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Socioeconomic Factors

Introduction - Historical Overview - Socioeconomic Profile

Socioeconomic Profile - Social and Demographic Factors

Introduction | Social and Demographic Factors | The Economy | Projected Trends

The density of Rhode Island's population–it is the most densely populated state in New England and second in the nation behind New Jersey–suggests intense human pressures on the environment. Despite its dense population, more than half of Rhode Island's land is still forested or in agricultural uses. This is because the vast majority of Rhode Island's residents are concentrated in densely urbanized areas, with more than 80 percent of residents living in its twenty largest cities. In fact, one of every six Rhode Island residents lives in Providence. Thus, despite the overall population density, the concentration of the population in a few urban areas has left a large proportion of the land that is relatively less impacted by human development.

The population of Rhode Island grew from fewer than 70,000 persons in 1790 to more than 1 million persons in 2000. The highest rate of growth occurred at the height of Rhode Island's Industrial Period, from 1850 to 1910. The population grew fivefold during this 60-year period, from just over 100,000 to almost 550,000, at an average annual rate of 2.32 percent. Although the rate of growth declined in the Post-Industrial period that began in about 1920, the population has increased another 74 percent since that time.

Agriculture accounts for about seven percent of Rhode Island's land use and two percent of its total employment.
Agriculture accounts for about seven percent of Rhode Island's land use and two percent of its total employment.
Courtesy: NOAA

The population growth that occurred in the twentieth century was characterized by the spillover of urbanization into cities located in traditionally rural counties. In 1900, three-fourths of Rhode Island's population lived in Providence County. Most of the state's industrialization and urbanization was concentrated there. Bristol County was also densely populated, but the total population wasn't great because of the county's small size, which accounts for only three percent of the state's landmass. The remaining three counties were much less densely populated–Newport County because development was dominated by the resort community and the naval presence, and Kent and Washington Counties because of the dominance of agriculture. By the year 2000, over 85 percent of the state's population still lived in urban areas, but one-fourth lived in traditionally rural Kent and Washington Counties. Bristol County was the state's most densely populated county, with more than 2,000 persons per square mile, and Providence County had 1,500 persons per square mile.

This growth, however, has resulted in the land use conversion of about 25 percent of the state's forest and agricultural land since 1970. A recent report from Rhode Island's Statewide Planning Program (2000) states that,

[d]evelopment patterns over the past fifty to sixty years have been characterized by diffuse residential construction, declining forests and farmland, automobile centered transportation systems, commercial strips and malls, and other land use patterns that are commonly described as development sprawl. These patterns of low-density scattered development, while beneficial in many respects, have also exacted unintended social, environmental, and economic costs.

Providence, with a 2000 population of 173,618, is by far the largest city in Rhode Island, followed by Warwick (85,808), Cranston (79,269), and Pawtucket (72,958). No other city has a population greater than 50,000. Warwick is the largest city in Kent County. South Kingstown (27,921), Newport (26,475), and Bristol (22,469) are the largest cities in Washington County, Newport, and Bristol counties, respectively. The twenty largest cities and towns in Rhode Island were home to 82 percent of the state's residents.

In the year 2000, 15 percent of Rhode Island's population was nonwhite. Providence County was home to 85 percent of its nonwhite residents, with 50 percent living in Providence. Providence had the largest nonwhite population (78,952), followed by Pawtucket (17,954), Cranston (8,566), Central Falls (8,108), and Woonsocket (7,289). All five of these cities are located in Providence County. Blacks constitute the largest ethnic minority in Rhode Island, constituting 30 percent of its nonwhite population in the year 2000. Asians constitute another 15 percent, American Indians 3 percent, and persons of other races 34 percent. Persons of mixed race accounted for 18 percent of Rhode Island's 2000 population.

Hispanics, including Latinos of all races, accounted for 9 percent of Rhode Island's 2000 population. Central Falls and Providence had the State's greatest concentration of Hispanics in 2000, at 48 percent and 30 percent, respectively, followed by Pawtucket at 14 percent, and Woonsocket at 9 percent.

In 1998, 10.6 percent of the population of Rhode Island had incomes below the poverty level. This was the highest concentration of poverty in any New England state, and is the result of very high concentration of poor in Providence County. Poverty throughout the rest of Rhode Island was lower than in any New England state, taken as a whole.

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Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program. 2000. Rhode Island land use trends and analysis (including land use surveys for the period 1970-1995). Technical Paper Number 149. Rhode Island Department of Administration, Providence, Rhode Island.

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This site was created through a partnership of the:

Coastal Resources Management Council
Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
Save The Bay®