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Changing Land Use Patterns in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: A Case Study of Cameron and Hidalgo Counties

Charles J. Ellard, J. Michael Patrick


Rapid urbanization has been a significant characteristic of large parts of the U.S.-Mexico border region for several decades. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Map I), the use of land for agricultural or urban purposes is becoming a source of conflict. Rapid population growth in the 1970s (4.35 percent per annum) has raised questions regarding competing resource uses and environmental concerns, particularly with respect to land and water.

This article provides a description and analysis of changing land use patterns, urban and agricultural, in the Rio Grande Valley counties of Cameron and Hidalgo in the 1970s. An analysis of the spatial shifts in population and land use is presented on the basis of examining general census and agricultural census data. Even though these independent data sets do not permit a direct presentation of the growing competition for land between urban and agricultural uses, some tentative conclusions are possible.

Population data from 1970 and 1980 for Cameron and Hidalgo counties were assembled and analyzed on the basis of census tracts. Split tracts, where city boundaries overlapped two or more tracts, were identified. Within the tracts and split tracts rural and urban segments were delineated on the basis of population density: 500 persons or more per square mile constituting urban and less than 500 persons per square mile constituting rural. Using census data, 243 comparable segments were identified. There was very little change in the definition of census tracts between the 1970 and 1980 censuses, and these changes were accounted for in the summation process. The delineation of population and geographical areas permitted the comparative analysis of city and non-city areas of Cameron and Hidalgo counties on a rural and urban basis.

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Print ISSN: 0886-5655
Online ISSN: 2159-1229