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Where do people live in the U.S.?

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Each Bright Dot Represents 7500 People
U.S. map illustrating population centers heavy in the east and heavy spots in major U.S. cities.

U.S. Census Map, 2000, Population Distribution in the United States

U.S.Population Distribution in 2000, where one dot equals 7500 people, public domain, U.S. Census

This U.S. Census map hasn't changed much since the 1950s. Many people in the United States still live in the Northeast. Population clusters are also found on the Gulf Coast and the California coast. For this reason, North America's most popular house styles reflect building traditions and preferences that evolved in these regions.

Why is population distribution important to architecture?

Where we live shapes how we live. Factors that influence the architecture of single-family and multi-family housing include:

  • Climate, landscape, and available materials.
    Early homes built in the forested New England were often constructed of wood. In the arid Southwest, adobe and stucco were commonly used. Sometimes the landscape itself can inspire new approaches to home construction. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style house mimics the prairie of the American Midwest, with low horizontal lines and open interior spaces.
  • Cultural traditions and local building practices.
    Georgian and Cape Cod houses along the eastern coast of the U.S. reflect ideas brought from England and northern Europe. In contrast, Mission style homes show the influence of Spanish missionaries in California. Other parts of the country carry the architectural legacy of Native Americans and early European settlers.
  • Economic factors and social patterns.
    During Victorian times, homes were constructed to accommodate large, extended families. The floor plan of a 1900 House contained many small rooms connected by hallways and stairs. After the Great Depression, North American tastes turned to small, uncomplicated Minimal Traditional homes. During the post-WWII population boom, economical, single story Ranch houses became the favored style. It's no wonder, then, that homes in older neighborhoods look very different than homes in recently developed areas. Learn more at our Guide to Mid-Century Homes, 1930-1965.
  • Technological advances.
    The rise of industrialization transformed housing throughout the U.S. Mass production made decorative trim affordable for Victorian families, so that even a modest farmhouse could sport Carpenter Gothic details. In the mid-twentieth century, architects began to experiment with industrial materials and manufactured housing. Economical prefab housing meant that real estate developers could quickly build entire communities in rapidly growing parts of the country.

How did America grow? Suburbs, exurbs, and sprawl!

To accommodate a population moving westward in the mid-1800s, William Jenney, Frederick Law Olmsted, and other thoughtful architects designed planned communities such as Riverside, Illinois. In the mid-1900s, suburbs became something different.

After World War II, U.S. servicemen returned to start families and careers. The federal government provided financial incentives for home ownership, education, and easy transportation. Nearly 80 million babies were born during the Baby Boom years of 1946 to 1964. Developers and builders bought tracts of land near urban areas, built rows and rows of homes, and created what some have called unplanned-planned communities, or sprawl. In their book Suburban Nation, authors Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck suggest that this lack of planning created an ugly America.

Exurbia, instead of suburbia, is more prevalent in the South and Midwest, according to a Brookings Institution report. Exurbia includes "communities located on the urban fringe that have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth." These "commuter towns" or "bedroom communities" are differentiated from suburban communities by fewer houses (and persons) occupying the land.

How do we know where people live?

The first U.S. Census began on August 2, 1790—a mere nine years after the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorkville (1781) and only one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified (1789). Where people live is important to American democracy, because the population determines representation and the makeup of Congress. Population distribution maps from the Census Bureau are also helpful to homeowners trying to find out when and why their old house was built.

How has the population distribution changed since 1790?

Census maps "paint a picture of the westward expansion and general urbanization of the United States," says the U.S. Census Bureau. Where did people live at certain times in history?

  • 1790: original 13 colonies along the East coast
  • 1850: Midwest settled, no farther west than Texas; half of the country, west of the Mississippi River, remains unsettled
  • 1900: the western frontier has been settled, but the largest population centers remain in the East
  • 1950: urban areas have grown large and dense in a post-war Baby Boom

Explore the history of a nation... in just a few steps.

You don't have to travel the entire continent to witness the transformation of American house styles. Take a walk through your own community! How many different house styles do you see? As you move from older neighborhoods into newer developments, do you notice a shift in architectural styles? What factors do you think influenced these changes? What changes would you like to see in the future? Share your dreams for an ideal neighborhood below.

How Old Is My House? >>

Sources: Census of Population and Housing: 1790 Census at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1790.html; 1790 Population Map; Growth & Distribution of Cities 1790-2000; History: Population Distribution Over Time. United States Census Bureau. "Finding Exurbia: America's Fast-Growing Communities at the Metropolitan Fringe," report by Alan Berube, Audrey Singer, and William H. Frey, Brookings Institution, October 2006. Websites accessed October 20, 2012.

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