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.

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.