Using small spatial units to refine our perception of rural America


More than half of the US rural population lives inside metro or micropolitan areas and even at more disaggregated scales, such as the census tracts, most spatial units mix rural and urban population. At a national scale, only 30% of the country are inhabited by 100% urban or 100% rural population, implying that more than two third of the US territory are somewhere in between both situations. As the rural/urban dichotomy appears today to be blurred by the emergence of new phenomena like rurbanization or exurbanization, our perception of rural America may be somewhat twisted and the reality of rural areas underplayed. This paper focuses on using finer-grade spatial units such as the census blocks and block groups, in order to provide new elements about the extension, localization and characteristics of rural America as well as about its inner dynamics. To that end, we analyze and process geographical and social data at these two levels of information, and use population density as a main factor of analysis. This allows us not only to propose new measurement of the extent of rural space in the USA but also to propose a new vision of its spatial dynamics by studying how several social indicators such as income, median age or sex ratio reveal regional and micro-regional variations and situations in the rural part of the US.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    See a synthesis of the three ones at

  2. 2.

    See a table with all the national definitions of statistical urban areas in the UNO Demographic Yearbook of 2005 (notes from Table 6:

  3. 3.

    Changes of the land cover where the original soils are covered by hard impervious surfaces.

  4. 4.


  5. 5.

    This fact has been pointed out in the geographical blog “mapsbynik”, see “Nobody lives here: The nearly 5 million Census Blocks with zero population” (see, consulted on Feb, 3, 2017).

  6. 6.

    The threshold, however, may vary a lot in function of where in the world it is applied, since there are high density rural areas, especially in Asia.

  7. 7.

    Using our definition, i.e. block groups with a population density <70 persons/km².


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This research was funded by the French National Center for Scientific Research.

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Correspondence to François-Michel Le Tourneau.

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Le Tourneau, F. Using small spatial units to refine our perception of rural America. GeoJournal 83, 803–817 (2018).

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  • Rural America
  • Population density
  • Social indicators
  • Rural geography
  • Spatial dynamics