Many Michigan residents may be concerned about suburbanization mainly because of its high visibility. Concerns about the rapid development of land — and the widely reported decline in farmland — are directly tied to things people see every day. Residents observe the manifestation of suburbanization every time they drive to work or go shopping because most people live in a relatively concentrated part of the state. Almost 10 million people live in Michigan, and 82.5% of them live in urban, or "central city," and suburban, or "collar," counties (see Appendix B on page 57)[10]. The urbanized portions of these counties occupy about 10% of Michigan’s land.[11]

Even some of the densest, most populous counties in the state contain substantial portions of undeveloped land.

Michigan’s collar counties — suburban counties that surround central city counties — are the fastest growing in the state, adding 346,074 people, or 10.3%, between 1980 and 1995 (Chart 1). Rural counties also grew quickly, at 8.3% from 1980 to 1995, adding 127,718 people. These people, however, were spread out over more than half the state. Meanwhile, central city counties — those counties with a large identifiable urban core, such as Detroit or Kalamazoo — experienced a loss of 4.3%, or 186,417 people. People are leaving the most heavily populated counties in Michigan and moving to less populated, but nearby, counties. These collar counties were clearly the largest beneficiaries of new population growth and out-migration from central city counties.[12]

Despite this out-migration, most of Michigan’s urbanized counties still have a rural character and feel. Overall, Michigan contains 37.4 million acres of land. The state’s metropolitan areas[13] include 10.4 million acres, or 27.8% of the total land area. Within these metropolitan areas, almost two-thirds of the land is not urban (see box on page 9).

At first glance, this is an odd result. More development means that more land is converted to urban uses. The outcome is nevertheless consistent with the way counties are grouped by the Census Bureau into metropolitan areas. Most counties in Michigan have substantial tracts of open space, pasture, and farmland. Even Wayne County, home to Detroit and the most densely populated area of the state, still has 17% of its land in forest, cropland, water, or pasture.[14]

Overall, 22.7% of Michigan’s land is devoted to uses other than farmland, forest, and water such as urban uses, parks, golf courses, and roads.[15]

Defining Urban Uses

The Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service (MASS) does not classify land in the same way as the U. S. Census Bureau. The MASS definition is much broader, consisting of a "residual" category. In other words, any land that cannot be classified as forest, pasture, cropland, or water is dumped into the category of "other."[16] Thus, "other" includes urbanized land, land devoted to transportation uses (e.g., roads and highways), wasteland, and anything else that cannot be easily classified. This category also includes land used for residential purposes but not in cities, villages, or other urban areas.

In contrast, the U. S. Department of Agriculture relies on a methodology developed by the U. S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau defines an area as "urban" if it meets certain density and population criteria. For example, an urbanized area must have a population of at least 2,500 people and adjacent areas must have a population density of 1,000 people per square mile,[17] or 1.56 people per acre. Thus, a family of four occupying a 2.5-acre parcel of land could be included in an urbanized area while a family of four on a 5-acre parcel of land might not (depending on the proximity of other households and land uses).

The remainder of this study will refer to the "other" category as "urban" while, in fact, "other" is much more inclusive. Thus, the analysis will be overstating the actual amount of urban land in Michigan counties, an unfortunate side effect of the imprecise way the data are gathered and classified.[18]

Not surprisingly, central city counties have the highest proportion of land in non-rural uses. These counties, however, only devote 44.3% of their land to these uses, while collar counties have 38.9% dedicated to urban, transportation, waste and "other" uses. Rural counties only have 17.0% of their land devoted to other non-rural uses. Thus, with the exception of Wayne County and others close to Detroit, even the most urbanized counties in Michigan are still largely rural.

Big Cities Occupy Little Land but House Most People

Saginaw County illustrates how even metropolitan areas can be rural in character despite the existence of large urbanized areas. More than half of Saginaw County’s land (55.7%) is devoted to cropland, 23.8% to "other" uses (including urban uses), 18.9% to forest, 0.8% to water, and 0.7% to pasture.[19] The city of Saginaw consisted of 11,136 acres (17.4 square miles) in 1990, or 2.1% of Saginaw County’s land area. Despite occupying such a small portion of the county’s land area, the city of Saginaw housed 32.9% of the county’s population.

Land use patterns in other central city counties are similar. High-density cities house most of the region’s population but occupy very small portions of the metropolitan area’s land base. Ann Arbor, for example, houses 38.7% of Washtenaw County’s population on just 3.6% of its land area. One third of Washtenaw County’s land use was devoted to cropland and 17.8% to forest in 1992. Kalamazoo houses 35.9% of its county’s population on just 4.2% of its land area. More than half of Kalamazoo County’s land area, 53.9%, was devoted to cropland and forest use in 1992.

This is consistent with national data. Three quarters of the U.S. population live in urban areas that make up less than 3.5% of the nation’s land area.[20]

In fact, Michigan counties are rural, except for those in the Detroit area (see Chart 2). As host to Detroit, Michigan’s most populous city, Wayne County devotes 83% of its land to "other" uses, including urban uses. But the urbanized portion of counties in the Detroit metropolitan area tapers off fairly quickly. While neighboring Oakland County devotes more than half of its land to nonagricultural uses, cropland and forest uses still make up 29.7% of all land use. Cropland and forest uses make up 40.2% of all land uses in Macomb County, 63.5% in Lapeer County, 66.7% in Monroe County, and 50.1% in St. Clair County. Thus, even some of the densest, most populous counties in the state contain substantial portions of undeveloped land.

Overall, about 89% of Michigan’s land area is devoted to exclusively rural uses or exists in rural counties, according to data provided by the Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service (MASS). Thus, despite recent concerns about loss of farmland and rapid land development, Michigan remains a predominantly rural state.