Sub-county Spatial Patterns of Development from 1940-1990 in Wisconsin’s North Woods

Hammer, Roger B., Paul Voss, and Volker C. Radeloff
Working paper no. 2002-13


While ample data on demographic change in local communities spanning numerous decades are available from the decennial censuses and other sources, information on change in the geographic distribution of population within local communities is virtually nonexistent. Municipal boundary changes, which reflect political change rather than geographic change in the distribution of a community’s population, confound analyses of population change. Our main objective is to analyze housing change from 1940 to 1990 across the Wisconsin North Woods region at a fine spatial resolution. Our second objective is to introduce a new methodology to estimate this housing change using the “year housing unit built” question from the 1990 census, combined with county-level housing unit counts from previous censuses. Our estimates of housing density over the 50-year period demonstrate considerable change in Wisconsin’s North Woods. The percentage of land with fewer than five housing units per square mile has declined while higher density areas have expanded, especially in the counties near the Minneapolis – St. Paul and Green Bay Metropolitan Areas, as well as a recreational area with abundant lakes. Due to the availability of census data and the limited processing involved, the method can be cost-effectively generalized to virtually any area of the U.S., including multi-state regions. This technique of estimating the growth in housing units in very small areas has practical policy implications for land use planning, forestry management, recreation management, water quality monitoring, reintroduction of native species, and various other land use, natural resources, and environmental issues.