America lost 17,800 square miles of open space — an area the size of New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined — to urban sprawl between 2002 and 2017, according to an environmental impact study that I just co-authored.
Developers are clearing our forests and paving over our farmland in order to satisfy our insatiable need for more houses and office buildings, shopping malls, and highways. The U.S.’s total loss of open space was 67%, but the percentages vary from one state to the next.
If politicians and environmentalists are serious about keeping America beautiful — and preventing fields full of amber waves of grain from being turned into strip malls and subdivisions — they’ll need to moderate the growth of the U.S. population.
My fellow environmentalists are concerned about the loss and destruction of natural habitats and open space. Many people argued that we could solve our problem by having more density and living more environmentally conscious lives.
Constructing more urban apartment high-rises, rather than single-family homes in the suburbs, certainly helps reduce sprawl at the margins, though “pack ’em and stack ’em” often enacts a quality-of-life cost on existing residents. But 26 states successfully reduced their per-capita land use over the past two decades thanks to denser living — yet all 26 still lost open space. The per-capita gains were canceled by the absolute growth in U.S. populations, which increased by 37,000,000 people between 2002 and 2017.
Even if we could pack everyone into cities — which is unfeasible, given many Americans’ long-standing cultural expectations of having yards and single-family homes — we’d still need to cut and clear more forests for agricultural land to feed all the extra mouths. We’d still need to dam more rivers to create reservoirs to supply drinking water. We’d still need more factories, power plants, schools, hospitals and waste management plants.
Simply put, sprawl is a natural consequence of population growth. While each U.S. resident directly consumes about one-third of an acre of land, on average, each American’s ecological footprint indirectly consumes approximately 20 acres.
These were once the thoughts of our leaders. In the late 1990s, back when the U.S. population was only about 280 million, President Clinton’s Task Force on Population and Consumption of his Council on Sustainable Development warned that we needed to “move toward stabilizing the U.S. population.”
If we failed to do so, the task force projected that the “U.S. population is likely to reach 350 million by the year 2030; a level that would place even greater strain on our ability to increase prosperity, clean up pollution, alleviate congestion, manage sprawl, and reduce the overall consumption of resources.”
But politicians didn’t heed that report. The U.S. population currently exceeds 332 million people — and we’re on track to reach the predicted 350 million by the end of this decade and top 400 million by 2060.
How can we slow down population growth?
It is not difficult, but it is easy to answer. Migration from other countries — rather than domestic births — is the primary driver of U.S. population growth. In fact, Pew Research projects that “88% of the increase” in the population over the next several decades will be “linked to future immigrants and their descendants.”
Future migration must be controlled if we want to save our open spaces.
That’s not a reflection on our immigrant friends, neighbors — or in my own case, family members — who are overwhelmingly law-abiding contributors to our society. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the current influx of foreign nationals — about 1 million legal immigrants and 2 million illegal ones last year alone — is driving our population growth, which in turn is destroying our open spaces.
Our leaders can protect our open spaces by stabilizing the population. They can keep the status quo, and allow sprawl to continue unchecked. But they can’t do both.
Leon Kolankiewicz is an environmental scientist and planner who serves as vice president for Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization.