Urban Jungles Eat Up Coastal Beauty

Daniel McGrath set out to answer what seems like a simple question. What’s the “best guess” of how much coastal land will be swallowed up by urban sprawl over the next 25 years?

It’s always risky to predict the future, especially in land management, because so many factors ranging from economics to natural disasters can alter the course. So McGrath limited his survey to the 20 largest metropolitan regions on both coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, because he could call upon their extensive history and tons of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

What he came up with is enough to blow a reasonable person away.

Loss the Size of Massachusetts

By the year 2025, he concluded, an area of 9,000 square miles, or about 5.8 million acres, will be eaten up by just 18 of those 20 urban jungles.

That’s an area roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. In fact, it’s more than the combined area of New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“So by 2025, we are going to have some alarming urbanization,” says McGrath, a “land economist” with the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The figure does not include Portland or Los Angeles, both of which have some peculiar factors limiting their growth. Nor does it include more than 100 smaller coastal communities that are growing like mad.

So it’s hard to say, as he himself admits, exactly how much land is going to be converted from open places to urban crawl spaces, but it’s going to be a bunch. And what really disturbs him is the simple fact that in many cases, local planners don’t have a clue as to what they will be giving up in the name of progress.

For example, so little is understood about the role of coastal wetlands in ocean productivity, he says, that local planners “can’t properly make an economic tradeoff” and protect shore-based areas that provide nurseries and habitats for the creatures of the sea. Not everybody is shooting in the dark, of course. Some areas are vigorously trying to protect at least some of their natural treasures, but it’s a constant uphill battle.

Thinking like a true economist, McGrath calls environmentally important areas the “natural capital” of a region. The rest of us call them beaches, river beds, wildlife habitats, or a quiet place to escape the hurried life of the big city.

Newcomers Don't Understand

By whatever name, many of them will soon be gone, if McGrath’s research proves correct. “The loss of natural capital is likely to be enormous,” he says.

And if the urbanization of America has taught us anything, it’s the plain fact that “it’s fundamentally an irreversible process,” McGrath says. You can’t put a beach back once it’s been taken away.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we all want a piece of the action. I will admit I live on a beach myself, in a house that wasn’t here just a few years ago. So I can be justly accused of saying now that I’ve got mine, the rest of you stay away.

But I’ve got a lot of company. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, made an interesting discovery while studying communities in the Chesapeake Bay area. They found that people who had lived there for a long time, and especially those who earned their living from the waters of the Chesapeake, have a much stronger “sense of place” than “recent migrants” who moved there but continue to draw their livelihood from someplace else.

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