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Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5095

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Derivation of Nationally Consistent Indices Representing Urban Intensity within and across Nine Metropolitan Areas of the Conterminous United States

By Thomas F. Cuffney and James A. Falcone


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Two nationally consistent multimetric indices of urban intensity were developed to support studies of the effects of urbanization on streams in nine metropolitan areas of the conterminous United States: Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Milwaukee-Green Bay, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Salt Lake City, Utah. These studies were conducted as a part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. These urban intensity indices were used to define gradients of urbanization and to interpret biological, physical, and chemical changes along these gradients. Ninety census, land-cover, and infrastructure variables obtained from nationally available databases were evaluated. Only variables that exhibited a strong and consistent linear relation with 2000 population density were considered for use in the indices. Housing-unit density (HUDEN), percentage of basin area in developed land (P_NLCD1_2), and road density (ROADDEN) were selected as the best representatives of census, land-cover, and infrastructure variables. The metropolitan area national urban intensity index (MA-NUII) was scaled to represent urban intensity within each metropolitan area and ranged from 0 (little or no urban) to 100 (maximum urban) for sites within each metropolitan area. The national urban intensity index (NUII) was scaled to represent urban intensity across all nine metropolitan areas and ranged from 0 to 100 for all sites. The rates at which HUDEN, P_NLCD1_2, and ROADDEN changed with changes in population density varied among metropolitan areas. Therefore, these variables were adjusted to obtain a more uniform rate of response across metropolitan areas in the derivation of the NUII. The NUII indicated that maximum levels of urban intensity occurred in the West and Midwest rather than in the East primarily because small inner-city streams in eastern metropolitan areas are buried and converted to storm drains or sewers and because of higher density development in the Western and Central United States. The national indices (MA-NUII, NUII) were compared to indices that were derived independently for each metropolitan area (MA-UII) based on variables that were of local interest. The MA-UIIs, which were based on 5 to 40 variables, tended to overestimate urban intensity relative to the national indices particularly when the MA-UII was composed of large numbers of variables that were not linearly related to population density as in Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Milwaukee-Green Bay.

First posted March 5, 2009

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Suggested citation:

Cuffney, T.F., and Falcone, J.A., 2009, Derivation of nationally consistent indices representing urban intensity within and across nine metropolitan areas of the conterminous United States: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5095, 36 p. [Available only online at]





Purpose and Scope


Compilation of GIS Data

Derivation of Metropolitan Area Urban Intensity Indices (MA-UII)

Derivation of National Urban Intensity Indices (MA-NUII, NUII)

Derivation and Comparison of Urban Intensity Indices

Metropolitan Area Urban Intensity Indices (MA-UII)

Selection of Variables for National Urban Intensity Indices

Metropolitan Area National Urban Intensity Index (MA-NUII)

National Urban Intensity Index (NUII)

Comparison of the MA-UII, MA-NUII, and NUII

Summary and Conclusions

Characteristics of a National Index

Future Development of Urban Intensity Indices

Literature Cited

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