Rural Sprawl: Americans' Love Affair with Wide Open Spaces

Released: 12/5/2005 4:15 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Ecological Society of America
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Citations Ecological Applications (Dec-2005)

Newswise — "For the first time in more than a century, more people are moving to rural areas than from rural areas. Fleeing the cities, many retirees, entrepreneurs, and others are seeking the small-town lifestyles and natural amenities of rural landscapes."

So says a paper published as part of a 66-page feature, "Land "Use Change in Rural America: Rates, Drivers, and Consequences," in the December issue of Ecological Applications. The papers review land use changes in the United States between 1950 and 2000 and discuss implications for the nation's flora, fauna, and ecological processes.

Edited by Andrew Hansen (Montana State University) and Daniel Brown (University of Michigan), the papers in this feature offer a comprehensive view of how the nation's changing socio-economic characteristics have wrought profound changes in land development, particularly in those parts of the U.S. with beautiful vistas and bountiful outdoor recreational opportunities. One quarter of the lower 48 contiguous United States now consists of so-called exurban development, with low density housing (6-25 homes per square kilometer). This is a five-fold increase since 1950, say the authors.

The Southeast, Southwest, the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the western seaboard have attracted the most rural development, which the authors separate into two categories: (1) Urban dwellers seeking more breathing room but still wishing to be close to urban centers for jobs and services have driven urban sprawl, extending the line of development further out. (2) Rural residential development (RRD) has come from those looking for quality of life improvements by moving to remote areas that offer wide open spaces.

The authors note that this new and rapidly-growing land use pattern is generally not good news for the country's native plants and animals. "One way that RRD differs from the other rural land uses is its longevity. While logging and recovery typically occur in cycles, and livestock grazing and crop agriculture often have rest rotations, RRD is permanent on the order of decades or longer and its effects may intensify over time."

Key conclusions of the feature include:

- Rural sprawl is the major development pattern in the U.S.

- U.S. population growth was widespread between 1950 and 2000

- The population has shifted from East to West

- Forest and agricultural land covers have decreased in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states while urban and mechanically disturbed land areas have increased

- The information-driven economy has fueled rural sprawl by enabling people to make a living even in relatively isolated areas

- Between 1980 and 2000, overall vehicular travel in the U.S. increased by 48.7 percent, of which the fastest growing component was "home-based" travel, including shopping, recreation, and driving to school.

Environmental impacts include:

- Greater threats to plants and animals on marginal lands, particularly in the western United States

- Less native species

- More exotic (non-native) species and human-adapted species

- Negative impacts on public lands adjacent to private development

- Declining natural habitat

- Changes to natural processes like fire and flooding

- Increased air and water pollution

- New threats to previously generally undisturbed plants and animals living on marginal lands, particularly in the western United States.

The authors express the hope for greater collaboration between ecologists and social scientists, and others to help shape land use decisions that will mitigate damage to the environment while still offering viable and attractive choices for U.S. residents. That way, they say, American society can make choices for a desired future rather than have it simply unfold by default.

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, 9000-member organization founded in 1915. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. ESA publishes four scientific, peer-reviewed journals: Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecological Monographs, and Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. For more information about the Society visit http://www.esa.org


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