Urban Jungles Eat Up Coastal Beauty

The newcomers liked the area for aesthetic reasons, the researchers found, but had far less of an appreciation for what really makes the region unique.

That would suggest that urban sprawl feeds upon itself, bringing in new people who are less inclined to protect what drew them there in the first place. Not always, of course. Sometimes the newcomers are the real environmental zealots, but how much do they really know about what they are trying to protect?

McGrath used four different methods of calculating the amount of land that will become forever attached to the largest coastal cities over the next 25 years. The methods range from a “naive,” as he calls it, extrapolation of the current growth rate to a more complex formula that included recent trends. He averaged the four to come up with his projections.

Not all of the cities are traditionally thought of as coastal, but all are on or very near a large body of water. The big gainers include cities that are already on the verge of choking: New York could add 763 square miles, Chicago, 695; Washington, D.C., 679; San Francisco-Oakland, 624; Houston, 617; Milwaukee, 795; San Diego and Baltimore, both with an additional 615 miles; and Tampa-St. Petersburg and Seattle, both with 594.

No numbers were given for Portland, Ore., which has an “urban growth boundary” that is forcing the city to grow up, not out. Los Angeles is also in a peculiar position because it is ringed by mountains and other federally owned property.

Zoning Laws Work

So what are we supposed to do about it? McGrath insists he’s not an anti-growth person, because as an economist he sees a no-growth policy as a limit on economic viability. Besides, it’s pretty hard to tell someone they can’t move someplace because there are already enough people there. “We have open borders and free mobility in this nation,” he says.

The way a community grows can be controlled through zoning practices, as Portland is trying to do. But that, in turn, leads to higher densities, with all the urban problems that entails.

What all this calls for is a new way to view the neighborhoods we call home. In short, what we need is some way to put a price tag on our rivers and beaches and wildlife habitats. If we could do that, we would find that many of them are too valuable to sacrifice. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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