Nobody lives here: The nearly 5 million Census Blocks with zero population

A Block is the smallest area unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau for tabulating statistics. As of the 2010 census, the United States consists of 11,078,300 Census Blocks. Of them, 4,871,270 blocks totaling 4.61 million square kilometers were reported to have no population living inside them. Despite having a population of more than 310 million people, 47 percent of the USA remains unoccupied.

Green shading indicates unoccupied Census Blocks. A single inhabitant is enough to omit a block from shading

Quick update: If you’re the kind of map lover who cares about cartographic accuracy, check out the new version which fixes the Gulf of California. If you use this map in your own projects, please save this file instead.

Update 2014.05.01: I’ve received a couple questions about Canada. Just to be clear, this map is of the United States only. It is based on 2010 data published by the U.S. Census Bureau, which for reasons I hope are apparent, does not include data on our friends in the Great White North. For a similar depiction of Canada, see this map whipped up by Michael Chung.

Map observations

The map tends to highlight two types of areas:

  • places where human habitation is physically restrictive or impossible, and
  • places where human habitation is prohibited by social or legal convention.

Water features such lakes, rivers, swamps and floodplains are revealed as places where it is hard for people to live. In addition, the mountains and deserts of the West, with their hostility to human survival, remain largely void of permanent population.

Of the places where settlement is prohibited, the most apparent are wilderness protection and recreational areas (such as national and state parks) and military bases. At the national and regional scales, these places appear as large green tracts surrounded by otherwise populated countryside.

At the local level, city and county parks emerge in contrast to their developed urban and suburban surroundings. At this scale, even major roads such as highways and interstates stretch like ribbons across the landscape.

Commercial and industrial areas are also likely to be green on this map. The local shopping mall, an office park, a warehouse district or a factory may have their own Census Blocks. But if people don’t live there, they will be considered “uninhabited”. So it should be noted that just because a block is unoccupied, that does not mean it is undeveloped.

Perhaps the two most notable anomalies on the map occur in Maine and the Dakotas. Northern Maine is conspicuously uninhabited. Despite being one of the earliest regions in North America to be settled by Europeans, the population there remains so low that large portions of the state’s interior have yet to be politically organized.

In the Dakotas, the border between North and South appears to be unexpectedly stark. Geographic phenomena typically do not respect artificial human boundaries. Throughout the rest of the map, state lines are often difficult to distinguish. But in the Dakotas, northern South Dakota is quite distinct from southern North Dakota. This is especially surprising considering that the county-level population density on both sides of the border is about the same at less than 10 people per square mile.

Update: On a more detailed examination of those two states, I’m convinced the contrast here is due to differences in the sizes of the blocks. North Dakota’s blocks are more consistently small (StDev of 3.3) while South Dakota’s are more varied (StDev of 9.28). West of the Missouri River, South Dakota’s blocks are substantially larger than those in ND, so a single inhabitant can appear to take up more space. Between the states, this provides a good lesson in how changing the size and shape of a geographic unit can alter perceptions of the landscape.

Finally, the differences between the eastern and western halves of the contiguous 48 states are particularly stark to me. In the east, with its larger population, unpopulated places are more likely to stand out on the map. In the west, the opposite is true. There, population centers stand out against the wilderness.


Ultimately, I made this map to show a different side of the United States. Human geographers spend so much time thinking about where people are. I thought I might bring some new insight by showing where they are not, adding contrast and context to the typical displays of the country’s population geography.

I’m sure I’ve all but scratched the surface of insight available from examining this map. There’s a lot of data here. What trends and patterns do you see?


  • The Gulf of California is missing from this version. I guess it got filled in while doing touch ups. Oops. There’s a link to a corrected map at the top of the post.
  • Some islands may be missing if they were not a part of the waterbody data sets I used.

©mapsbynik 2014
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
Block geography and population data from U.S. Census Bureau
Water body geography from National Hydrology Dataset and Natural Earth
Made with Tilemill
USGS National Atlas Equal Area Projection


Mapping the Census: A Dot for Every Person

Brandon Martin-Anderson, a graduate student at MIT’s Changing Places lab, was tired of seeing maps of U.S. population density cluttered by roads, bridges, county borders and other impediments.

Fortunately for us, he has the technological expertise to transform block data from the 2010 Census into points on a map. One point per person, and nothing else. 

Read more. [Images: Brandon Martin-Anderson]

After years of telling married same-sex couples they were little more than roommates, the Census Bureau will finally begin to include them in its regular count of American families in one of its surveys. 

The 2013 American Community Survey results will combine the 180,000 married same-sex couples into its data on the 56 million families in the United States. Same-sex couples have been counted in Census data before, but their stats were never included with the information on “families” - until now. 

Because of the large disparity between the number of gay and straight married households, combining the two is not expected to have a significant effect on the statistics that scholars and planners use to analyze how families are changing. Its significance is largely symbolic of the growing acceptance of gays in American society. …

Census officials hope the accuracy will be improved by the 2020 Census. They are testing questions that they hope to introduce in surveys — but not until 2016. People will be given four explicit options to check about their relationship — opposite-sex spouses, opposite-sex unmarried partners, same-sex spouses or same-sex partners. They also will be asked whether they are in a registered domestic partnership or a civil union.

Our families are no different from yours. Count us equally. Please and thanks. 

US Census: Mexicans, United States’ Fourth Largest Tribal Group


According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Census Bureau titled “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010,” 175,494 Mexicans (Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano) self-identified their race as American Indian, making them the fourth largest tribal group in the United States.

Semillas Community Schools, who first posted the report on their Facebook page yesterday, shared this intriguing bit of information with the question: “Did you self-identify as indigenous?”

If you didn’t, but may have wanted to, you were not alone. The 2010 United States Census was marred by what many Mexicans considered to be a deliberately disorienting census form.

We shared several stories back in 2010 on Indigenous organizations helping people interested in identifying as American Indian and on some working for the U.S. Census Bureau encouraging Mexicans to identify as white.


175,494 out of 31 million Mexicans counted in the 2010 U.S. Census may not seem like much, but considering the confusing form, efforts by some to have Mexicans identify as European, not to mention the centuries of Catholic indoctrination, it’s actually a very powerful statement. It says that Indigenous identity amongst many Mexicans is strong, and although this group is numerically relatively small, it represents a much larger group with a similar heritage.

The fact Mexican American Indians (term used by the U.S. Census) make up the forth largest tribal group in the United States is an even more powerful statement. It directly challenges Manifest Destiny, the white supremacist narrative used to justify Western expansion and the genocide of Native Peoples. The message is clear: This land is still Native.

This also has implications for the Government of Mexico. It says Indigenous identity amongst many Mexicans who emigrate to the United States is actually strengthened once they’re removed from the artificial construct of mestizaje that dictates racial classification in Mexico.

For some, Mexicans identifying as Native American is confusing, or even threatening. It shouldn’t be. It is, however, an opportunity for the Mexican community to continue building bridges with our Northern relatives and other Indigenous peoples from Central and South America. It’s also an opportunity for Mexicans who have little knowledge of their ancestry to begin researching their family’s background. 2020 is just around the corner!

Look for more information in the coming weeks on the ancestral territories and languages of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples.

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Visualizing Which Countries People Are Trying To Get Away From, And Where They’re Going

A new tool combines country-level and census data to reveal how people move across the planet.

The patterns of human migrations around the world are fascinating to think about. Global movements reflect current events—whether war and strife, or economic opportunity and technological improvement—and these patterns also slowly reshape nations themselves.

That’s why it’s worth taking a few minutes to play around with this new interactive graphic of global migration patterns. In an unprecedented amount of detail, the graphic captures the movements in and out of 196 countries over the last 20 years.

More> Co.Exist

Short Blog Census :)

Hey everyone,

Every few months I do a short little census, so that we can all get to know one-another a bit better. Each time I’m amazed by the tremendous diversity and multifaceted dynamics ways in which you all identify and see yourselves! It’s truly amazing the rainbow of racial and ethnic identities, genders, and countries that you all come from. You can see some of the results from last time: here

So, in line with that tradition, and since the family has grown quite a bit since the last time I did this, I thought it would be interesting to do this again, :).

If you have some time to answer the following 3 short questions, it would be awesome and you can answer as a comment below on this post:

Where are you from? What race/ethnicity do you identify as? How do you identify in terms of gender?

I’ll go first:

America/Black (Nigerian & Swedish)/cis-male 

How about you all :) ?

"JOSÉ MARÍA MORELOS, Mexico — Hernán Reyes calls himself “negro” — black — plain and simple.

After some thought, Elda Mayren decides she is “Afromexicana,” or African-Mexican.

Candido Escuen, a 58-year-old papaya farmer, is not quite sure what word to use, but he knows he is not mestizo, or mixed white and native Indian, which is how most Mexicans describe themselves.

“Prieto,” or dark, “is what a lot of people call me,” he said.”


In 1941 the antropologist Ashley Montagu first proposed that the human species had no races in the biological sense; by the 1960s this was the dominant view in physical anthropology and evolutionary biology; and it has been the consensus view in those fields for decades. Scientists now agree that all that exists is gradual variability in what people look like, and in their genetic makeup, as one travels around the planet. In other words, while scientific knowledge has been moving away from race, census terminology has been reifying it.
—  Jefferson M. Fish, The Myth of Race (2013)

Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”

Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.