State Centers of Population

I’m fascinated by the concept of population centers. In the United States the U.S. Census bureau defines the Mean Center of Population as: the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census. Over time that point will change. The U.S. calculation shows a steady westward march with a distinct bend towards the southwest in the last half-century.

US Mean Center of Population 1790-2010
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain

I’m not going to focus much more attention on the U.S. mean center of population. I think it’s already pretty well understood. If you’d like to explore this set of issues in further depth you can watch the Census Bureau map animation and head over to their dedicated site. It includes everything you’d possibly want to know including how they calculate it.

Instead, I’ll take things down a layer and examine some individual state centers of population.

View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

The U.S. Census Bureau calculates state centers every decade so it’s easy enough to drop the lat/long coordinates into a simple Google Map. I did this for the 2010 calculations (blue push pins), and just for fun I did the same thing for the 2000 calculations (red push pins). I’ve embedded the resulting tiny map above for illustrative purposes. You’ll probably want to open this in another tab if you’d like to explore it further. You’ll find two pins per state if you drill down far enough. I haven’t forgotten about readers in Alaska and Hawaii either. Zoom out and you’ll find those too.

The differences in location between the red and blue pins signifies a movement of the mean center of population for each state over the prior decade. Bear in mind that these represent two points in time. They might suggest a basic direction and a possible magnitude but don’t consider them too precisely. Obviously I could improve this by adding a few more decades like the U.S. map but I didn’t have enough time to enter several hundred more data points this morning. It might be worth trying that for a few select locations in a future article if anyone is interested. I’ll have to think about that (not sure where I’d get all the data at the moment).

My mind naturally wanders towards anomalies.


View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

A large metropolitan area in an otherwise sparsely-settled state will pull the center of population closer towards its orbit. The effect is particularly noticeable for dominant cities located near state boundaries. Some of these are intuitive. Las Vegas dominates Nevada from the extreme south, even with a couple of smaller cities like Reno and Carson City to the west trying to offset it. The population center still gravitates towards Las Vegas. Similarly, the Salt Lake Valley pulls Utah’s population center towards the north-central end of the state, to the outskirts of Salt Lake City itself.

Oregon surprised me a bit. I realized that southeastern Oregon was vast and empty so I fully expected the center to land closer the Pacific coast. I didn’t realize how far Portland would pull it north, though.

View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

Nebraska and Kansas confirmed my suspicions. Omaha and Lincoln dominate Nebraska. The football stadium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is sometimes called the state’s "third largest city" on game day; a clear demonstration of that skew. The Kansas City metropolitan performs a similar function in Kansas.

Many of the Great Plains states follow this pattern. They are transitional areas in a sense. They straddle eastern and western parts of the U.S., with people concentrated towards the east and open grasslands towards the west. The population continues to move towards the cities which are found in the east.

New York clearly shows the greatest imbalance for Atlantic coastal states. New York City and Long Island pull the mean center of population appreciably towards the southeast.


View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

Again, let’s bear in mind that I’m using only two points of data. Nonetheless, one can observe fairly meaningful movement in West Virginia and Virginia. Both are feeling the gravitational tug of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Northern Virginia experienced tremendous growth over the decade. The same was true for the three eastern panhandle counties of West Virginia (Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson) which grew at about 25% between 2000 and 2010.

Alaska provides another interesting case study. The mean center of population moved quite a bit albeit it’s a large state that shows greater movement in terms of pure mileage anyway. Anchorage tugged the center towards its borders as one would expect. There’s also a significant northward component I hadn’t anticipated that demonstrates the growing pull of the Mat-Su Valley. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage is a rapidly expanding exurb of the city. It jumped from 60,000 people in 2000 to 90,000 people in 2010 — a phenomenal 50% growth. That might not seem like a lot of people in terms of raw numbers but it creates a meaningful impact to a low-population state like Alaska.

By contrast, the northeast United States displays very stable centers of population. Connecticut’s center, as an example moved maybe 1,500 feet over the decade.

Anyone Want to Visit?

Wfm area51 map en
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

People visit confluences, highpoints and directional extremes, so why not centers of population? Best of all they change every decade, refreshing the list and providing plenty of opportunities to return to each of the 50 states. Some of these are tough spots in remote areas or even out to sea as in the case of Hawaii. I think one of the tougher locations, if not the toughest, might be Nevada. The population center lands squarely on the Nevada Test Range. The military might not look too kindly upon interlopers unless one wants to see the center of population at Guantanamo Bay.

There are plenty of easy occurrences near roads in well-developed neighborhoods. I’d argue that Minnesota is easiest of all: the spot appears to fall directly upon Interstate 94 northwest of Minneapolis. It’s not just near I-94 or adjacent to I-94, but right on the very road surface of the westbound lanes. Thousands of people visit Minnesota’s exact mean center of population every day. I wonder if anyone every realizes it?

Grand Champion

I’m going to crown Nevada as the grand champion of state population centers. It’s skewed heavily away from the geographic center (towards Las Vegas), it’s moving rapidly (again, fueled by Las Vegas) but it’s remote and inaccessible (middle of the desert on a military facility).

I couldn’t feature every peculiarity. Doubtless there are other interesting stories waiting to be uncovered between the push pins if you choose to hunt for them.

Bakersfield: A Better California Capital?

We had a lot of fun and some great comments during the discussion of state capitals most inconvenient to the residents of the states’ largest cities. I’d mentioned that I’d found the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of Population Centers by State from the year 2000 census. Naturally I took the last two questions from the previous exercise and modified them to compare the state capitals with the state centers of population.

Dropping the latitude / longitude coordinates into Google Maps almost always produced a street address. From there it was easy to generate directions and mileage to the respective state capitals. Here’s an example for Ohio.

View Larger Map

I probably could have could have produced even more accurate results. I received a number of fascinating suggestions. However I had to go with what was both easily available and conveniently calculated.

The results were… boringly similar. Juneau is still incredibly distant from the center of population in Alaska (which barely nudges away from Anchorage by the way). Sacramento is still incredibly inconvenient for tens of millions of California residents, and is by far the worst location for a state capital from an overall societal perspective.

View Larger Map

There was only one major difference: Florida. This was noted in a comment by reader "Matt" about ten minutes after I’d dropped the lat/long in Google maps and noticed the same thing. Matt gets the gold star for amazing coincidences. He should go play the lotto this evening.

Jacksonville, on Florida’s northeast corner is the state’s largest city. However, think of all the major cities further south: Tampa; St. Petersburg; Orlando; Ft. Lauderdale; Miami; and dozens of smaller yet still significant communities that line the coasts. Jacksonville may be the largest city but the center of population falls much further south, even south of Orlando, and that’s quite distant from the capital at Tallahassee. This pushes Florida into the number 2 position for overall state capital inconvenience.

Better state capital choices for the five most inconveniently misaligned locations would be:

  1. Bakersfield, California
  2. Winter Haven, Florida
  3. Middletown, New York
  4. Joliet, Illinois
  5. Killeen, Texas

Oh, and Juneau, Alaska is still an outrageously inconvenient place although it doesn’t impact nearly as many people as the others. I’m not knocking Juneau as a town. I’ve been there a couple of times and I think it’s a nice place. It’s still a really poor choice for a capital city.

Are there any bets on the most conveniently-located state capital with respect to the center of population? I was thinking it would probably be one of the really small states or one of those that seem to sit at dead center. The "best" one is neither.

View Larger Map

Maine’s center of population is only three miles away from its capital city of Augusta.

Totally Unrelated.

A bit late (I kept forgetting to post it), but you should absolutely read A Visit To The McFarthest Spot on Data Pointed if you haven’t seen it yet. A personal visit to a noteworthy geo-oddity gains top marks in my estimation. I would have loved to have accomplished something of the magnitude described in that post. Kudos to Data Pointed!