EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“30×30” movements around the world are pressing national governments to ensure that 30 percent of their land masses are protected from development by 2030. The more-ambitious “Nature Needs Half” movement argues for stopping the destruction of natural habitat before the ratio falls below 50 percent (already too late for many countries).

This study examines the powerful counterforce of urban sprawl in the United States. The good news is that the rapacious rate of open space destruction of the 1980s and 1990s has slowed considerably. But urban sprawl continues to apply the chainsaw and bulldozer blades to vast amounts of rural land each year.

Between 2002 and 2017 (the period of the most recent government data), the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service identified around 17,800 square miles of new sprawl. (We use the term “sprawl” in the precise way of all our reports since 2000: “Sprawl” is the amount of rural land lost to development, regardless of its attractiveness or density.) That means 17,800 square  miles of natural and agricultural land were converted during that period into developed land for residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and other purposes.

Our study calculated that the cause of the 2002-2017 land loss fell into a surprisingly neat 2-to-1 ratio between the two overall factors of sprawl:

  • 67% of rural land loss was related to POPULATION GROWTH: About 11,950 square miles of rural land were developed to handle the additional consumption needs caused by the U.S. population having 37 million more people in 2017 than in 2002. Net foreign in-migration was the cause of most population growth, although its role can differ significantly from state to state.
  • 33% of rural land loss was related to GROWTH OF DEVELOPED LAND PER RESIDENT resulting from ALL OTHER FACTORS: About 5,850 square miles of sprawl between 2002 and 2017 were rural land lost because of dozens of factors that increased the average amount of developed land per person in the country. This developed land provides not only the residence for each person but also the share of shopping malls, streets, schools, government buildings, utility infrastructure, waste treatment facilities, parking lots, vacation homes, resorts, highways, and places of employment, worship, and entertainment. On average, Americans were still spreading out, although not as much as in the past.

Figure ES-1. Square Miles Of National Land Loss Related To Population And To All Other Factors (2002-2017)

  • 67% of rural land loss was related to POPULATION GROWTH: About 11,950 square miles of rural land were developed to handle the additional consumption needs caused by the U.S. population having 37 million more people in 2017 than in 2002. Net foreign in-migration was the cause of most population growth, although its role can differ significantly from state to state.
  • 33% of rural land loss was related to GROWTH OF DEVELOPED LAND PER RESIDENT resulting from ALL OTHER FACTORS: About 5,850 square miles of sprawl between 2002 and 2017 were rural land lost because of dozens of factors that increased the average amount of developed land per person in the country. This developed land provides not only the residence for each person but also the share of shopping malls, streets, schools, government buildings, utility infrastructure, waste treatment facilities, parking lots, vacation homes, resorts, highways, and places of employment, worship, and entertainment. On average, Americans were still spreading out, although not as much as in the past.

We also calculated rural land loss and its causes in each state (other than Alaska, which the government doesn’t include in its survey). On the map below, you can roll over any state to see the total square miles of habitat and farmland loss during the most recent 15-year period of data. You will also see a pie chart that will display the percentage of that rural land loss that is related to the state’s population growth and the percentage related to all other factors (which increase the amount of developed land per resident of the state). Twenty-six states experienced an overall decrease in developed land per resident during the recent period. That would suggest that zero percent of the land loss would be attributed to growth in per capita land consumption. However, our study found that per capita land consumption growth was a factor for at least some of the land loss in all those states because our calculations disaggregate each state’s data by county, and even states with no per capita consumption growth overall have at least some counties with growth in developed land per resident.

State Sprawl

Lost Open Space in the United States

2002-2017