According to a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), urban sprawl in the southeastern United States could literally pave over many of the region’s farms and forests in the next 50 years. Population growth in the Southeast has already outpaced other regions in the United States: it grew 40 percent faster than the rest of the country, adding 77 million people  in the last six decades. Modeling future growth based on past and current growth rates, researchers found that urbanization in the area could increase by a staggering 190 percent by 2060. This would result in a 15 percent loss of agricultural land, a 10 percent loss of forests and a 12 percent loss of grasslands as well as negatively impact wildlife, water and air quality.

Unlike the more densely populated cities of the Northeast, the more recently developed Southeast is less dense and more car-dependent. Unless significant shifts in urban planning and development are undertaken in the region, a ‘megalopolis’ between Raleigh, SC, and Atlanta, GA, will develop, according to the study’s findings. Developments that will accompany such a megalopolis include increasingly fragmented habitat for wildlife as well as more human-wildlife interactions. Human health would be negatively impacted by increased urban heat islands as well as more pests and vector-borne diseases. According to study author Jennifer Costanza, a research associate at North Carolina State, “Unless we change course… urbanization will have a more pronounced ecological impact in many non-coastal areas of the Southeast than climate change.”

Urban development has a tendency to fragment and eventually replace farms with housing, shopping malls and other suburban areas. This is terrible news considering the already staggering loss of farmland occurring in the United States – the USDA estimates that between 1982 and 2007, more than 23 million acres of farmland was lost to development, and of this land, 38 percent was prime farmland. According to the American Farmland Trust, more than an acre of farmland is lost every minute to development and urban sprawl in the United States, and yet, the majority of fruits, vegetables and dairy consumed in the United States come from farms close to metropolitan areas. While cities like Charleston, SC, have implemented regional plans that favor denser, mixed-use development while conserving agricultural and natural lands, the study authors are not optimistic about the opportunity to change course, writing, “History suggests humans … rarely optimize growth, particularly when multiple objectives such as profit, equity, and ecological integrity come into conflict.” But a new smart growth future must be realized – to feed a growing population, protect humans from the effects of climate change, and preserve open space.


For more information see: 

Scientists Predict Massive Urban Growth, Creation of ’Megalopolis’ in Southeast in Next 45 Years, U.S. Geological Survey

Southeast could become an overdeveloped ‘megalopolis’ in the next half century, The Washington Post

The Southern Megalopolis: Using the Past to Predict the Future of Urban Sprawl in the Southeast U.S., Plos One

A new warning for the South: Grow smarter, The Post and Courier

What’s happening to Our Farmland?, American Farmland Trust