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Urban Demographics- A City Transect

Every ten years, as mandated by the Constitution, the federal government counts
us (Why?). The information gathered by the census has grown and now includes a great
deal of revealing facts about the nature of our communities. Summary data for
metropolitan areas is useful for comparing cities, but doesn’t tell us much about how the
cities are structured. Fortunately the census also makes data available by zip code areas,
which will allow us to examine “neighborhoods”. In ecology, in order to get a picture of
how an ecosystem is organized without being overwhelmed by too much information (or
work), we will frequently run a transect, sampling along a straight line that crosses
through the area we’re interested in. Today we’ll be running transects through the census
data on Portland and one other comparator city (either Detroit, San Francisco, or New
Orleans). Work in teams of 2-3. It may help to use two computers simultaneously, one to
gather data and the other to record it.
The objectives of this exercise are:
1. To gain facility in the use of excel and its graphing function.
2. To learn to interpret quantitative information and to use it to communicate
3. Gain some insight into the socio-economic structure of our city and it
4. Contrast Portland with another urban area.
Examine the zip code map for Portland, identifying landmarks and regions you’re
familiar with. Choose either a horizontal (East –West) or a vertical (North-South)
transect. For E-W begin in Gresham ( 97230 or 97233)) and run a straight line to
Hillsboro (97006). For N-S, begin in Vancouver WA (98665 or so) and run south to Lake
Oswego (97034). Try to hit the central downtown area and end up with between 7 and 10
zip codes (you might need to skip an occasional glancing interception or bend your line a
Two good sources of census information by zip code are the census itself
( ) or one of the marketing firms that uses the government
information ( On the city data site, do not click on the city, but look
to the bottom of the page and click on “zip code”. The government site has the
information in a nice, compact form, but the site may stall after you’ve run a number of
zips and require some “down time”. The commercial site runs more smoothly, but
includes a lot of clutter. Visit them both, enter a zip code and be sure and scroll all the
way down on the commercial site. Find “Median Household Income” What is a
“median”? How might a household differ from a family?
Think about which of the variables listed will give you insights into the nature of
the different communities that make up the city (education, median age, family size,
home values.) Everyone will use “Median Household Income”. Choose three additional
variables. Because the zip code areas do not have equal populations, be sure to use
either averages or percentages (non-english speakers, homeowners, whites, etc.) and
not absolute population numbers.

Set up an excel table for your data (on a second computer?). Have a label row
along the top which clearly indicates which variable you use as some are quite similar. In
the first column list the zip codes of your transect in the order you pass through them.
Allocate a second column for place names when you know them. In the third, list your
household incomes and then your remaining variables in the succeeding columns. If
you’re using the government site add an additional row below your zips for the national
averages which are also provided.
Once you have created an excel table, go to the chart wizard on the toolbar. Pick
an appropriate graph form for these data (vertical bar or line?). Graph each variable by
highlighting the data column to tell excel what your input is. Label the graphs so it’s clear
what we’re looking at. You may go to another marketing company website that gives
some qualitative description of the people living in each zip code area
( Examine your graphs and from them
describe in a couple of paragraphs the nature of the communities and how they change as
you move through the city. Are there any unexplained variations? Have you traveled
through these areas of the city? Are there surprises in the data reveal compared to what
your informal impressions were?
Now take the map for a second city, either Detroit or New Orleans and repeat the
process, choosing a transect that extends from the inner city to the outskirts of the
metropolitan area (Again, aim for 7-10 zip code areas). Are the trends different? How?
You should look at the relevant statistics/demographic data for the entire city and
compare them with Portland’s numbers as well
A report will be due on Thursday 4/23 that includes the graphs and a narrative
interpretation and description of about 2-3 pages. Your report should include a discussion
of the spatial nature of Portland, differences you observe with your comparator city, and
how these quantitative data might translate into the lived experience of citizens of the two