Mapping the boundaries of the Midwest

Mapping the Midwest has now become a crowdsourced project through asking “What’s the Midwest to you?”

That’s the question design and planning firm Sasaki Associates is asking visitors to its new exhibit, “Reinvention in the Urban Midwest,” which opens at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space this week. The project includes an interactive survey that contains a timeless challenge: Draw the geographic boundaries of what counts as the U.S. Midwest…

Judging by the maps drawn by others and myself, it appears Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are the states of most contention. I personally felt I had no choice but to cut some of them in half. Perhaps the correct answer is still the textbook answer: the states of most intensified yellow (at least as identified by those who’ve lived in the Midwest the longest) make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to the east, plus Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota to the west.  (As a commenter pointed out, cartographer and historian Bill Rankin has also done a Midwest mapping project, in which he overlaid 100 different maps of the Midwest and made the confounding observation that  “no area that was included on every single map”.)

So the geographic boundaries of what most Americans consider the Midwest aren’t exactly clear, but Sasaki has also included another set of maps that reveal a much less murky truth: the Midwest has urbanized in a vastly different way from the rest of the United States. The graphic below maps out the population densities found in urban areas from four U.S. regions in 2010 (a darker shade signifies a larger, denser population)…

The Midwest is characterized by small but strong urban centers that transition sharply to rural surroundings. This pattern has of course grown from the region’s historical focus on agricultural land use. Sasaki’s recent work in Iowa suggests a continued population decline in rural areas but growing population density in more urban areas. However, the growth of urban areas in the Midwest is not uniform. The firm has further identified that agricultural cities in the plains sub-region, such as Des Moines, Iowa, or Lincoln, Nebraska, are indeed growing due to factors like de-ruralization and in-migration to city centers, while traditionally heavy-industry cities in the forest sub-region, such as Milwaukee or St. Louis, are still losing population.

One takeaway: the Midwest is a fuzzily-defined entity that perhaps has more to do with perceptions and culture than it does with exact geography. This would be aided by then asking people who drew the maps to then type in words they associate with the Midwest. I like the contrasting maps between those who have spent more of their lives in the Midwest versus those who have not: there are some clear differences.

The connection between farmland and cities is a good catch. Big cities like Chicago or Omaha were (and still are) intimately connected to agricultural commodities that needed to be distributed and sold through the big cities. For example, if you look at the early railroad construction in the Chicago region, much of it was linked to shipping products from the plains, everything from wheat (southwestern Wisconsin) to lead (Galena) to then distribute further east. Or look at the trading of commodities in places like Chicago and the creation of new kinds of markets. Even though there are big gaps between the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois – they operate as very different worlds – both would strongly consider themselves part of the same region, even if they can’t speak to the deeper ties that connect them.

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