Unique Urban Development of the New West

The American West is renowned for its spectacular natural scenery. For decades it has continued to draw Americans and international visitors alike. One popular stereotype imagines the West as a vast expanse of almost empty land populated by cowboys, farmers, cattle, and horses. Yet today, this region of wide-open spaces is very much a place of cities. Westerners are far more likely to live in a city than not. The West is the most urbanized part of the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 50% of the western population was already concentrated in cities. By the beginning of the 21st century, the urbanized population approximated 95%.

This map shows the megaregions of the United States.   Source: National Geographic, 2016 . 

This map shows the megaregions of the United States. Source: National Geographic, 2016

The growth of western cities has, from the outset, been dependent on their proximity to natural resources, coaxing not only an intimate connection to nature, but an integration within it. Many western cities have continued to prosper in recent decades because of the increasing value their inhabitants place upon the quality of life that integrated access to nature provides.

The EcoWest initiative analyzes, visualizes, and shares data on environmental trends of the New West: "The West is as much a cultural invention as a geographical construct, so it’s a difficult place to define. Ranging from the driest of deserts to the wettest of rainforests, the lands of Western North America include an incredible diversity of ecosystems and people.

But in many ways, the eleven states of the American West do hang together as a region. The public domain dominates many states and the landscape tends to be much drier than the rest of the country. It is a land with limited water supplies, but vast tracts of open space, a region where extreme topography gives rise to an exceptionally rich array of species."

Five characteristics set the New West apart:

  • abundant public land
  • aridity
  • rollercoaster topography
  • diversity of species and ecosystems
  • growing population

This animation illustrates five ways in which the New West stands out geographically. Source: Mitch Tobin, ecowest.org, 2013.