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Land Gluttony

08.23.2005 | SOCIETY

With so much attention to the invasion of illegal immigrants and skyrocketing gasoline prices it is hard to get people worked up about another out-of-control problem. We're running out of land.

In discussions about suburban sprawl, look out for land-lies. Sprawl supporters' abundant land argument is their most misleading, foolish and dangerous argument. Sprawl, they argue, can keep sucking up land as if there's no tomorrow. Do not be fooled when sprawl shills say only a small fraction, about 5 percent, of the entire nation's land has been developed, with the inference that we have sooooooo much land to sprawl on. This is a general statistic for the whole nation. What matters from a market perspective is land where development is technically possible and where people want to live, not a simplistic and misleading statistic.

First, think about deserts, canyons, mountain ranges, steep hillsides, frigid northern plains, wetlands, barren and desolate regions, and flood plains, for example. There are also federal lands, tribal lands, and contaminated lands. Federally owned land is 83 percent of Nevada, 65 percent of Utah, and 63 percent of Idaho, for example, and overall is about 25 percent of all land. Significant land is also preserved as parks, forests, wetlands, scenic vistas, and natural habitats, as it should be. Some historic land is precious because of cemeteries and old buildings. Already, 20 percent of historic civil war battlefields have been lost to development. Considerable land near railroad tracks, power lines, cell phone towers, and underground pipelines is undevelopable.

Other land is agricultural, and most Americans want to keep it that way. A survey of Seattle, Washington and Portland, Maine residents found that 91 percent believed it was important to preserve productive farmland. But one million acres a year are being lost to sprawl development. Do Americans really want to depend even more on imported foods that receive little government testing?

In contrast to land where development is impossible or unlikely, consider that some 53 percent of the United States population lives on just 17 percent of the land, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. The most desirable land is in coastal counties. Americans like living near oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, even when natural hazards exist. If there is any place where smarter development is urgently needed, it is on coastal lands, which contrary to the thinking of conservatives, is limited. Someone who wants to live in a coastal area is not likely to see living in Missouri or South Dakota as equally attractive.

California is the most populated state and the third largest after Alaska and Texas. Right-winger Randal O'Toole looks at the world through sprawl-tinted glasses and spreads the propaganda that California "is hardly running out of land," because only 8.6 percent of all land is developed for urban and rural living. The Association of Environmental Professionals said: "Growth in California has always been outward toward open land. The paradigm is shifting as we realize that we have just about used up all the new developable land out yonder." The 2002 "Invest for California" report said that the high growth counties of Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Clara will lack sufficient land to accommodate projected household growth through just 2010, if current development patterns continue. In high-growth San Diego, 88 percent of the land is developed. The Los Angeles Times ran a story in 2003 about Orange County reaching its final build-out and quoted a real estate analyst: "We're outta land. We don't have any dirt left."

Reflect on these other examples of voracious land consumption and, in some areas, land scarcity:

  • With 32 percent of land developed, New Jersey is the most developed state. "Measuring Urban Growth in New Jersey" reported that all remaining available land in the state will be developed in about 40 years, even with preserving one million acres. This could drop to 20 years if sprawl development is mostly 5-acre or larger residential lots, which is currently popular or mandated by local government.
  • On Long Island, New York, by 2003 80 percent of Nassau County and 64 percent of Suffolk County were already developed.
  • In reflecting on the home building boom in 2003 an economist at the National Association of Home Builders said "The only complaint I heard from builders last year is that they can't get enough land."

Think sprawl perfect storm. Just as population is increasing by large amounts and land wanted for development is dwindling, sprawl developments are getting less and less dense. More land is used for each house, and because subdivisions are more dispersed, more land is used for roads, water lines and other infrastructure. Population growth is unrelenting -- one more person every 11 seconds. Every 11 seconds! Think about 50 million or more people needing housing in the next 20 years, and 100 million or more by 2050. As the nation approaches a population of 400 million, sprawl's land consumption is unsustainable. By 2050 total national land developed would more than double, if current sprawl patterns of development continue. The sprawl industry's continued political influence will make us feel like the Crowded States of America.

All over the country single acres are already selling for $500,000 to $2 million, because they are in land-scarce areas with strong housing demand. Do pro-sprawl conservatives want to deny Americans the right to live in geographic areas they choose? Unbridled land development will do just that, especially for Americans who are not wealthy. In the long run, low density sprawl reduces housing affordability.

Greed drives land gluttony. By developing and consuming excessive amounts of land, the current pursuit of happiness by the few denies the future pursuit of happiness by the many. Children should learn this in school: Land developed is land lost. Someone who remains unconcerned about rapid U.S. land consumption after learning the truth about sprawl is like the person who falls off a 60-story building and upon passing the 20th floor still thinks "everything is okay." Do not succumb to land-lies from sprawl shills. An even uglier, crammed America is rushing at you.

This article is excerpted from the author's book Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money (Sterling and Ross, 2005).

About the Author
Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money (Sterling and Ross, 2005) and of the forthcoming Status Quo Busting: Thinking Strategically and Acting Boldly to Save Our Republic. Visit him at
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