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Go Ahead, Try Drawing an Outline of the Midwest on a Map

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.

Having never lived in or (shamefully) even visited the Midwest, here's the map I drew before looking at any of the other entries: 

The 150 or so survey responses so far is not a huge sample, but the results are already showing some fascinating patterns.

The larger map of the three above is an aggregation of all the responses so far, while the smaller maps underneath depict how the boundaries change between those who've lived in the Midwest for up to 25 percent of their life and those who've lived in the region for 75 to 100 percent of their life.

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). 


Sasaki Associates, Inc.

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.

In the long run, strong migration patterns may impact not only the Midwest’s geographic identity but also its cultural and economic identities. And it’s all these changing identities that are spinning at the center of projects trying to design and plan the "reinvented" Midwest.

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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