Tag Archives: land use

County Size, Part 2

In a previous post, we looked at county sizes across the US based on their land area. Let’s do a quick follow up and look at county size based on population.

There are 3,142 counties (and county-equivalents) in the US. Because there are many counties with small populations and relatively few counties with very large populations, it makes sense to group them on a logarithmic scale. We’ll look at the number of counties in each of the following population ranges:

  • Below 1,000 (<1k)
  • 1,000-10,000 (1k-10k)
  • 10,000-100,000 (10k-100k)
  • 50,000-100,000 (50k-100k)
  • 100,000-500,000 (100k-500k)
  • 500,000-1,000,000 (500k-1m)
  • 1,000,000-10,000,000 (1m-10m)
  • 10,000,000 and up (>10m)

The number of counties in each range is shown below.


Over two-thirds of counties have population less than 50k, with almost half of all counties in the US falling into the 10k-50k range. There are 42 counties with 1m-10m people, and of course, one unique county with over 10m 😉

Some other interesting data points on county sizes:

  • The average county size is just over 100k (101,482 to be exact).
  • The median county size is 25,715 (half of all counties have a smaller population).
  • The population weighted average county size is about 1,150,000.
  • The median American lives in a county with population 473,279 (Staten Island). Half of all Americans live in larger counties and half live in smaller counties.

Here’s the breakdown by how many people live in each range, along with the population change for each range from 2010 to 2014:


The striking thing here is the difference in population growth. Counties under 50k people shrank, and counties in the 50k-100k grew slowly, at 1.29%. Population growth was much stronger in counties above 100k people. Even LA County, with its high housing costs and large population base, grew at almost 3%, just below the national growth rate of 3.07%. The fastest growth was in the 1m-10m range, followed by the 500k-1m range.

I wanted to investigate in a little more detail, so for each population range, I sorted counties by growth rates. The table below shows the results


For the three groups below 50k (under 1k, 1k-10k, and 10k-50k), about two thirds of counties lost population between 2010 and 2014. For the 50k-100k range, just over one third of counties lost population. For the 100k-500k range, just under 20% of counties lost population. Of the 136 counties with population above 500k, only 6 lost population. These were Wayne MI (Detroit), Cuyahoga OH (Cleveland), New Haven CT, Monmouth NJ (NYC burbs), Montgomery OH (Dayton), and Camden NJ.

This stark difference between small counties and large counties reflects recent trends in the US of large metropolitan areas gaining population while rural areas and small cities struggle or decline.

The US is a big place, and it would foolhardy to try to come up with overarching reasons. Different regions struggle for different reasons: rural counties in the High Plains have been shrinking for decades due to the inherent difficulty of dryland farming, small industrial cities have not been able to renew themselves the same way larger cities did, and coal mining counties in places like West Virginia have been hammered by low coal prices.

At a macro level, no one really knows how to create local economic prosperity in these places. Many people expected better communications technology (the internet) to make small cities and rural areas more connected, making it easier for people to work remotely and spread prosperity. That hasn’t happened. Why is anyone’s guess. For now, the important thing for those of us in large counties is to support policies that allow the creation of more housing, to allow people from small cities and rural areas to be able to move to places where they have more opportunities.

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?

‘Round Palms – Hannum Drive

Way overdue for another look at land development patterns in Palms. As we’ve seen before, Palms isn’t just dingbats – there’s a healthy proportion of newer buildings along with some original single-family houses. Busier streets like Motor, Clarington, and Palms Boulevard itself have transitioned to apartment houses almost entirely. However, today’s tour takes us down Hannum Drive, a quiet side street that runs for just one block between Hughes and Feris, and still has a cluster of SFRs.

Hannum starts at Hughes, across the street from this construction site, which was SFRs as recently as last fall, when I did my tour of Hughes.


The south side of Hannum starts out in typical Palms style, with two small 6-unit apartment buildings (1963 on the right, 1973 on the left).


Same story on the north side, with three small apartment buildings (a 1954 6-unit building just out of frame to the left, a 1963 fourplex, and a 5-unit building of unknown).


And then, just like that, you’re in SFR heaven the rest of the way to Faris. Here’s the south side, with a string of seven SFRs all dating to 1925-1926.


The blue one even has a sizable yard made out of a vacant lot (I’m inferring same ownership by same last date sold).


The north side has five SFRs in a row, all dating to 1925.


Here’s another shot of the north side. The apartments in the background are on Faris and date to the 1980s.


South side. Cute!


A parting shot back up towards Hughes


Now, you might wonder if this little cluster of SFRs is protected by R1 zoning. Nope, it’s all R3.


This is how neighborhoods grow when you let them. This group of single-family homes is thriving, despite over six decades of apartment construction in Palms. No one is being forced to give up their home. There’s no “incompatible” development – new apartment buildings pop up every now and then, and everything works fine together.

This is also how neighborhoods grow when you don’t abuse eminent domain to assemble full blocks of property for redevelopment. Go back to the top and check out the new apartment building under construction on Hughes. It abuts a solitary SFR. You think the apartment developers didn’t try to buy that lot too? They probably did, but the SFR owners decided they didn’t want to sell. The result is that sometimes a new building is put up on several parcels assembled together, sometimes on two parcels, and sometimes just a single parcel, like a classic dingbat. This produces a variety of building sizes, structure heights, street frontages, and architecture that you just don’t get when you redevelop an entire block. Nobody would ever plan to put one SFR by itself on Hughes; it just happened.

Next time you’re around Palms, pay attention to this. It’s a great, positive example of how single-family houses and apartment buildings of different sizes and ages can coexist – the perfect antidote to whatever you’re hearing from your local NIMBYs.

How to Write Your Very Own Pro-Sprawl Trend Piece

If you’re sitting around reading pro-sprawl opinion pieces by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin thinking, “sounds good, how can I get in on this action”, not to worry. There’s a simple template to follow, as demonstrated yesterday by an article in that venerable institution of urban research, Politico. This one was written by Robert Bruegmann, but it doesn’t really matter. Like 80s hair band power ballads, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.

Anyway, here we go. Items to include:

Generic comparison of cities that, in real life, have remarkably different urban forms: “Atlanta has wrested away from Los Angeles the distinction of serving as the poster child for sprawl.” Bonus points if you use two cities that I chose to demonstrate different types of suburbia.

Everything since 2007? Ignore ignore ignore: “Atlanta, over the last half century, has obviously seen its population and its economy grow faster than most of the older, higher-density, more transit-oriented cities of the United States or Europe.”

Talk about congestion but never mention VMT or transportation energy use per capita: “the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country. . . tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas.”

Assert that transit doesn’t help the poor: “a major expansion of the transit system wouldn’t even benefit most people who can’t drive because the jobs are already so scattered around the metropolitan area, and the poorest people can’t afford the fares.” Oh, you can’t afford a car either? Welp.

Imply or state that expensive cities all have the same land use policies: “it is certainly not true of many of the highest-density places in North America – urban areas such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles—where public policies aimed at curbing sprawl have led to sharply higher housing prices.” In fact, these four places have important differences in land use policy. Vancouver and Toronto are building new towers like crazy, and, especially in the case of Toronto, are cheaper than SF or LA. Vancouver, Toronto, and SF all have significant controls on suburban growth at the fringe, but in LA, you can build all the sprawl you want in the Antelope Valley, the Victor Valley, and Riverside County. I’m still waiting for someone to show me the policies in LA that are “aimed at curbing sprawl” other than maybe these things. Show me! SHOW ME!

Equate today’s dense first world cities with Third World slums and old law tenements: “every poor urban area in the world continues to have very high densities by historic standards, usually more than 50,000 people per square mile. On the other hand, every affluent urban area in the world. . . where urban densities often topped 100,000 people per square mile in 1900, in the Atlanta today the figure currently stands at an exceptionally low 1,800 people per square mile.”

Decry anti-sprawl efforts as unnecessary interference in free markets, while ignoring the reams and reams of regulation that enforce suburban development patterns: “as people have become richer they have demanded more space, and they have gotten it everywhere there has been a truly democratic government and anything resembling a free market in land.”

Studiously avoid mention of any other “historical background” that might explain why US cities started decentralizing in 1950 and why Southern cities in particular are very spread out: “this historical background helps explain why Atlanta, as a city in the affluent world that has done most of its major expansion fairly recently, is such a sprawling place.” You don’t need me to spell this one out for you, right? Wink, wink.

Notably on-point critique of a lot of anti-sprawl activism: “it has been a conspicuous fact of urban life that many of the same people who deplore sprawl at the edge are also determined to preserve the character of their existing neighborhoods in the center.” Credit where credit is due, right? We’re looking at you, Westside, Marin County, San Francisco, and Peninsula.

Ignore international examples like Japan when they might be inconvenient for your narrative: “strident efforts to reverse the course of urban history and push these places back into the mold of dense 19th-century cities heavily dependent on public transportation risk destroying the very things that have made them such magnets for population and economic growth in the first place.”

Easy, right? Crank out a few of these and see if you can’t get a job at Reason or Cato.

To be honest, I wish the criticism of anti-sprawl activism and smart growth was, well, smarter. If you read O’Toole, Kotkin, and Cox regularly, you’ll find that they do make good points. But you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. In a way, the criticisms of dense development are a lot like the “pop urbanist” analysis of cities – unwilling to understand and think about each city on its own terms. One side will tell you that you need more freeways and subdivisions. The other side will tell you that you need streetcars and high-rise development to attract the creative class or Millennials or whatever we’re calling young people with money now. If they say anything helpful, it’s almost coincidental.

Cities are complex. To have any chance of understanding them, we have to be willing to set aside any worries about what a city should look like, and study how they work (or don’t work). And we should be willing to learn from anywhere, but also willing to accept some lessons may not apply. Assuming that all cities have the same problems which have the same solutions is bound to result in recommendations that are embarrassing – or at least should be.