Urban sprawl devours more than 2.2 million acres of farmland, forests and wetlands each year. If it continues at this rate, by 2050 the United States will have paved over another 110 million acres of rural land.

Atlanta holds the dubious distinction of being the nation’s largest “sprawler” after its metropolitan area swelled by more than 700 square miles between 1970 and 1990.

Houston’s borders grew by more than 630 square miles during the same time period, making it the nation’s second-largest sprawling city, according to a Center for Immigration Studies report Outsmarting Smart Growth.

The New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan areas round out the top 10 list of sprawling cities.

The report analyzed the growth patterns of the nation’s 100 largest cities and emphasized in its findings in a “conservationists” point of view, which narrowly focused on the amount of land lost to development and the factors that contributed to urban sprawl and ignored the quality of life issues associated with densely populated urban environments.

The study’s authors concluded that two factors contribute equally to urban sprawl: population growth, which accounted for 52 percent of the urban development studied, and increases in per capita land consumption, which accounted for 48 percent of the development.

Two of the report’s three authors, public policy analyst Roy Beck and national environmental/natural resource planner Leon Kolankiewicz, launched SprawlCity in an effort to help the public make more ready use of federal data on sprawl and rural land loss. The Web site also spotlights several case studies, including Los Angeles as a champion of smart growth and the aftermath of Oregon’s stringent anti-sprawl law.

The successful smart growth effort must curb development and immigration, according to the report; however, meeting the latter goal would require the United States to revamp its federal immigration policies. Each year more than 1.5 million legal and illegal immigrants take up residency in the United States, according to the study.

“In short, smart growth efforts to slow or stop the increase in per capita land use are being negated by population growth,” according to the study.

Los Angeles serves as a bizarre supporting case study. The region’s land-use consumption shrank 8 percent as its residents-per-square-mile density increased from 5,313 in 1970 to 5,802 in 1990, making Los Angeles the most densely populated urbanized area in the country–a smart growth victory of sorts.

However, Los Angeles’s boundaries also expanded by 394 square miles, making it the nation’s sixth largest sprawling city. The study attributed the growth to the 3.1 million residents who, largely because of the federal program of increased immigration levels, moved into the area during the same time period.

“All those people had to live, work, play, commute and be educated somewhere…Just as Los Angeles is a model for meeting the smart growth goal of high-density living, it also is a model of how smart growth initiatives are likely to fail to stop sprawl under current federal population-growth policies,” according to the study.

Stringent anti-growth measures signed into law in Oregon in 1973 provide another test case that supports the need for population controls, according to SprawlCity. The state’s smart growth project required its cities to adopt urban growth boundaries and while the effort has reduced sprawl in the state, it hasn’t altogether eliminated it.

In Portland, for example, during the first decade of the state’s anti-sprawl movement, the region’s density increased a whopping 53 percent, but the city’s borders spread by another 39 square miles. The report again pointed to a population increase, 146,000 residents had moved into Portland during that same time period.

Oregon residents living in the “containment” areas also have begun to voice concerns related to the anti-sprawl law. Some residents complain that the area is too congested and that housing prices are too high, bringing into question the measure’s sustainability as more people move into the area.

“If the Portland public’s desire for breathing room and reasonably priced housing trumps its desire to contain or slow sprawl, the Portland Experiment may not be the exemplar of what Americans may be persuaded to adopt. Rather, it may be an example of smart growth controls that even the most ecologically minded and motivated Americans won’t accept over the long run,” according to the report.

Other findings include:

  • The more a state’s population grew, the more the state sprawled. On average, states that grew in population by more than 30 percent sprawled 46 percent, while states that grew in population by less than 10 percent sprawled only 26 percent.

  • On average, each 10,000-person increase in state population resulted in 1,600 acres of urban development.

  • Nationally, population growth accounted for 52 percent of urban development, per capita land consumption accounted for 48 percent.

  • Causes of sprawl varied significantly from state to state. For example, population growth accounted for more than half of the sprawl in five of the 10 states that lost the most land and per capita land use accounted for more than half the sprawl in the other five worst sprawling states.

  • Between 1982 and 1997, land use per person rose 16 percent from 0.32 acres to 0.37 acres.

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