By Lisa Lambert
(Reuters) - More Americans are living in cities now than a decade ago, according to U.S. Census data released on Monday.
The most urban state is California - one that dominates the popular imagination as a land of empty deserts, open beaches and thick redwood forests - the Census numbers showed.
In 2010, a total of 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, up from 79 percent in 2000.
Conversely, 19.3 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas in 2010, down from 21 percent in 2000.
At the same time, the population of urban areas grew by 12.1 percent, much faster than the country's growth rate of 9.7 percent from 2000 to 2010.
More people residing in urban areas could drive up demand for housing, public transportation, road repairs and social services such as schools and healthcare, at a time when city budgets are starving from cuts in state aid and lower property-tax revenues.
In some places, the growth rate was more than 50 percent, including Charlotte, North Carolina, where the population increased by 64.6 percent over the decade.
Altogether, there are 486 urbanized areas in the United States. They have an overall population density of 2,534 people per square mile.
CROWDED IN CALIFORNIA
Almost all Californians, 95 percent, live in urban areas, and the state has the largest urban population, 35.4 million. Out of the 10 most densely populated areas in the entire country, seven are in the Golden State, the Census found.
The area made up of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim is the second-most populated in the country, with more than 12.1 million residents. It is also the most densely populated.
"Even though you think of the West as these wide open spaces, many of these people are living in highly dense urban areas," said William Frey, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in metropolitan demographics.
One reason for such density is simply that much of the land in western states is off-limits, used by the federal government for national parks, defense, and other endeavors, Frey said.
NEW YORK STILL NO. 1
The New York and Newark area is still the most populous, with 18.4 million residents, a position it has held since the U.S. Census first defined urbanized areas in 1950.
Chicago is third.
Among urbanized areas with populations of 1 million or more, Charlotte grew at the fastest rate, followed by Austin, which increased 51.1 percent, and the part of Nevada encompassing Las Vegas and Henderson, which rose 43.5 percent over the decade.
Charlotte and Austin also had the highest rates of land area change, with Charlotte's geography increasing by 70.5 percent and Austin's by 64.4 percent, the Census found.
"It isn't just migration," Frey said. "It's that urbanized areas are bigger in size."
For example, the population of Houston increased by 29.4 percent over the decade and its land area by 28.2 percent, the Census found, speaking to a high rate of development.
As a result of the growth in population and geography, the Census identified 36 new urbanized areas, which it defines as "densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas" with populations of 50,000 or more.
The Midwest dominated the birth of new major cities, with Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Grand Island, Nebraska; Manhattan, Kansas, and Midland, Michigan, all joining the ranks. Arizona's Lake Havasu City and Sierra Vista are also now considered urbanized areas.
Meanwhile, Williamsburg, Virginia, grew enough to be split from the larger Virginia Beach area.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jan Paschal)