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The Planet
Do More People Equal More Sprawl?

New research finds population growth major contributor to sprawl, rarely its sole cause.

By John Byrne Barry

John Muir said that everything is hitched to everything else. But maybe some things are more connected than others.

Take population growth and suburban sprawl. How much does one affect the other? How linked should efforts be to address these problems? That's been the subject of a simmering debate within the Sierra Club and the environmental community for years. So much so that Club members were asked to vote this spring on a referendum requiring all sprawl materials to acknowledge the role of population growth.

The petition asked: "Should the Sierra Club emphasize both regional and national population stabilization as essential components in all Sierra Club sprawl materials and programs?" Though the board of directors urged a "no" vote, saying the ballot measure was "micromanaging," and Club members voted 33,968 to 28,853 against it, the Club has increasingly been focusing attention on how these two issues - overlap.

Recent research by Cornell University Professor Rolf Pendall has helped to clarify the relationship. He studied suburban sprawl over the course of the 1980s in 282 metropolitan areas and, in a report commissioned by Smart Growth America, found population growth explains about 31 percent of the growth in land area developed.

In the West and South, the role of population is significant. In the East and Midwest, it is minor and sometimes inconsequential. Even in those areas that experienced no population growth, Pendall found an average increase in urbanized land area of 18 percent.

Other researchers have found similar results. David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., studied 213 urbanized areas across the country and found that between 1960 and 1990, population increased by 47 percent while land use jumped by 107 percent.

What is significant about these studies, noted Deron Lovaas, who coordinates the Club's sprawl campaign from Washington, D.C., is that smart-growth solutions, which focus on promoting more compact development patterns as well as channeling development into areas with existing infra- structure, were effective at slowing sprawl regardless of the cause.

"However, despite the fact that sprawl accelerated in the past decade and now consumes about 2 million acres of open space annually," he said, "most states haven't updated their land-use planning laws since the 1920s. Add to this local rules which actually favor sprawl, cities and towns that compete rather than coordinate with one another in pursuit of anything-goes development, plus a mindset that land is disposable, and you have a recipe for continuing, destructive sprawl - unless we fight for strong smart-growth policies."

While multiple causes contribute to sprawl, Pendall and others found certain strategies consistently effective - greenbelts, urban growth boundaries, shoring up support for outlying farm economies and ordinances that require infrastructure like sewers and roads be fully paid for before new development proceeds.

But no matter how smart the growth or planning, increases in population can overwhelm a community's best efforts. And if current trends continue, the U.S. population will double by the year 2010.

That's why it is essential to work for population stabilization as well as advocating for smart growth, said Tim Frank, chair of the Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. The Club is working to better incorporate population messages into sprawl materials, he said. This includes highlighting population growth rates as well as talking about equitable solutions, like eliminating subsidies for "dumb" growth.

The Club has two distinct campaigns working on population-related issues - the Global Population and Environment Program and the Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.

"Though population and sprawl clearly overlap, the solutions and strategies to address them are very different," said Frank, noting that population advocates work mostly on the federal level fighting for funding of international and domestic family planning and navigating hot-button issues like contraception, abortion and sex education. One current priority is overturning the Bush administration's gag order on international family planning, which eliminates funding to any agency that provides abortions or even talks about them.

Sprawl, on the other hand, is most effectively addressed at the state and regional levels. Whether driven by population growth or not, sprawl is often created by people searching for an escape from traffic, crime, lack of green spaces, and poor schools in the cities and older suburbs. The new suburbs gobble up open space and farmland, while older areas are prone to decay, leading to a vicious circle of fright, flight, and blight.

One place where the two campaigns dovetail, said Frank, is improving economic opportunities. "Reinvesting in older suburbs and central cities and revitalizing low-income communities are integral to curbing sprawl. The population program is also committed to changing the economics that tend to spur population growth by providing women with greater employment opportunities."

For more information, see and /population/

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