The goal of the United Regions of America map is to group all 3,142 counties (and county-equivalent units) into a small number of regions that are each rooted in physical reality while at the same time being recognizable (or at least plausible) their long-time inhabitants. I’ve striven to define regions and assign counties to them on the basis of empirical data and to avoid simply imposing stereotypes. In order to be systematic about this, I developed a set of rules and criteria that I applied as thoroughly as I was able. Where I have departed from them, I have done so for reasons that I will be transparent about.
1. There should be no more than 15 regions total. This is an arbitrary number, but one that achieves the level of generality I’m aiming for with this map. (I tried to keep the final number of regions below 10 or at 13, but these 14 are the minimum number that satisfied the rest of these rules/criteria.)
2. A region must contain at least 5% of the total US population, i.e., roughly 16M. I only made one exception (03 Gulf Coast, 4% of the US population), justified because its distinctive role in oil/gas extraction and the chemical industry affects the entire US economy.
3. The map should not simply replicate already-existing maps: coastal areas, for example, shouldn’t all be assigned to the same region simply because they’re coastal areas, and the same goes for rural areas.
4. The counties of a given OMB-defined metro area should be assigned to the same region. (The exceptions to this were very rare (1.6% of all metropolitan counties) and nearly always to preserve continuity of major ecoregions.) A metro area’s core “urbanized area” may not be divided up.
5. When there isn’t a clear ecoregion divide, a metro area on/near the border of two regions should generally be assigned by first considering the surrounding rural area(s) for which that metro is most strongly an economic hub. After assigning the surrounding rural area(s) to a region, the metro area should be assigned to that same region. (I call this “rural gravity.”)
6. Exclaves (pockets of one region surrounded completely by another) are not permitted. The only exception I allowed (Heartland’s two exclaves in Great Lakes Michigan) is because Heartland and Great Lakes are the only two regions that, at multiple points, have counties for which a case could be made for assignment to either region, and I thought it was important to reflect this overlap. In addition, the counties that qualified for a contiguous Heartland corridor had to be assigned to Great Lakes on account of other rules/criteria.
7. Sometimes the best way to assign a county or group of counties was on the basis of what I call “chaining.” This means that the county/group doesn’t, on its own, strongly qualify (under the rest of these rules/criteria) for assignment to a given region, but it has close economic ties (e.g., commuting or trade/distribution ties) to — or is in the same ecoregion as — an adjacent county/group that does qualify for that region. (This is the basic logic that makes Appohzarka a coherent region.)
8. For reasons I’ll explain in a separate post, regions may not be defined, nor may counties be assigned, on the basis of racial/ethnic or religious concentrations or migration patterns, on the basis of cultural patterns or stereotypes of “what the people there are like.” I also did not define regions or assign counties to them based on political ideology or electoral outcomes, so that political factors can be used as dependent variables in any analysis of these regions while avoiding circularity.
9. In conjunction with the above, the primary criterion for defining regions and assigning counties is similarity of natural landscape: most of the regions are defined by differences between major natural landscapes, and the default is for adjacent counties with the same natural landscape to be assigned to the same region. The EPA’s “ecoregions” classifications are the main indicator of natural landscapes: its Level I and Level II ecoregions provide the core definition for most of this map’s regions, while Levels III and IV can be useful for assigning individual counties or groups of counties. I sometimes consulted other landscape classifications (for example: USDA’s “land resource regions” or USGS’ “water resources regions”) or demarcations of specific major landscape areas in order to refine the map.
10. The secondary criterion for this map is major land uses, i.e., dominant or distinctive industries. The core definition for some of the regions is a combination of landscapes and land uses such as farming or ranching, manufacturing, or natural resource extraction. Some counties on the border between two regions were assigned on the basis of sharing in a dominant/distinctive industry in one of the regions. And some major ecoregions were divided on the basis of different dominant industries. In all cases, empirical data were used to determine dominant/distinctive industries: for example, how much a county’s agricultural land is used for pasture versus for crops; or maps of major oil/gas basins.
11. As much as possible while maintaining the landscape and land use criteria, areas within a given state that are widely recognized by the state’s residents should be preserved. These must be areas that have long been recognized and for which there is a clear consensus about which counties are part of them. For example, West River and East River in South Dakota, and North, Central, and South Florida.
12. In applying the above, the goal is for each region to make sense, or at least be plausible, to most of its long-time residents. County assignments that would seem absurd to many of a region’s or state’s residents should be avoided. And minor deviations from the landscape and land use criteria that increase the plausibility of a region to its long-time residents are permitted.