Rurals of Nevada: New Urban Area List (art. 09)
Censuses have consequences. On Thursday, 29 December 2022, the Census Bureau published the updated list of urban areas based on the 2020 Census.
I really need a “Breaking News!” banner. Or maybe not.
I have mentioned since the beginning of this series that the Census Bureau was in the process of redefining “urban area” as part of the ongoing 2020 Census data releases. Since “rural” is defined apothetically as “not urban” by many governmental and nonprofit organizations, any changes had the possibility of changing some important dynamics such as grants, federal aid, access to services, and other issues.
Well, on Thursday, 29 December 2022, the Census Bureau released a new list of urban areas, now based on household density. The complete list was published in the Federal Register. The results are—not much different.
For review, the former model defined “urban” in two ways based on population and development. The first was an “urban area,” a densely developed area with a population greater than 50,000. The second was an “urban cluster,” with a densely developed area with a population between 2,500 and 50,000. As I discussed in the “What is Rural?” article, the population total is used as a proxy for access to services and infrastructure. And remember that the Census Bureau data is the basis for other organizations to define urban, metropolitan, micropolitan, non-metropolitan, frontier, remote—you get the idea.
The new criterion shifts to using households as a measuring unit rather than the population directly, as detailed in an earlier Census press release. The reasoning is that while the number of people in a household changes, the housing unit itself remains in place—creating a much more stable measure. This simple fact also has some rather profound implications, most notably that it actually closely ties infrastructure and services to place better than a population model. A cluster of housing units is going to require a certain level of infrastructure such as water or internet connections. Each housing unit will require roughly the same number of high-end appliances. And emergency services can reach a house whether it has 1 person or 10 living in it.
The new threshold is 2,000 households, with at least 425 housing units per square mile as the initial, developed urban core to start. The urban area then expands until the density drops to less than 200 units per square mile. Given that the average U.S. household size is currently 2.5 people, 2,000 households means an equivalent population of 5,000. There are also some other changes, as Thursday’s Census Bureau press release lists [quoted below]:
The jump distance was reduced from 2.5 miles to 1.5 miles for 2020. Jump distance is the distance along roads used to connect high-density urban territories surrounded by rural territory.
No longer distinguishing between urbanized areas and urban clusters. All qualifying areas are designated urban areas.
I am not sure I am following the “jump distance” argument yet; I need to consider more about that means. But the overall result is that basically the idea of “urban” is shifted a notch, to 5,000 people more-or-less. It also raised the official “rural” population by about 0.7% (to 20% of the U.S. population)—which incidentally effectively negates the “decline” of the rural population discussed so vigorously earlier in the year.
So what does that mean for rural Nevada?
Nevada Urban Areas, 2020 Census
Rather than repeat the entire list from the Federal Register (which helpfully includes three key stats: 2020 population, housing units, and land area in square miles), I am going to break the Nevada components down into some categories that capture what the changing definitions might mean for various Nevada “urban areas.”
Urban Areas which were former Urban Areas (population 50,000 +)
Reno (note: I assume Sparks is included, but that is not clear)
Note these are all areas outside “Rural Nevada” as I have been using the term in this series. I will also add that Las Vegas and Reno have populations above 200,000 (about 80,000 households), which the Census Bureau press release uses as a breakpoint for “top whatever” lists. There is also some discussion of a minimum of 1,275 households per square mile as a “high density urban core.” I suspect that at some point another urban level will be added that captures this distinction—which would eventually result in something similar to the urban area/urban cluster idea. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Urban Areas in Non-Rural Nevada
These areas are located in Clark County, Carson City, or Washoe County—the three urban counties in the state.
Bullhead City (noted as “AZ-NV” in the Federal Register)
Cold Springs (this was the only new Urban area not previously a cluster)
Laughlin (listed separately from Bullhead City)
Former Urban Clusters (which are now Urban) in Rural Nevada
Dayton (divided into Dayton NE and Dayton SW in the Federal Register)
South Lake Tahoe
So, there’s the list. A total of twenty “urban” areas (remember, Dayton has two) in Nevada under the new definition. Of these, twelve are in rural Nevada.
The New “Not Urbans”
A more interesting change is that a number of “urban clusters” which did not meet the new criteria and have been re-classidied as “not urban.” The end result is Nevada’s urban communities were reduced from 25 to 20.
With two exceptions (Moapa Valley and Washoe Valley), all of these are in rural Nevada.
The consequences for these areas might actually be more profound than for the urban areas. For instance, will Spring Creek be more likely to win grants to help with its water or road systems now that they are no longer an “urban cluster”? Is Hawthorne better positioned to get elderly housing as a fully rural area? The world wonders.
Urbanization and the Three Rurals of Nevada
So what impact does this on our study of the Three Rurals? To look at this, I am using the 2020 Census numbers, since that is what the Federal Register notice of urban areas is based on. So these are not estimates, but also they do not reflect any post-pandemic migration. But better to compare apples-to-apples.
Overall, over 92% of Nevada’s households are in urban areas, and 94% of its population in 2022. So it remains one of the most “urban” states. For the three urban counties of Clark, Washoe, and Carson City, over 95% of households and populations are in urban areas. As remote as parts of Clark and Washoe might seem, there is just not a lot of the population there.
For the rurals—they are also not as rural as they might seem either. If we just look at households in the 14 rural counties, 51% of those households are in the newly defined urban areas. If we go by population, 53% of the collective rural county population lives within these urban areas. There is on average 2.32 people per housing unit in these urban areas, which is slightly below the national average in 2022 of 2.36 per household. And these numbers include the seven counties (Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Mineral, Pershing, and Storey) which have no urban areas under the new definition (urban population = 0, or “non-detect” as we used to say in my environmental engineering days). Collectively, rural Nevada is more urban than rural, which reinforces the widely-recognized pattern that most rural people actually live in relative proximity to urban areas.
But, as you might have guessed, this perception varies once we get into the Three Rurals. On the chart below is a summary of the key data we have been discussing. First is the number of counties in each rural region that have at least 1 urban area and the number of urban areas in each region. Next we have the percentage of households and of the population which live in urban areas. Finally is the average number of people in each urban household (remember, national average is 2.36 people per household).
The first item noticeable is that the number of urban areas drops once we leave the Western Rural areas. Over half the rural urban areas (7 of 12) are in the four Western Rural counties. Even Storey County, which does not have a designated urban area but does have some housing which spills over from the Carson City urban area, is in a heavily urbanized area. The I-80 Corridor has two counties (Elko and Humboldt) with 3 urban areas (two in Elko County). The Central Rurals also have two counties with urban area (Nye and White Pine), with one in each county.
But one of those is a doozy: Pahrump. Pahrump’s growing population is slewing a number of statistics about Nye County as well as my analysis of the Central Rurals. Hence the last line of the chart, which removed the Pahrump urban area from the Central Rurals. The result is an astounding change. Not only does it leave Ely in White Pine County the only urban area in the region, it drastically reduces the urban housing and population to less than 15%—not too much higher than the rural areas of Clark and Washoe Counties. The Central Rurals are incredibly rural once one leaves Pahrump.
Looking at the other columns on the chart, it appears that the Western Rural and I-80 Corridor regions are also quite separate. Indeed, it is hard to even call the Western Rurals “rural” given that they have clear majorities of housing units and population in urban areas. Also interesting is the difference in people per household. For the I-80 Corridor, the urban household tends to have more people on average, likely reflecting more families (which in turn is a component of a younger population).
On household size, note that the people-per-urban-household does not change much in the Central Rurals once Pahrump is removed. In both cases, the average household is significantly smaller than in other rural Nevada regions. To me, this indicates both an aging, non-family population and that Pahrump is really inefficient in housing. Indeed, it has the smallest housing density per square mile of any urban area in the state, about 351/sq. mi. while the other urban areas are 500/sq. mi. and up for the other rural urban areas.
One final set of data to consider when looking at the new urban areas. Below I have pulled the same information for each of the seven rural counties with at least 1 urban area.
The clear takeaway is that if a county has an urban area, it is likely that over half the housing units and population is going to be located there. As vast as Nevada’s rural counties are, the population tends to cluster. Both Elko and White Pine have populations close to the 50% margin, and White Pine’s housing is already concentrated in Ely. These two are minor exceptions to the population rule.
But, as in so much else, Elko County is a bit more unique. About half of the county’s population lives in urban areas (mostly Elko, but also West Wendover)—but those areas have a minority of the county housing units. But given the size of Spring Creek and Carlin—both low-density but large population areas in close proximity to Elko—makes this distinction less than it appears.
The biggest difference, however, is the average population per urban household: 2.76. This is a further sign that Elko is growing in ways the other rural counties are not. Lyon County also has a fairly large household size. I suspect this has to do with the young population in Fernley, which is increasingly serving as a commuter suburb of Reno. Fallon, in Churchill County (and also increasingly a suburb), is right at the national average: 2.34 to 2.36 across the country. Most of the other rural counties outside these three, however, are lower. The break is especially noticeable in Pahrump, which is very low for an expanding urban area. These urban areas in the rurals are aging.
Conclusions—Plus ça change . . .
In the end, I am not convinced that the new urban definitions have changed that much for rural Nevada. Erasing the urban area/urban cluster distinction and raising the effective population limit largely just certified population centers which were continuing to grow. Spring Creek, Battle Mountain, and to a lesser extent Yerington are growing, but are also spread out locations (low housing density). The one new urban area—Cold Springs, on US-395 along the California border—is the result of Reno’s increase in size.
One area where I do see an impact is my argument about the city of Elko (the Elko-Spring Creek complex) and its transition to an “urban area.” I do think there is a fundamental change coming which has far more to do with economics than demographics alone. For me, statistics such as the fact that Winnemucca and Ely are more concentrated in terms of housing or population (relative to their counties) might not be as significant as it may appear. The change may no longer be defined simply as a jump to an “urban area” from an “urban cluster.” I also think that trying to use a singular definition of “urban area” to cover everything from West Wendover to the New York or Los Angeles megapolises is going to get complicated fast. I expect that a new intermediate definition (or definitions) is coming—but when and how is a question.
Other changes are coming, however. First, the Census Bureau announcement is just the first step in a re-alignment. It is other agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the USDA which make many of the meaningful definitions of urban, metropolitan, remote-and-far areas, and so forth. It will take some time for these organizations to work through the new definitions and adjust policies. We will have to see what this may mean.
Finally, the shift to a housing unit basis may have some repercussions in the future. The idea was to establish a more stable basis for defining urban areas than counting heads. Overall, I think it is a good one. But what this might mean about our understanding of urban and rural might not be apparent for some years yet.
Happy New Year, Everyone!