Monday, April 9, 2012

A chaotic map hints at many meanings of 'urban region'

The recent news that the Charlotte "urbanized area" was No. 1 in rate of population growth 2000-2010 among U.S. urbanized areas of 1 million or more brought some local chest-thumping and in some quarters a bit of head-scratching. After all, last year, the Census Bureau told us the Charlotte metropolitan area was No. 4 in rate of growth over the same period. What gives?

The answer is that it all depends on how you define the urban region.  The Census Bureau's six-county Metropolitan Statistical Area is a whole other territory from the "urbanized area." Neither is what many would consider the greater Charlotte metro region. The Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord MSA, for example, includes Anson County but not Lincoln, Iredell, Rowan or Stanly counties. The Census Bureau's "Charlotte N.C.-S.C. urbanized area," by contrast, doesn't even include Gastonia and Concord.

My colleagues at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute include some geographers and map lovers (a.k.a. map geeks) and we decided to take a look at all the different areas that are considered the "Charlotte region."  Here's a link to that article. It includes a large, easier-to-read map of multiple "regions," including the MSA, the urbanized area, the MPOs, and more. The word that comes to mind is "chaos."

Transportation planning in particular, is a crazy quilt of metropolitan regions, known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations. I've written before about that particular nuttiness.

Over at, Wendell Cox calculated the density (population per square mile) of those Census Bureau "urbanized areas."  It turns out Charlotte's had the lowest density of all 41 major urban areas.  Next-least dense was – wait for it – Charlotte's fellow sprawling Sun Belt metro, Atlanta.

So if you figure that urban density is is one way to characterize an area as "urban," then maybe Charlotte's "urbanized area" is the fastest-growing but least "urban."