developers seem to have decent success in adding streets connecting adjacent parcels.

This pattern of development can also be found in Louisiana, where developers seem to have less success, or perhaps just less interest, in adding transverse streets.


At last, we come to the rancho, the historic land grants made in California under Spanish and Mexican rule. While the sizes varied widely, it was not uncommon for these grants to give a single land owner control of 50 to 75 square miles. Some, such as Rancho el Tejon and the ex-Mission San Fernando were around 150 square miles.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the Mexican-American War, provided that these grants would be honored. However, as some other contemporary counterparties would attest, Uncle Sam’s word was not always good. The majority of claims were appealed from the Public Land Commission to the US District Court, with many appealed to the US Supreme Court. The costs and delays of litigation, combined with natural disasters such as the Noachian Deluge of 1862, caused many Californios to go bankrupt and lose their land.

While ranchos in the best locations for agriculture were soon subdivided for smaller farms, others have held together to the present day. The best known examples in Southern California are Tejon Ranch, which includes the old Rancho el Tejon and three other ranchos, occupying over 400 square miles in the Transverse Ranges near where the 5 descends the Grapevine to the Central Valley, and Irvine Ranch, which was assembled from three ranchos and comprises about 18% of Orange County.

Despite having been heavily developed and subjected to the relentless grid of the USPLSS, the influence of the ranchos is not hard to find. Manning Ave separates Cheviot Hills from Palms – that is, Rancho Rincon de los Bueyes from Rancho la Ballona, and the otherwise inexplicable line from Airdrome St to the northern boundary of the Hillcrest Country Club in turn separates Rincon de los Bueyes from Rodeo de las Aguas.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Note: the overlay is slightly off.

Other ranchos were developed later than LA’s Westside and are even easier to find, and have a very large impact on development patterns. Consider Irvine Ranch: it occupies almost one-fifth of the land in a county with population over 3 million, and is held by the Irvine Company, a private corporation whose shares are held entirely by one person. There is nothing comparable to this on the east coast. Development in Irvine progresses south, following California suburban patterns.


Irvine & Lake Forest are well on their way to being denser than Atlanta.

Further south, Orange County continues to develop on the old ranchos; Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo were both developed on the old Rancho Mision Vieja. Large portions of the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo have also been contributed as permanent open space.

From the perspective of suburbanization, the ranchos lend themselves to large master plans; with typical California development patterns, this can yield a surprising amount of density, though no one would mistake it for urban.


So, what patterns do you see around your metro area? Are there other North American patterns to consider? What challenges and opportunities do you see for each pattern?