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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Outsmarting Smart Growth

Population Growth, Immigration,
and the Problem of Sprawl

Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven A. Camarota*
August 2003

Executive Summary

Among the study’s findings
    Figure A: States with higher population growth rates have more sprawl
Why Americans Hate Sprawl
Data Sources and Analysis
    Figure B: Average Sprawl of Cities Grouped by %  Population Growth
Policy Implications

To date, almost all efforts to combat sprawl have focused on “Smart Growth” strategies, which primarily seek to create denser settlement by changing land use practices. Our findings indicate this approach will have limited success in saving rural land from development because it fails to address a key reason for sprawl — population growth. Our calculations show that about half the loss of rural land in recent decades is attributable to increases in the U.S. population, while changes in land use account for the other half. New immigration and births to immigrants now account for more than three-fourths of U.S. population growth. Therefore, population growth and the immigration policies that drive it must be an integral focus of efforts to preserve rural land.

As opposed to the Smart Growth approach, this study takes a “conservationist” approach, examining only the loss of rural land to new development and not the quality of urban planning. We focus on state increases in developed land between 1982 and 1997. We also analyze the expansion of urbanized land in the nation’s 100 largest cities between 1970 and 1990.

At the most basic level, there can only be three reasons for sprawl: either there is a rise in per capita land use, a rise in the population, or a rise in both. Quantifying the relative role of population growth is important because almost all anti-sprawl organizations have focused on Smart Growth and have generally been dismissive of population growth’s role. These groups are not alone. A New York Times editorial in 2000 called it “absurd” to suggest that population growth and the immigration that drives it contribute significantly to sprawl. Our findings indicate that this view is incorrect.

Among the study’s findings:

• The more a state’s population grew, the more the state sprawled (see Figure A). For example, states that grew in population by more than 30 percent between 1982 and 1997 sprawled 46 percent on average. In contrast, states that grew in population by less than 10 percent sprawled only 26 percent on average.

• On average, each 10,000-person increase in state population resulted in 1,600 acres of undeveloped rural land being developed, even controlling for other factors such as changes in population density.

• Apportioning the share of sprawl that is due to increases in population versus increases in per-capita land consumption shows that, nationally, population growth accounted for 52 percent of the loss of rural land between 1982 and 1997, while increases in per-capita land consumption accounted for 48 percent.

• While population growth is a key factor driving sprawl, our findings indicate that Smart Growth must also play a significant role in anti-sprawl efforts because per-capita land use has been increasing. Between 1982 and 1997, land use per person rose 16 percent from 0.32 acres to 0.37 acres.

• There is significant variation between states in the factors accounting for sprawl. For example, population growth accounted for more than half of sprawl in five of the 10 states that lost the most land, while increases in per-capita land use accounted for more than half of sprawl in the other five worst sprawling states.

• An examination of the nation’s largest urban areas reveals the same pattern as in the states. Between 1970 and 1990, population growth accounted for slightly more than half of the expansion of urbanized land in the nation’s 100 largest cities.

• In the 1990s, new immigration and immigrant fertility accounted for most of the 33-million increase in the U.S. population. Census Bureau data from 2002 indicate that the more than 1.5 million legal and illegal immigrants who settle in the country each year along with 750,000 yearly births to immigrants are equal to 87 percent of the annual increase in the U.S. population.

• Contrary to the common perception, about half the country’s immigrants now live in the nation’s suburbs. The pull of the suburbs is even greater in the second generation. Of the children of immigrants who have settled down and purchased a home, only 24 percent have done so in the nation’s central cities.

• The suburbanization of immigrants and their children is a welcomed sign of integration. But it also means that they contribute to sprawl just like other Americans.

In short, Smart Growth efforts to slow or stop the increase in per capita land use are being negated by population growth. Immigration-driven population growth, in effect, is “out-smarting” Smart Growth initiatives by forcing continued rural land destruction.

What makes this study different from most of the research on sprawl is its focus on the destruction of undeveloped rural land. While concern over the loss of rural land is one of the central issues driving the public’s desire to reduce sprawl, most studies in this field and most anti-sprawl organizations have not focused on this problem. Instead, they have evaluated the density of new development or the employment of various urban planning techniques. This is true even of organizations and researchers with an environmental orientation. While such studies are valid for analyzing various aspects of sprawl, they fail as measures for conservation goals; their approach has the distinct disadvantage of making the actual loss of agricultural land and natural habitat largely irrelevant because all of the emphasis is on the quality of the planning or the density in the new development. By examining the actual loss of undeveloped rural land, this study avoids this problem.

Why Americans Hate Sprawl

Sprawl was once something that only a few environmentalists worried about, but in recent years it has become one of the hottest topics in local, state, and national politics. Americans are increasingly concerned about worsening traffic, longer commutes, the loss of open spaces near residential areas, increasing congestion, and the environmental impact of ever-expanding development. Such concerns seem justified as, between just 1982 and 1997, America converted approximately 25 million acres (39,000 square miles) of rural land — forests, rangeland, pastures, cropland, and wetlands — to developed land: that is, subdivisions, freeways, factories, strip malls, airports, and the like. If losses on such an enormous scale are allowed to continue, it seems very likely that sprawl will continue to be an increasingly important political concern into the foreseeable future.

Data Sources and Analysis

Data Sources. This study relies on two sources of data to measure sprawl. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducts complete inventories every five years of the nation’s non-federal land in every state but Alaska. Developed land is defined as any built-up tract of land of at least 0.25 acres or transportation infrastructure, such as roads and railroads, outside of these built-up areas. Although we focus on the NRCS data, we also perform a separate analysis on the expansion of urbanized area in the nation’s 100 largest urban areas between 1970 and 1990. The Census Bureau defines urbanized land as contiguous populated areas, including a city’s urban core and its suburbs, with a population density of more than 1,000 per square mile.

Analysis of Data. We first employed a variety of descriptive statistics comparing the amount of sprawl in the states and cities that grew the most and least in population. If population growth did not contribute significantly to sprawl, as some have contended, then we would expect there to be no correlation between increases in population and sprawl. This study, however, indicates a strong relationship between the two (see Figures A and B). We also employed a linear regression model on the state data where sprawl is the dependent variable, with population growth, changes in population density, and other factors as the independent variables. Finally, we utilize the “Holdren Method” developed by Harvard physicist John Holdren to apportion the share of sprawl that is due to increases in per-capita land use versus population growth. The Holdren formula is commonly used in environmental science to examine increases in the use of different resources. In the case of sprawl, the resource in question is land.

Policy Implications

Our findings show clearly that both land use practices and population growth must be addressed for any solution to the problem of sprawl. We focus on population growth because so little attention has been paid to this problem. Not surprisingly, in a country with a fertility rate just below replacement level for three decades, U.S. population growth has little to do with native birthrates. That leaves the solution to high population growth resting almost entirely on changing immigration policies. Fortunately, immigration policies can be changed relatively easily in comparison to any attempt to lower birthrates.

At present, around 1.5 million immigrants (legal and illegal) are allowed to settle in the United States each year. Reducing immigration to its historic average of 200,000 to 300,000 a year could dramatically slow the rate of population growth in the United States. A bipartisan national commission chaired by the late Barbara Jordan in the mid-1990s suggested many cuts that would achieve lower numbers. A presidential commission on sustainable development chaired by former Sen. Tim Wirth during the same time period also called for immigration reductions as essential for environmental protection. These commissions commented that making an argument for less immigration is not anti-immigrant, but rather is simply common sense if one wishes to meet certain societal objectives — in this case, the objective of reducing the rate of sprawl.

Of course, reducing immigration and the resulting population growth is only part of the solution. Our results clearly indicate that changes in land use patterns account for about half of sprawl. Thus, both Smart Growth efforts and immigration policy changes are integral parts of efforts to combat sprawl.


This study emphasizes the role of population growth because most anti-sprawl efforts ignore it while focusing only on the urban planning approach embodied by Smart Growth. To the extent that population is discussed in the context of sprawl it has generally been dismissed as a cause. It is often argued, for example, that since sprawl occurs where there is no population growth, increases in population must be a minor factor in sprawl. As a moment’s reflection should reveal, such observations only make sense in reaction to an assertion that population growth is the only factor generating sprawl. We make no such assertion. Our findings show that population growth is a key factor, but it is by no means the only factor. There are certainly individual places where population growth played little or no role in sprawl, just as there are places where population growth accounted for all of sprawl. But, overall, our analysis shows that increases in population nationally accounted for about half the loss of undeveloped rural land. Thus reducing population growth by reducing immigration must become an important part of any long-term effort to save rural land.

Our conclusion that population growth accounts for half of sprawl is not only consistent with the available evidence, it is also consistent with common sense. Those most directly involved in sprawl certainly believe that population is one of main reasons for sprawl. In fact, the president of the National Association of Home Builders chided the Sierra Club for its 1999 sprawl report because it “…failed to acknowledge the significant underlying forces driving growth in suburban America — a rapidly increasing population and consumer preferences.”  Homebuilders and real estate developers are clearly pleased with the high rate of U.S. population growth. But they, of course, have a very different point of view from anti-sprawl organizations as well as most Americans.

Assuming population growth continues to drive about half of all sprawl, as it has in recent decades, federal immigration policy would appear to be the single largest factor in determining how much sprawl will occur over the next 50-100 years. Population growth can only be dealt with effectively on a national scale by reducing immigration because new immigration and births to immigrants now account for most of the increase in the U.S. population. Given the population pressure America faces as a result of immigration, local efforts to discourage population growth by, say, low-density zoning, will almost certainly result in “leapfrog” development and legal challenges. Moreover, intensified Smart Growth programs in the face of rapid population growth will require increased governmental regulation which, in turn, will almost certainly undermine political support for such programs. Absent population growth, Smart Growth policies would be more successful and would encounter less opposition.

While our conclusions may seem obvious to most readers, some may find them controversial. Part of the reason most anti-sprawl organizations ignore population growth is that they are unaware of its role. It is our hope that this study will help correct this. However, some involved in anti-sprawl efforts avoid dealing with population growth because they know that doing so will inevitably lead to a debate over U.S. immigration policy, making it seem as if immigrants are being “blamed” for sprawl. This is something that anti-sprawl organizations (and the authors of this report) understandably wish to avoid. But such concerns seem misplaced since anti-sprawl organizations can make clear that immigration must be reduced due to rapid population increase rather than because of the characteristics of immigrants. It might also be helpful for such organizations to indicate their support for policies designed to help legal immigrants already here integrate into American society. Moreover, advocating less immigration in the future for conservationist reasons is likely to be politically popular given that public opinion polls show most Americans, including minorities, want less immigration.

While significantly reducing immigration may be very helpful in reducing sprawl, some may worry that doing so might harm the economy. The available data suggest otherwise, however. A 1997 report by the National Academy of Sciences entitled The New Americans concluded that the net economic benefits from immigration are very small and are, in fact, entirely outweighed by the fiscal drain immigrants impose on taxpayers. The nation’s leading immigration economist, George Borjas of Harvard, comes to much the same conclusion in his recent book Heaven’s Door. Policymakers can reduce future immigration secure in the knowledge that doing so will not harm America’s economy.

At present, about 11 million people are allowed to settle legally in the United States each decade. Bringing this number down to three million, coupled with increased efforts to reduce illegal immigration, still would allow the United States to accept more immigrants than any other country in the world. One may favor high immigration for any number of reasons, but our study makes clear that those concerned about sprawl must at least understand that dramatically increasing the size of the U.S. population though immigration has enormous long-term implications for the preservation of rural land. It is very difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

MFS note: For an analysis of sprawl in California see here; for Minnesota, see here.
* Courtesy of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Mark Krikorian, Executive Director
1522 K Street NW, Suite 820
Washington, DC 20005
See original at < http://www.cis.org/articles/2003/sprawl.html >.


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