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Stop Sprawl
A Complex Relationship: Population Growth and Suburban Sprawl

A recent survey by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism found that suburban sprawl is tied with crime as a top local concern for most Americans. It’s not hard to figure out why: Americans are sick and tired of losing green space to pavement, breathing polluted air and braving traffic congestion every trip they take.

So why do we keep sprawling and overdeveloping? As Sierra Club's two most recent national sprawl reports have shown, haphazard growth is fueled by a complex mix of billions of dollars in government subsidies and poor federal, state and local planning policies that in some cases make it hard not to sprawl. And in certain regions, rapid population growth exacerbates the problem.

There are solutions. Cutting the subsidies that feed sprawl and reinvesting in existing communities can help us rein in suburban sprawl. Smart-growth techniques can channel growth away from open space and sensitive habitat into areas with established infrastructure and existing resources.

But no matter how smart the growth or how good the planning, a rapid increase in population can overwhelm a community's best efforts – and that’s exactly what’s happening in some areas in the United States. That's why it is essential to work for population stabilization as well as advocating for smart growth. A tried-and-true way of easing population pressures is better family planning, and the Sierra Club works to promote increased education and resources for families and their future. And where applicable, the Sierra Club continues to educate the public about population growth as a factor that contributes to sprawl.

Land Consumption Exceeds Population Growth Nationally

Overall, land consumption is outpacing population growth by a great deal. Former mayor of Albuquerque and author David Rusk studied 213 urbanized areas and found that between 1960 and 1990 population increased from 95 million to 140 million (47%) while urbanized land increased from 25,000 square miles to 51,000 square miles (107%)1. Data collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its State of the Cities 2000 report (1994-1997 time period)2 shows a continuation of this trend: Our urban areas are expanding at about twice the rate that the population is growing.

A breakdown of the data regionally shows some significant variations. In some areas of the United States, metropolitan area sprawl is largely a consequence of flight from central cities, but in other parts of the country, net population growth is playing a larger role in exacerbating sprawl. Population growth is clearly a bigger factor in many parts of the South and the West than in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, particularly along the coasts.3 In fact, according to a recent study of 277 metropolitan areas, from 1960-1990 our western cities nearly doubled in population, southern cities increased 70%, and cities in the Midwest and the Northeast grew by a more modest 25% and 12.5% respectively.4

The Midwest and Northeast: Flight Begets Sprawl

Sprawl in many parts of the Midwest and Northeast is largely a product of poor land-use planning, irresponsible development and the migration of people out of the cities and into the suburbs. In these communities, poor planning and lack of regional cooperation play larger roles than net population growth than driving sprawl.

In these areas, sprawl is being created by people searching for an escape from traffic, crime, lack of green spaces, and poor schools in the city. This leads to a loss of open space and farmland in the new suburbs that spring up, while urban areas are left to decay. Areas suffering from this type of flight frequently get caught in a vicious circle of fright, flight, and blight. As affluent residents flee, the quality of schools declines, crime increases, green spaces shrink, and infrastructure is neglected - leading to more flight.

Some notable examples of this phenomenon include Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago. From 1970 to 1990, Detroit’s population shrank by 7% but its urbanized area increased by 28%. Pittsburgh’s population shrank 9% in the same period while its area increased by 30%. Chicago’s population did increase between 1970 and 1990 by one percent. Meanwhile, its urbanized area grew by 24%.5

The West and South: Population Growth Plays A Role

Southern and western regions are also sprawling for some of the same reasons, but in many of these areas, population growth adds to the other pressures that create sprawl and exacerbates the problem.6

Several good examples include Nashville, Charlotte, San Jose and Phoenix. Between 1970 and 1990, Nashville’s population grew by 28% while its urbanized area grew by 41%. Charlotte’s population grew by a significant 63% during this period while its urbanized area grew by a staggering 129%.

However, San Jose’s population grew by 40% during this period, while its urbanized area grew by 22%. Phoenix sprawl provides a similar picture: while its population grew 132% from 1970 to 1990, its urbanized area grew by a similarly significant 91%. Of course, Phoenix has a lot of catching up to do in the growth management realm: From 1950 to 1970, while its population grew 300%, its urbanized area grew by an incredible 630%.7

Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign

There are many different reasons why sprawl is such a problem, and net population growth is clearly a factor in many western and southern states. However, while rapidly growing areas are eating up open space and farmland at the annual rate of more than a million acres, many established communities continue to see their populations decline and vacant land go unused. Sprawl does not have the same cause in every community. The solutions to a particular community’s sprawl problems will depend on the forces at work in the area.

The Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign educates the public, news media and policymakers about the causes of sprawl and policy solutions. Revitalizing urban areas, making better use of vacant land in inner cities, and reducing consumption of natural resources can help reduce sprawl. Smart growth can play an important role in reducing the impacts from sprawl in areas with growing populations through better growth management. This means consuming less by adopting new growth patterns.

But, if current trends continue, the U.S. population will double by the year 2100. This is why the Sierra Club is committed to stabilizing population growth by advocating for comprehensive family planning education and resources.In the United States, where family planning services have long been under attack, the Sierra Club is working with allies to increase funding for and access to these services.

The Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign is committed to educating the public about the connections between sprawl and population growth. For instance, our 1998 report "The Dark Side of An American Dream" used population growth as one of several indicators of the most sprawl threatened cities. Both "Sprawl Costs Us All" and "Solving Sprawl" make an explicit call to stabilize population growth noting that "No matter how smart the growth, a rapid increase in population can overwhelm our best efforts." Our most recent report, “Smart Choices or Sprawling Growth,” documented good and bad developments in every state. Where appropriate, it highlighted the impacts of population growth on suburban sprawl. In 2001, the Challenge to Sprawl Campaign is also planning to publish a white paper on sprawl and population growth.

The Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign understands that we must continue to educate Americans about the links between population growth and sprawl. Otherwise, our best efforts to curb sprawl may fall short.


1. "Debate on Theories of David Rusk," The Regionalist, Fall 1997.
2. "The State of the Cities 2000," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2000.
3. Diamond and Noonan, Land Use in America, Island Press 1996, p. 87; Benfield, Raimi, and Chen, Once There Were Greenfields, Natural Resources Defense Fund, p. 5; Porter, Managing Growth in America's Communities, Island Press 1997, p. 4; See also Bartlett, Mageean, O'Connor, "Residential Expansion as a Continental Threat to U.S. Coastal Ecosystems, Population and Environment, Volume 21, Number 5, May 2000.
4. Janet Rothenberg Pack, "Metropolitan Areas: Regional Differences," Brookings Review, Fall 1998, p. 27.
5. U.S. Census Bureau.
6. Bartlett, Mageean, O'Connor, "Residential Expansion as a Continental Threat to U.S. Coastal Ecosystems, Population and Environment, Volume 21, Number 5, May 2000.
7. U.S. Census Bureau.

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