Study: Immigration Biggest Contributor to Sprawl

A new study suggests the only way to put a stop to rampant suburban sprawl is not better planning and zoning, or even encouraging people to move back into the cities, but by curbing immigration.

In August, the Center for Immigration Studies (search) and NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation (search) released a new study that already has drawn criticism from anti-sprawl activists.

“Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl” says new immigrants and children born to immigrants after they arrive in the United States account for 87 percent of the nation's population increase each year.

On average, according to the report, each 10,000-person increase in state population from 1982 to 1997 has resulted in the loss of 1,600 acres of rural land lost to development.

“There is this kind of common sense,” Steve Camerota, president of CIS, told “You have 1.5 million immigrants coming into the United States each year; unless they all move into abandoned buildings, you are going to have to build them new housing.

“All of the environmentalists focused on limiting sprawl have not considered this. They have been unwilling to delve into immigration and population growth,” Camerota said.

Since World War II ended, families have earnestly and steadily migrated out of the nation’s cities and into newly created suburbs. Since 1990, “sprawl” has become a watchword for the rapidly, but often haphazardly, developing communities lying outside of the country’s metropolitan centers.

Experts say suburban migration illustrates an improved quality of life for many Americans as well as immigrants. But sprawl, characterized by the loss of rural land to housing developments, office parks, new schools, cookie-cutter strip malls and the long distances between them, has been blamed for everything from air pollution to ruining the aesthetic landscape of the nation.

And everyone agrees there is not one root cause or a silver-bullet solution.

“The problems we are having with increased traffic and air pollution is really the result of the way we have led development, not the result of more people,” said Barbara McCann, a spokeswoman for Smart Growth America (search), which recently released a study, “Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl.”

The study found that communities that force people to drive everywhere, and don't offer sidewalks or bike paths, discourage physical activity and have contributed to the nation's obesity crisis. Sprawling communities also put pedestrians and drivers in more peril than communities that offer ample public transportation and a safe environment in which residents and workers can walk reasonable distances to their destinations.

Like many in the anti-sprawl movement, McCann says local and state governments did not plan well enough through creative zoning and road systems for the surge in development, and have not made cities attractive enough to encourage people to work and live there.

“Putting it all on immigration, that’s really a case of a group taking something they were already interested in, and twisting it to their advantage,” McCann said.

Camerota and co-author Roy Beck of NumbersUSA acknowledge that population growth isn’t the key factor for sprawl in every one of the 10 states that are experiencing massive spread, but it is a major factor in more than half of them.

And contrary to popular perception, they say about half of the country’s immigrants live in the suburbs.

“As soon as they get money and a family and need more space, they move to the suburbs,” said Beck, who pointed out that is a desire of many Americans. “They don’t want to live in the city, they want to live out in the suburbs where it is cheaper.”

Laura Olsen, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said immigrants can't be used as scapegoats everywhere. In many areas throughout the country — especially in the Midwest and Northeast regions — sprawl is caused by massive flight from the cities rather than new population growth.

Olsen and McCann both support “smart growth” strategies for communities — redesigning the layout of high-growth areas so that they are not only more aesthetically pleasing, but encourage walking, less traffic and a “Main Street” feel.

“Let’s make sure communities are walkable, people have access to schools, recreation and stores,” Olsen said.

Fairfax County, Va., is already pursuing that path. Despite an influx of immigrants to the area, massive growth in the Washington suburb has also been fueled by a surge of jobs and a constant spillover of commuters, said Jim Zook, director of planning and zoning for the county.

Zook said officials in the county, which increased by 150,000 residents through the 1990s, have developed a comprehensive plan that “shores up the edges” of the most densely populated areas and avoids development in open spaces.

Fairfax, like other communities in similar circumstances, is also planning to develop new mass transit rail lines and increased office and residential units around existing public transit.

“The question is how can growth be accommodated effectively and gracefully,” he said.

But given the present trends in population growth, planners cannot ignore immigration entirely when addressing the problem associated with sprawl, Beck said.

“The only way for any urban area to substantially tame its sprawl is for two things to happen — adopt a fairly rigorous smart growth policy, and two, reduce immigrant levels to what they used to be — a quarter of what they are now,” said Beck.