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Vanishing open spaces: population growth and sprawl in America

Vanishing open spaces: population growth and sprawl in America

Before the fossil fuel age began, about 80 to 90% of people farmed to make a living. Since the end of the oil age will send us back to the past, farmland and farmers will once again comprise the greatest numbers of people.  So it’s alarming that on the cusp of peak global production of oil, we’re losing farmland at such a fast clip to development.   We need all the land we can get – in the Great Depression people were hungry, back when there was just a quarter of the population we have now, with 25% of people still farmers, unlike the 2% today. 

Cities were originally built where the best farmland and water existed. As cities and towns grow, they sprawl outwards over this prime farmland – in fact, that’s where 85% of developmental sprawl happens. The United Nations calls this soil sealing – the permanent covering of soil with impermeable materials such as asphalt or structures.  This leads to a total soil loss of food and fiber production, for water to infiltrate and be held and purified, and often increases flooding , the ability of the soil to hold water, loss of purification capacities, loss of carbon sequestration, increased urban heat from the loss of vegetation, and less biodiversity (FAO 2015).

Between 1945 and 1975, enough farms disappeared beneath concrete to pave Nebraska (Montgomery 2007), about 49.5 million acres (77,350 square miles).

Between 1982 and 2010 the U.S. lost 41.4 million acres, 14% of its crop land.  That’s equal to 65,000 square miles, an area as large as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania

Over a third of all land that has ever been developed occurred in the last 25 years.  If we keep paving over cropland at this rate, it will all be gone in 200 years.   

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