Urban Sprawl

As human populations grow they inevitably expand into surrounding ecosystems. This has been true of all demographically successful populations and it is true of the U.S. today. The problem arises when sustained population growth exceeds the regenerative limits of a region’s ecosystems, causing environmental collapse and social collapse. This dynamic contributed to the decline of the Western Roman Empire.

In many ways America is the epitome of dynamism, and population growth is no exception. As our population grows it consumes more of everything—land, water, carbon fuel, species’ habitats—while producing increasing amounts of environmental pollutants. The United States now adds 3 million people to its population annually.1 As a result, the rate at which farmland, forests, and other open space are being developed doubled in the 1990s, from 1.4 million acres to 3.2 million acres annually.

We can’t stabilize population growth without reducing immigration. Without immigration, the U.S. population would grow from today’s 306 million to 362 million by 2050—an increase of 56 million people.3 If current immigration trends continue, the population will grow to 438 million by then—an increase of 132 million.4 By 2100, it will have reached 571 million—almost twice our present population.5

Halifax, Virginia

Halifax, Virginia, before    Halifax, Virginia, after
Before     After

Immigration is already a major contributor to suburban sprawl, with 40 percent of immigrants moving directly from abroad to the suburbs.6 Secondary migration has also become a problem in the West as native Californians flee their overpopulated cities and migrate to neighbors states. For example, secondary migration has forced Portland, Oregon—known for its commitment to containing urban sprawl—to develop 27,700 acres of land outside its desired borders in order to accommodate population growth.7

From 2002 to 2007, 3.2 million acres of farmland in the United States were lost to development, with over 1,700 acres following them every day.2 As the graph below shows, 35 states lost a total of 4.4 million acres to development; meanwhile the remaining 15 states converted 1.2 million acres of natural habitat into farmland. The result was a net loss of 3.2 million acres of farmland and the further degradation of our nation’s ecosystems.

Average Annual Change of Farmland Acreage 2002-2007

U.S. total net loss   (3,236,643)
Alabama 25,830     Nebraska (84,552)
Alaska (3,826)     Nevada (93,046)
Arizona (93,736)     New Hampshire 5,406
Arkansas (125,986)     New Jersey (14,446)
California (444,866)     New Mexico (314,407)
Colorado 102,315     New York (97,245)
Connecticut 9,692     North Carolina (120,866)
Delaware (5,965)     North Dakota 75,941
Florida (236,661)     Ohio (125,374)
Georgia (118,740)     Oklahoma 285,089
Hawaii (35,834)     Oregon (136,155)
Idaho (53,982)     Pennsylvania 12,782
Illinois (107,147)     Puerto Rico (12,460)
Indiana (57,097)     Rhode Island 1,319
Iowa (196,388)     South Carolina 8,683
Kansas (176,423)     South Dakota (23,735)
Kentucky 29,883     Tennessee (142,347)
Louisiana 55,862     Texas 104,217
Maine (4,440)     Utah (127,306)
Maryland (5,175)     Vermont (2,319)
Massachusetts (138)     Virginia (104,181
Michigan (22,230)     Washington (69,044)
Minnesota (118,862)     West Virginia 22,588
Mississippi 71,740     Wisconsin (110,150)
Missouri (183,892)     Wyoming (846,640)
Montana 355,212            

Source: U.S Dept. of Agriculture, National Resource Inventory.

Polls show that most Americans believe population stabilization is necessary, but industry special interests have come to rely on non-stop population growth. While environmentalists see overpopulation as a cause of urban sprawl and a threat to natural habitats, many businesses only see an expanding customer base. The housing industry’s tunnel vision is particularly narrow when it comes to population growth.

A 1998 analysis by the Ernst & Young Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group found that the present rate of immigration would necessitate the construction of 30 million new housing units over the next 50 years.8 The prospect of such extensive construction has the housing industry salivating. Naturally, the report failed to mention which of our nation’s ecosystems will perish in the name of development, or how the impending sprawl will affect the life quality of the average American.

The short-term interests of the housing industry must be weighed against our nation’s long term interest in preserving species habitat, natural resources, and a high quality of life.

For the sake of the environment, we must oppose immigration-driven population growth. Population stability is necessary for the preservation of the environment for our children and grandchildren. Immigration is a prime factor in the demand for new housing, construction, urban sprawl, and the consumption of natural resources, and it must be curtailed.

Updated June 2009

  1. U.S. Census Bureau.
  2. National Resource Inventory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2008.
  3. Jack Martin and Stanley Fogel, Projecting the U.S. Population to 2050: Four Immigration Scenarios, Federation for American Immigration Reform, March 2006.
  4. Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050, Pew Research Center, February 11, 2008.
  5. Population Projections, Middle Series, U.S. Census Bureau.
  6. Sam Roberts, “In Shift, 40% of Immigrants Move Directly to Suburbs,” The New York Times, October 17, 2007.
  7. Urban Growth Boundary, Portland Metro Regional Government, 2009.
  8. Scipio Garling, E=(I): The Environmentalist’s Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy, Federation for American Immigration Reform, 1999.