Solutions to sprawl: the limits to Smart Growth

by Annie Faulkner


Intuitively, we all know what sprawl is. Most of us see it all around us every day: multi-lane highways, malls and shopping plazas, chain restaurants and big box retailers, new residential subdivisions, acres of new office and industrial complexes, and don't forget the parking lots. Some experts define sprawl as unplanned growth or low density development, while others consider sprawl any expansion of the built environment into natural areas, even if planned, pretty, or efficient.

    Whatever your definition, sprawl is upon us, and environmental and public interest groups are struggling to address it. Sprawl is changing the landscapes we all love, destroying wildlife habitat, and threatening the natural systems on which all life depends. We need to explore viable alternatives to growth.

Driving forces behind sprawl: Consumption and population growth


    Environmentalists debate whether sprawl is a consumption issue or a population issue; I say it's both. Proposed legislation in New Hampshire defines sprawl as the “inflation, over time, in the amount of land area consumed per unit of human activity, and the degree of dispersal between such land areas”.3 Indeed, we are increasing the space used per person. The square footage of our houses is increasing even as the number of people living in them is decreasing. Retail space per capita has increased fourfold between 1970 and 1990. Even our cars are getting bigger, and our highways expanding. Americans drive more now than ever before.

    As a result, land is being consumed at a rate faster than local population growth in many US cities and states. In New Hampshire between 1982 and 1992, the population increased 17% while the developed land area increased 45%.1 Similarly, since 1960 the population of Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo metropolitan areas increased by 4%, while developed land area increased by 80%.4 Between 1970 and 1990, Cleveland's population declined by 8% while the size of the city increased 33%.5 Over the same period, Chicago's population grew by 4% while developed area increased 46%. Even in Los Angeles, where population increased 46% between 1970 and 1990, developed land area increased 300%!

    We are also consuming more stuff, stuff which has to be manufactured, transported and sold. Industrial, transportation and retail capacity grows to meet our rising consumption demands. Americans represent 5% of the global population yet consume 25% of the earth's resources and produce at least 25% of global wastes. While many Americans enjoy unprecedented prosperity, we are at the same time expanding our material appetites, fueling additional sprawl.

    But sprawl is also a population growth issue. While sprawl destroys natural landscapes even in the absence of population growth, sprawl is sustained by population growth. Currently, each person added to the US population consumes about one acre of land for urbanization and highways. The US population grows by approximately 2.5 to 3 million annually, leading to the conversion of millions of acres of open space and the construction of 1.3 million new housing units each year. Between 1960 and 1990, Vermont's rural population grew by 59%, contributing to the rapid conversion of farms and forests to housing.8 New Hampshire's population is projected to grow by another 350,000 people by 2020.1 This tremendous population growth is fueling sprawl, as additional people look for places to live, work, shop and recreate.

Solutions to sprawl: Good ideas that don't go far enough


    A now-popular approach for curbing sprawl is so-called “smart growth.” Smart growth is being promoted at every level in the US, from the USEPA to the Sierra Club and other conservation and public interest groups. What is “smart growth?” According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development, “smart growth embraces the fundamental notion that growth can occur in a manner that is economically, environmentally and socially smart.”11 In Vermont, the Smart Growth Task Force is calling for “sustainable growth patterns”.12 In Massachusetts, the smart growth initiative is explicitly a pro-growth policy developed in reaction to some communities' anti-growth sentiments.13

    None of these programs is clear about the kind of growth they want. Is it population growth, economic growth or urban growth? As we've seen above, urban growth and economic growth can occur in the absence of population growth, as people use more space and consume more stuff per person. Most anti-sprawl efforts focus on managing urban growth and controlling the conversion of open space. The smart growth approach assumes that population growth and economic growth will continue. Smart growth is based on the premise that we can make our urban growth more efficient, thereby reducing negative impacts on water, air, open space and wildlife habitat.

    Smart growth strategies include efforts to reuse and intensify the use of existing developed areas by increasing housing densities (infill development) and redeveloping old industrial and commercial sites (brownfields development). In these ways, smart growth is compatible with historic preservation, may slow the conversion of open space, and can lead to more compact towns and cities. Smart growth strategies also include buying up open space, farmlands, wetlands and forests and permanently protecting them from development. These strategies can protect watersheds and drinking water supplies, provide recreation areas close to where people live, and protect wildlife habitat.

    However, the term smart growth is also used to describe new construction in greenfields areas (farm or forest land) in which some land is set aside for open space while the rest is developed. Smart growth “success stories” include an 862-acre tract of open space in Georgia that will see over 300 acres of residential construction and 505 acres preserved as forests and meadows.14 Also considered a smart growth “success” is a 3,000 acre forested tract in Massachusetts; 90% of which will be converted for single family residences, town houses, and commercial space, leaving only 300 acres untouched.15 It would seem that as long as some land is set aside, a project can be labeled “smart.”

    The potential benefits of smart growth are many. Primary among them may be the improvement of human settlement patterns in ways that will foster a sense of community, reduce the need to drive, facilitate public transportation, and put farms, forests and open space in reach of urban populations. By concentrating growth in already developed areas and slowing human expansion into natural areas, smart growth can help minimize our additional ecological impact as some unavoidable growth continues.

    But this brings us to the limits of smart growth. Infill development and brownfields redevelopment will be limited by people's tolerance for increased residential, commercial and industrial density and by the available capacity within urban areas. In some parts of the country, people are already resisting infill development and higher local density. Even if people learn to accept higher density, however, there is a physical limit to how dense we can get. As long as population growth and economic growth continue, urban growth will fill up these already-developed areas and spill out onto natural areas. Though these new “smart” developments may use space efficiently and be aesthetically pleasing, they will still take up what was formerly farmland, forest land, or wildlife habitat.

    As long as population growth and economic growth continue, smart growth cannot stop the conversion of natural areas, it can only slow or delay it. This has been shown in Oregon and Vermont, states with some of the toughest growth control measures, where open land continues to be converted, albeit at a slower rate. As University of Colorado's Dr. Al Bartlett has said of smart growth, “the most it can do is destroy the environment in a more aesthetic and pleasing way.”16 Smart growth is only a short term solution to a larger problem: population growth and economic growth.

Stopping sprawl requires ending growth


    Growth is the prevailing paradigm of our time and few dare to question it. Yet most readers will be aware that nature offers no examples of healthy, unending growth. In nature, growth without limits is cancer, resulting in the death of the host.

    If we accept that humans are a part of nature (not apart from nature) and are subject to its same laws, then at some point human population growth and growth in resource consumption will need to stop. Whether they stop because of ecological collapse or as a result of conscious human decisions is our choice, assuming we haven't irreversibly overshot our carrying capacity already. The human species currently consumes over 40% of net primary productivity of the planet, leaving the rest for all other species combined.17 Uncounted numbers of species have gone extinct as the human enterprise has expanded across the landscape, and at current rates, half of the remaining species will disappear in the next 50 years.8 Whether our concern is our own survival or the flourishing of other species, the same essential question emerges: at what point should we stop growing?

    This is not to say that all growth is bad or that all forms of growth have limits. Growth in human well-being, quality of life, and satisfaction could be limitless, as long as they do not require increased human numbers or increased resource consumption. What we need to be striving for is qualitative improvement in the human condition and a reduction in inequity without increasing our ecological impact on the planet. Qualitative change without quantitative growth. Evolution without expansion. Better not bigger. With such a perspective, much of the growth now occurring in the United States is unnecessary and superfluous, and even destructive to our well-being and quality of life. Clearly, we need to redefine our notion of “progress.”

    No-growth does not mean stagnation. In a no-growth scenario, our economy would still evolve and change. Sectors would grow while others decline; new technologies would be developed while others are retired. This cycle of flourishing, decline, and rebirth is natural and needs to be part of a sustainable, human economy within nature.

    Likewise, our culture would continue to evolve, human potential would continue to be realized, and our communities would be exciting places to live. An end to growth does not mean an end to human progress or human civilization. On the contrary, it may be a prerequisite for any lasting improvement in the human condition on the planet, and it is most surely a prerequisite for the survival and flourishing of non human life.

The beginning of the end to growth

    Smart growth is at best a short-term solution to sprawl. Combined with redevelopment that concentrates human activity around village and city centers, the longer term solution to sprawl is the end to population and economic growth. This means population stabilization and zero increase in natural resource consumption and pollution. In order to be ecologically sustainable, we may even need to go further reducing the human population over time to a lower sustainable level, and reducing our per capita resource consumption and pollution. But in the short term, our goals should be stabilization and zero increase.

    We need to be asking the critical questions: “When and how should growth end? How large should we get?” As individuals, we can start questioning the growth imperative in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. How big a house do I need? Do I really need that second home? Do I really need a larger car or that second car? Will I be that much happier with a larger family? How much is enough? We can question the growth imperative in our businesses as well. Should everyone on the planet buy our product or is a certain level of profits acceptable?

    At the local level, we can be asking: “What is the optimal population of our town or city? What should limit our growth? Should we cover the entire town with house lots, roads, shopping malls and industrial parks, or leave a significant portion permanently protected as open space, agricultural land and wildlife habitat? What other species live in our town and how can we help ensure their future well-being?” Some New England towns are already asking these questions, and are proposing population caps. These democratically-decided caps can evolve out of visioning sessions in which residents think long and hard about where they want their community to look like in 20, 50, and 100 years.

    Governments also need to question the growth paradigm. Federal and state government officials need to understand the difference between growth and development, and need to switch from the economic growth imperative to the ecological sustainability imperative. Government policies and programs are needed to promote ways of living and travelling that are compatible with ecological integrity and the continuation of natural processes.

    Finally, environmental organizations concerned about sprawl need to understand that as long as we have growth, whether it's “smart” or not, we will continue to lose open space, habitat, and biological diversity, and further threaten the natural processes that support all life on earth. Many environmental leaders already know this, but few are finding the courage to put that message out to their members or the public. Environmental groups can serve future generations of all species by helping to define the ecological limits to human expansion, clarifying the ecological implications of the choices we face, and articulating a vision for human society that is vibrant, healthy and ecologically sustainable.

    Annie Faulkner is the Coordinator of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population. Reprinted by permission of Population Press, the newsletter of the POPULATION COALITION, PO Box 7918, Redlands CA 92375, 909-307-6597;,


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