The heterogeneity and change in the urban structure of metropolitan areas in the United States, 1990–2010

Document Type

Article (peer-reviewed)

Publication Date



While the population of the United States has been predominantly urban for nearly 100 years, periodic transformations of the concepts and measures that define urban places and population have taken place, complicating over-time comparisons. We compare and combine data series of officially-designated urban areas, 1990–2010, at the census block-level within Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with a satellite-derived consistent series on built-up area from the Global Human Settlement Layer to create urban classes that characterize urban structure and provide estimates of land and population. We find considerable heterogeneity in urban form across MSAs, even among those of similar population size, indicating the inherent difficulties in urban definitions. Over time, we observe slightly declining population densities and increasing land and population in areas captured only by census definitions or low built-up densities, constrained by the geography of place. Nevertheless, deriving urban proxies from satellite-derived built-up areas is promising for future efforts to create spatio-temporally consistent measures for urban land to guide urban demographic change analysis.






Population, Environmental Risks, and the Climate Crisis (PERCC)