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Animated Map: The History of U.S. Counties

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Animated Video: The History of U.S Counties

Did you know that there are 3,142 different counties in the U.S. today?

Going as far back as the 1600s, English settlers arriving in the New World envisioned counties as a means of accessible government—a county seat was meant to be within a day’s buggy ride for every citizen.

While the role of counties in local government has remained significant in modern times, their boundaries have changed drastically over the years.

This animated map by Alexander Varlamov visualizes the history of U.S. county borders, and how these jurisdictions have evolved over time.

County Equivalents

Before diving in, it’s important to note a few county-equivalents that function similarly but go by different names:

  • Boroughs/Census areas: Alaska is made up of 19 boroughs, but the majority of its landmass is not included in them. Rather, it’s officially labeled by the Alaskan government as the unorganized borough.
  • Parishes: Instead of counties, Louisiana uses the term parishes because of its French and Catholic heritage.
  • Independent cities: These are cities that operate outside their surrounding county’s jurisdiction. There are 41 independent cities in the U.S. and 38 of them are in Virginia.

Over 300 Years of Growth

The number of counties in the U.S. has increased dramatically since the early days of American history. Here’s a look at their growth since 1790:

YearNumber of Counties and Parishes
1790292
18501621
18702247
19002713
19203041

The first county was established in 1634, over 100 years before the first Census was taken (and long before America gained independence). It was created in James City, Virginia—an interesting location, considering Virginia now has the highest concentration of independent cities.

Why does Virginia have so many independent cities? The state’s separation of counties and cities dates back to the early 1700s. With a rural population and low productivity, it was difficult to establish town centers. After several attempts, the General Assembly gave up. Independent cities were established instead.

Short-lived Counties

Counties as a political organization have been around for hundreds of years, but some individual counties haven’t lasted long.

For instance, Bullfrog County in Nevada was established in 1987 and dissolved just two years later. During its brief existence, it had no population and no infrastructure—and its primary purpose was simply to prevent Yucca Mountain from becoming a nuclear waste dump.

While Bullfrog County has since been dissolved, the controversy around the nuclear waste site is ongoing as of 2020.

Continual Change

The latest official county, Broomfield Country, was established in Colorado in 2001.

Although it’s been decades since the last county was created, there have been continual boundary changes and status updates—sometimes for political reasons. For instance, the Supreme Court recently ruled that half of Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation. While this doesn’t necessarily change ownership, it does affect jurisdiction and county authority.

Though the lines on the map are more or less static now, the invisible lines of county jurisdiction will continue to change and evolve over time.

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Misc

The 50 Highest Cities in the World

Where are the world’s highest cities? This graphic ranks the world’s major urban centers by altitude above sea level.

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Where Are The World’s Highest Cities?

When comparing the world’s cities to one another, we often use defining characteristics—largest, greenest, most visited, highest-earning, the list goes on.

Yet elevation is often overlooked, despite the fact that thousands of cities across the globe are nestled in highlands, plateaus, and mountain ranges.

Today’s graphic looks at the top 50 highest cities worldwide, and compares their altitudes to well-known references (the differences are dizzying).

Cities in the Sky

When ranking the world’s highest cities, we specifically looked at major urban centers with a population of one million or more inhabitants, with an elevation “floor” of 1,000m.

Though you might expect less important cities to make the rankings, 22 out of the 50 highest cities are actually national capitals.

The elevation data comes from the European Commission’s database of urban centers, using Thomas Brinkhoff’s City Population dataset for updated demographics.

RankUrban CenterCountryRegionAverage Elevation (m)
#1La PazBoliviaSouth America3,869
#2QuitoEcuadorSouth America2,784
#3TolucaMexicoCentral America2,648
#4CochabambaBoliviaSouth America2,621
#5BogotaColombiaSouth America2,601
#6Addis AbabaEthiopiaEastern Africa2,361
#7Mexico CityMexicoCentral America2,316
#8XiningChinaEastern Asia2,299
#9Sana'aYemenWestern Asia2,283
#10PueblaMexicoCentral America2,176
#11KunmingChinaEastern Asia1,924
#12San Luis PotosíMexicoCentral America1,873
#13LeónMexicoCentral America1,845
#14KabulAfghanistanSouth-Central Asia1,845
#15NairobiKenyaEastern Africa1,702
#16DenverUnited StatesNorthern America1,673
#17MedellínColombiaSouth America1,651
#18JohannesburgSouth AfricaSouthern Africa1,624
#19SrinagarIndiaSouth-Central Asia1,598
#20LanzhouChinaEastern Asia1,594
#21IsfahanIranSouth-Central Asia1,587
#22GuadalajaraMexicoCentral America1,583
#23ShirazIranSouth-Central Asia1,571
#24HarareZimbabweEastern Africa1,479
#25KigaliRwandaEastern Africa1,473
#26Guatemala CityGuatemalaCentral America1,463
#27TabrizIranSouth-Central Asia1,449
#28PretoriaSouth AfricaSouthern Africa1,365
#29KermanshahIranSouth-Central Asia1,359
#30KathmanduNepalSouth-Central Asia1,353
#31UlaanbaatarMongoliaEastern Asia1,326
#32AntananarivoMadagascarEastern Africa1,271
#33LusakaZambiaEastern Africa1,257
#34LubumbashiDemocratic Republic of the CongoMiddle Africa1,252
#35TehranIranSouth-Central Asia1,239
#36KampalaUgandaEastern Africa1,187
#37GuiyangChinaEastern Asia1,185
#38BrasiliaBrazilSouth America1,184
#39Ciudad JuárezMexicoCentral America1,164
#40BeniDemocratic Republic of the CongoMiddle Africa1,149
#41TorreonMexicoCentral America1,132
#42San JoséCosta RicaCentral America1,129
#43YinchuanChinaEastern Asia1,113
#44CalgaryCanadaNorthern America1,095
#45HohhotChinaEastern Asia1,069
#46BaotouChinaEastern Asia1,061
#47DatongChinaEastern Asia1,059
#48YerevanArmeniaWestern Asia1,058
#49CaracasVenezuelaSouth America1,018
#50MashhadIranSouth-Central Asia1,011

At the top of the pantheon is Bolivia’s El Alto-La Paz metropolitan area, which houses more than two million people at an average elevation of 3,869m above sea level. That’s a city of two million people situated more than 100 meters higher than Mount Fuji in Japan.

The next four are more than 1,000m lower than El Alto-La Paz, with Ecuador’s capital Quito coming in at second place at 2,784m and Colombia’s capital Bogotá rounding out the top five at 2,601m. For reference, that’s more than 100 meters higher than the world-famous Inca citadel Machu Picchu in Peru, which sits at a height of 2,430m.

It’s notable just how mountainous Latin America is. Of the 10 highest cities, three are in Mexico’s many mountainous regions and four of the top five are adjacent to the Andes Mountains.

Asia and the Americas Tower Above

Though it might be expected that countries would have their population centers close to sea level, many instead have followed in the footsteps of past civilizations by building in higher regions.

In addition to many capitals in South America, that list of major cities includes Mexico City, easily the largest on the list as the world’s 8th largest metropolis, Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city in Ethiopia, Tehran, the capital of Iran and most populous city in Western Asia, and Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.

The countries with the most high cities were China and Mexico, with eight each. China specifically had the most high metropolises in Asia, and many of the world’s highest settlements, though most of its major cities lie outside the Tibetan and Mongolian Plateaus.

Regional Breakdown of Top 50 Highest Cities
Central America10
Eastern Asia9
South-Central Asia9
South America7
Eastern Africa7
Middle Africa2
Southern Africa2
Western Asia2
Northern America2
Europe0
Oceania0

As the table above highlights, while wide mountainous regions are concentrated in much of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the Western world is largely located close to the water.

The West Sits Below

The U.S. and Canada each only had one city each crack the top 50 list: the Rocky Mountain-adjacent cities of Denver and Calgary.

Meanwhile, despite the European Alps stretching across eight countries and both Australia and New Zealand having many mountains tall enough to crack the list, both Europe and Oceania had no major city situated more than 1,000m above sea level.

But though most of humanity remains concentrated near sea level, it is impressive to remember that hundreds of millions of people live in cities higher than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest tower.

In fact, studies have shown that living at higher altitudes has associated health benefits, including better cardiovascular health and lower incidence of stroke and cancer.

Regardless if future trends push more people thousands of meters into the sky, humanity has proven that it can prosper.

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Agriculture

Cocoa: A Bittersweet Supply Chain

The cocoa supply chain is a bittersweet one. While chocolate is a beloved sweet treat globally, many cocoa farmers are living a bitter reality.

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Cocoa: A Bittersweet Supply Chain

From bean to bar, the cocoa supply chain is a bittersweet one. While the end product is something most of us enjoy, this also comes with a human cost.

Based on how much cocoa comes from West Africa, it’s likely that most of the chocolates we eat have a little bit of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in them. The $130B chocolate industry relies on cocoa farming for supply of chocolate’s key ingredient. Yet, many cocoa farmers make less than $1/day.

The above graphic maps the major trade flows of cocoa and allows us to dive deeper into its global supply chain.

From Bean to Bar: Stages in the Cocoa Supply Chain

Cocoa beans go through a number of stages before being used in chocolate products.

  1. Harvesting, Fermenting, and Drying
    First, farmers harvest cocoa beans from pods on cacao plants. Next, they are fermented in heaps and covered with banana leaves. Farmers then dry and package the cocoa beans for domestic transportation.
  2. Domestic Transportation, Cleaning, and Exporting
    Domestic transporters carry packaged cocoa beans to either cleaning warehouses or processing factories. Cocoa beans are cleaned and prepared for exports to the chocolate production hubs of the world.
  3. Processing and Chocolate Production
    Processing companies winnow, roast, and grind cocoa beans and then convert them into cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, or cocoa cakes—which are mixed with other ingredients like sugar and milk to produce chocolate products.

Cocoa farming and trade are at the roots of the chocolate industry, and the consistent supply of cocoa plays a critical role in providing us with reasonably-priced chocolate.

So where exactly does all this cocoa come from?

The Key Nations in Cocoa’s Global Supply Chain

Growing cocoa has specific temperature, water, and humidity requirements. As a result, the equatorial regions of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia are optimal for cocoa farming.

These regions host the biggest cocoa exporters by value.

Rank (2019)Exporting CountryValue (US$, millions)
1Côte d’Ivoire 🇨🇮$3,575
2Ghana 🇬🇭
$1,851
3Cameroon 🇨🇲$680
4Ecuador 🇪🇨$657
5Belgium 🇧🇪$526

Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are responsible for 70% of global cocoa production, and cocoa exports play a huge role in their economies. Although the majority of exporters come from equatorial regions, Belgium stands out in fifth place.

On the other hand, most of the top importers are in Europe—the Netherlands and Germany being the top two.

Rank (2019)Importing CountryValue (US$, millions)
1Netherlands 🇳🇱$2,283
2Germany 🇩🇪$1,182
3U.S. 🇺🇸$931
4Malaysia 🇲🇾$826
5Belgium 🇧🇪$719

In third place, the U.S. primarily sources its cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Ecuador. Mars, Hershey, Cargill, and Blommer—some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers and processors—are headquartered in the U.S.

Finally, it comes as no surprise that the biggest importers of cocoa beans are among the biggest chocolate exporters.

Rank (2019)CountryValue of Chocolate Exports
(US$, millions)
1Germany 🇩🇪$4,924
2Belgium 🇧🇪$3,143
3Italy 🇮🇹$2,100
4Netherlands 🇳🇱$1,992
5Poland 🇵🇱$1,834

Not only is the Netherlands the biggest importer of beans, but it’s also the biggest processor—grinding 600,000 tons annually—and the fourth largest exporter of chocolate products.

Belgium is another key nation in the supply chain, importing cocoa beans from producing countries and exporting them across Europe. It’s also home to the world’s largest chocolate factory, supporting its annual chocolate exports worth $3.1 billion.

Breaking Down the Cocoa Supply Chain: Who Gets What

Without farmers, both the cocoa and chocolate industries are likely to suffer from shortages, with domino effects on higher overall costs. Yet, they have little ability to influence prices at present.

cocoa supply chain breakdown

Farmers are among the lowest earners from a tonne of sold cocoa—accounting for just 6.6% of the value of the final sale.

Low incomes also translate into numerous other issues associated with cocoa farming.

The Bitter Side of Cocoa Farming

The World Bank has established the threshold for extreme poverty at $1.90/day. Cocoa farmers in Ghana make $1/day, while those in Côte d’Ivoire make around $0.78/day—both significantly below the extreme poverty line.

Farmers are often unable to bear the costs of cocoa farming as a result of low incomes. In turn, they employ children, who miss out on education, are exposed to hazardous working conditions, and get paid little or no wages.

CountryCocoa Farmers Making $1/day or lessChildren in Cocoa Agriculture
Côte d’Ivoire 🇨🇮600,000
891,500
Ghana 🇬🇭800,000708,400

To make matters worse, cocoa farming is primarily responsible for deforestation and illegal farming in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana—adding environmental issues to the mix.

These interconnected problems call for action, so what is being done to fight them?

Combating Cocoa’s Concerns

Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey—some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers—have made several pledges to eradicate child labor in cocoa farming over the last two decades, but haven’t reached their targets.

In addition, organizations such as UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance, and Fairtrade are working to increase traceability in the supply chain by selling ‘certified cocoa’, sourced from farms that prohibit child labor.

More recently, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana announced a fixed premium of US$400/tonne on cocoa futures, aiming to improve farmer livelihoods by creating a union for cocoa, also known colloquially as the “COPEC” for the industry.

While these initiatives have had some positive impacts, more still needs to be done to successfully eradicate large-scale child labor and poverty of those involved in cocoa’s bittersweet supply chain.

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