Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The American Territory

1.1. A continent-nation with a dispersed population

1.2. Major geographical areas

1.3. Unfavorable climatic factors

1.4. Physical geography of the US

Chapter 2: Developing the Territory

2.1. Agricultural regions

2.2. An agriculture which does not influence settlement

2.3. The abundance and limits of natural resources

2.4. Working towards the sustainable management of the American forest

2.5. Fossil resources-abundance and dependence

2.6. The case of fossil fuels

2.7. Environmental protection

Chapter 3: A Rapidly Growing Population

3.1. A relatively high fertility rate due to immigration

3.2. Life expectancy and aging

3.3. Aging — regional disparities

3.4. Immigration to the United States of America

3.5. The country’s gateways

Chapter 4: A Multi-ethnic Nation

4.1. Native peoples

4.2. A nation of immigrants

4.3. The African-American question

4.4. America and Mexico

4.5. Geography of the population of Asian origin

Chapter 5: Regional Dynamics

5.1. Main features of settlement in the US territory

5.2. The dynamics of regional settlement between 1930 and 2005

Chapter 6: Economic Change and Territories

6.1. A changing economy

6.2. Economic growth

6.3. Industrial change

6.4. A population on the move

6.5. Migration of retired populations

Chapter 7: A Suburban Nation

7.1. Urban sprawl

7.2. Big cities

7.3. Consequences of urban sprawl on sustainable development

7.4. Urban sprawl is not only a big city phenomenon

Chapter 8: Urban Fragmentation and Sprawl

8.1. Social divisions find expression in land use patterns

8.2. The challenge of governance in fragmented metropolitan areas

8.3. The crisis of cities

Chapter 9: New Orleans in Dangerous Waters

9.1. The physical components of natural hazards

9.2. Increased vulnerability from urban sprawl

9.3. The consequences of a natural disaster

Conclusion: About the Ecological Footprint of the United States and of Sustainable Development in General



List of Tables and Figures




Since its very beginning, the United States has been a land of growth and expansion — a growth that was both territorial and economic and that made the nation the world’s largest consumer of land, merchandise, and energy. Following the Second World War, this growth and drive to expand was introduced to the world as a model for development and was known as the American Way of Life. This model is reaching its limits today, since the Earth’s ability to support such development on a worldwide scale is no longer taken for granted. The world’s leading superpower is now dealing with the challenge of sustainable development.

The United States is a young nation, born out of the Industrial Revolution. The Far West was “conquered” using the railroad and the electric telegraph as tools. Oil exploration began in Pennsylvania in 1859. The US saw the birth of the phone, airplanes, and Internet; automobiles were manufactured in series for the first time in the US. The concentration of these inventions in one single country was no accident; they all responded to a need — the need to overcome the challenge of the immensity of the territory while dealing with the chronic shortage of manpower. These inventions accelerated communications in an unprecedented way across all activities. Thus, despite relatively limited human resources, the expansion of American territory in a short period of time made the country the leading global industrial power, without compromising the nation’s cohesion. This cohesion is sustained at the steep cost of high energy and natural resource consumption. This is why the geography of settlement in the US is a strong indicator of the exceptional nature and paradoxes of this country.

Despite the economic crisis in which it is immersed today, the United States is still one of the richest countries in the world. It produced 22% of the adjusted gross world product in purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2003. With $37,750 PPP per capita, the US is therefore the world’s most prosperous nation among countries with more than 20 million inhabitants. This global economic leadership was already established in the late 19th century, and fed a tenacious Promethean myth. With attitudes shaped by seventeenth-century Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, Americans saw themselves as a “chosen people” and first viewed their wide open space as a type of Biblical “New Canaan”, a territory with unlimited resources, overflowing with milk and honey. Their Manifest Destiny was to make the best use of this gift from God. When for the first time an American set foot on the Moon in July 1969, public opinion was that the United States had reached a stage of development that would permanently preserve it from the tyranny of nature. This belief in the steady progress of living conditions and in the control of our environment no longer exists today.

American supremacy has recently been handicapped by the emergence of new global enemies, symbolized by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. The limits of military power were put under the spotlight and the international influence of the United States was blighted by the military adventurism of the Bush administration in Iraq. Its economic leadership trembled at the onset of the subprime crisis in 2006 which eventually led to the collapse of financial markets in September 2008. Although on a much more local scale, Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans (August 29, 2005) changed the way that Americans view the environment. The popularity of former Vice President Al Gore, who was recently awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, has increased. The unilateral policy of the Bush administration in environmental matters is openly questioned. While Americans consume more than 22% of the world’s energy for less than 5% of its population, they have come to a turning point in their relationship with environmental protection and development. The aim of this book is to address this issue by exposing the situation of the US settlement and population during this current transitional period which is a period that is bound to see the very foundations of the US territory challenged, as well as the end of past development models and ideals.

A young country of exceptional growth

Just like Canada and Australia, the United States is a “new country,” as they were so called at the beginning of the last century. Unlike China, India, and most European countries, the US does not have thousands of years of experience in rural territorial development. The country was mainly populated during its colonization. Native Americans left only subtle traces of their ancient presence. Decimated by epidemics, which preceded the Conquistadors, before the Native Americans even met the first “pale face”, these Native peoples primarily lived on a crop-based economy and adopted a kind of semi-nomadic life as a result of the introduction of the horse on the Great Plains. The story of westward expansion and the development of the US territory has often been portrayed as an epic story [CLA 92]. Considering that the country was born with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it is remarkable to think that a territory of such size was conquered and developed so quickly with such limited human resources. The first census, held in 1790, counted no more than 4 million inhabitants, of which 20% were black slaves, which meant that the average population density was only four people per sq. km in the area covering the 13 founding colonies, between the Appalachian Mountains and the shores of the Atlantic; the census excluded the Native Americans who were at that time considered as foreigners and deported towards the West. The United States experienced exceptional growth in the 19th century. Today’s borders were established in 1853 for the 48 conterminous states. In 1850, there were already 23.2 million inhabitants — once again excluding Native Americans. Expansion resumed at the end of the Civil War. Alaska was purchased in 1867; Hawaii became a protectorate in 1898. There were nearly 76 million inhabitants at the turn of the century, including Native Americans who had been included in censuses since 1880.1 After the final internal “frontier” closed, Arizona and New Mexico became states in 1912. The 100 million population mark was reached in 1915. Population growth exceeded an average annual rate of 2.2% per year between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War, which was a growth rate four times higher than the average rate in the world at that time. This population explosion was fueled by the arrival of more than 40 million people from Europe between 1845 and 1915, by a high birth rate and by a life expectancy that was already higher than in the rest of the world. The US territory still bears the marks of this period of development. Port cities served as gateways to the continent. During the steel industry boom, industrial growth was concentrated in the cities of the Northeast, while the mountains to the West were barely populated. It was during this period that the main regional patterns of the US territory were formed and with the same proportions which continue to characterize the country today.

The First World War marked a turning point. In particular, it marked the abrupt and voluntary end of the great wave of European immigration, which in turn resulted in the relative slowdown of population growth. The lowest growth rate of the US population (0.7% per annum) was observed in the decade from 1930 to 1940. The United States had reached its territorial limits. Its economic and military power now directed at outside countries, particularly to Latin America and the Pacific Ocean. In return, these regions have provided the US with the majority of its immigrants since the 1960s. The 1930s were also the transition from the “paleotechnical” era symbolized by coal-powered railways to a “neotechnical” era dominated by fuel-powered automobiles and airplanes [MEI 04]. In terms of geography, the 20th century was a time for urbanization. The majority of the population lived in cities by the time of the 1920 census and the newly settled Great Plains were already beginning to depopulate. In 1960, metropolitan areas were drawn statistically in an effort to understand the new realities of suburban sprawl. Population growth remained strong. The United States went from a population of 100 million to 200 million between 1915 and 1968. It then went from 200 to 300 million between 1968 and 2007. But over such a long period it could not grow seamlessly. Recent decades — since about 1969 - marked by the unprecedented growth of the information technology (IT) and telecommunications industries, differ significantly from the post-war period.

While the United States may be living proof of the power of technology, which enabled modern mankind to disproportionately increase its control over nature, it is impossible to entirely ignore the environment in which mankind lives. This is why human geography, which studies the territory, is useful for defining the foundations that allow humans to organize their lives and build their societies, economies, and governments. To understand the settlement of the United States is to understand the representations of those people who, for over a century, have projected their hegemonic power onto countries the world over — an act which now carries heavy responsibilities given the increasing dangers linked to global warming. Faced today with the threat of a “man-made” apocalypse, all humans are forced to alter their relationship with territory and environment, and rebuild their societies with respect for sustainable development. Even more so than everyone else, Americans must now radically transform their relationship with the land on which they live. This book explores the fundamental elements of the relationship Americans have today with their territory in an effort to understand the nature of changes necessary at the dawn of the third millennium.

How this book is organized

This book deals with human geography, but not without consideration for the study of American society and the environment in which Americans live. Scales are therefore treated in a flexible way, switching rapidly from overall views to local or regional views in an attempt to understand the complex interactions between society and the environment. Based on a tradition founded by French geographer Vidal de la Blache, we begin with a map showing population densities which we explore asking ourselves, “Why are there so many people in this area?” Each chapter takes a step towards finding a logical answer to this important question.

The first chapter is devoted to the physiography of the United States. Determinism remains an important factor in the geography of existing settlements, especially when we consider the impact of natural hazards. Based on a map of population distribution, we will explore in turn the influence of the environment through the study of topography, geology, and the climates and ecosystems in the US.

The second chapter studies how Americans have developed and used their territory and its natural resources, and offers an explanation of how their awareness of the value of this natural heritage grew, as well as how they envisage its preservation. In this context, we will explore, in particular, agriculture, forestry, mining, and fossil fuel resources, such as coal, oil and natural gas, the use of which we now know is responsible for global warming. Finally, the last section of this chapter is devoted to federal land and protected areas in the United States.

In Chapter 3 we consider the environment in which Americans live, and focus on population growth, fertility, life expectancy, aging and immigration in the United States.

An important part of the work of the US Census is the classification of the population by race and community. The fourth chapter is devoted to the study of these issues, which have divided American society since its inception. We give special attention to the study of the most delicate issues, starting with the “Native American question” followed by the “Black question”, which is today the most heated political debate in the country. This enables us to better understand the contribution of recent immigration to the diversity of this “multicultural” nation; we will study two population groups of uncertain definitions, “Hispanics” and “Asians”.

The fifth chapter focuses on regional settlement of the American territory. It is put into perspective using three carefully selected observation points: 1930, 1970, and 2005. Each is analyzed according to geography and population dynamics. This chapter looks at the beginning of the urbanization of the United States and presents the territory’s urban framework.

Chapter 6 explores the dynamics of regional settlements highlighted in the previous chapter. We begin with economic factors, analyzed through data on employment, and with special attention given to industrial evolution. We then look at internal migration, since the American population is very mobile and internal migration is constantly changing population maps. Special attention is given to the migration of retirees.

Chapter 7 moves to a different scale to further complete the study of the way in which population dynamics affect the territory. We take the opportunity to look at the specific way urbanization occurs in this country. American cities tend to be diluted by the widespread urbanization of metropolitan areas. This phenomenon is not reserved strictly to big cities, as is demonstrated through a brief case study.

Case studies also form the backbone of Chapter 8, which seeks to explain urbanization in the United States through two main factors: segregation and the fragmented governance of metropolitan areas. This chapter focuses on specific examples in four selected metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Detroit, Houston and Portland.

The ninth chapter is devoted to the study of New Orleans and the natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005. In order to understand what is happening in southeastern Louisiana, one must understand the factors presented in all other chapters. The case of New Orleans is also an opportunity to measure the extent of environmental challenges in the United States. This natural disaster may mark a turning point in the history of the relationship which this country has with the environment, and we hope to present the reader with an approach by which geography can contribute to the debate on the concept of sustainable development, which is too often clichéd.

Methods, tools, and acknowledgements

This book primarily addresses population, and census data is its primary source of information. Such a work would not have been possible without the input of key data on the environment and economy of the US. The following major federal agencies have, over several years, provided a wealth of valuable information, reference maps, and downloadable databases free of charge via the Internet: the US Census Bureau, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The author warmly acknowledges these initiatives, since without the visionary policy launched by President Clinton, geographic information systems (GIS), the basis for this book, would never have come into existence.

The author is also especially grateful to the NOAA and the US Department of Commerce project study managers who joined efforts for the STICS (Spatial Trends in Coastal Socioeconomics) program to compile, harmonize, and document databases, which categorized neighborhoods during the period 1970 to 2000. This work enabled us to provide the necessary chronological depth, too often absent from GIS, to understand the evolution of territories over the long term.

Indeed, this book is, first, the result of the creation of geographic information systems. A GIS is an organized set of geo-referenced, graphic, and appointed databases, which constitutes a model of geographical reality. A GIS is a powerful tool which allows managers to reconcile a variety of data using spatial factors as common denominators. It can work at different levels. A GIS consists of five essential components:

– hardware;

– specialized software2;

– databases;

– classification and documentation of this data;

– an expert capable of handling and analyzing the data.

The power of GIS is such that it enabled us to work on the scale of a continent, based on data pertaining to levels as detailed as block groups which constitute the smallest unit of census data freely distributed. It enabled us to work at different levels and to move from an analysis of the entire continent to a study of the neighborhoods of a single city.

The power of GIS can only be successfully utilized, however, using methods that allow the manipulation of massive tables of locally geo-referenced data as well as their statistical analysis and mapping within all of the studied territory, particularly in the case of a territory as large as the United States. This is where spatial statistics, the subject of our previous work [ZAN 05], comes in. This branch of mathematics applied to spatial data is used here for the purpose of mapping with “smoothing” methods which use qualitative data. “Smoothing” makes it possible to provide a cartographic generalization and a reliable map despite the multitude and variety of statistical units used by databases. We therefore have readable maps for the entire US territory, based on significant data collected for each county, which reduce the loss of detail caused by the aggregation of data broken down by state (51, including the District of Columbia). The implementation of this map “smoothing” is done using free software CrimeStat v.3.1, whose existence we owe to Ned Levine3 and which was published with the support of the US National Department of Justice. For this we are most sincerely grateful.

Figure 1. The US territory

Figure 1

1. According to the US Census Bureau official figures, the 1880 census counted 66,000 survivors of more than 500 American-Indian nations living in miserable conditions on Indian “reservations”.

2. We worked with licensed software MapInfo v.8.0® and Vertical Mapper v.3.1® acquired by the Geography Laboratory of the University of Orléans, the CEDETE.

3. Ned Levine, CrimeStat III: A Spatial Statistics Program for the Analysis of Crime Incident Locations. Ned Levine & Associates, Houston, TX, and the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC, November 2004. Dr. Ned Levine, Ned Levine & Associates, Houston, TX, email: