OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Study Finds Low-Density Housing Sprawl “Ubiquitous”

04/09/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study on housing by researchers from Oregon and the Midwest has found that housing growth is ubiquitous throughout the country, and the “sprawl” once associated primarily with urban areas has become a dominant feature of the rural landscape.

The trend toward low-density housing has significant consequences, the researchers say, as more and more people seek the American dream of the past half-century – a house on five acres next to a stream and wooded hillside.

“The proliferation of low-density housing can result in a loss of traditional timber and agricultural land that is subsumed by development,” said Roger Hammer, a demographer and assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University. “Living near urban areas is no longer considered a necessity as more people become willing to commute an hour each way to work, or can telecommute and work at home.”

Hammer and colleagues Volker C. Radeloff, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Susan Stewart, from the U.S. Forest Service in Evanston, Ill., have created a new website that looks at housing location nationally and state-by-state back to 1940 and ahead to the year 2030. Their projections can be broken down to the county and even neighborhood level for every state. That specificity, which is smaller than U.S. Census block groups, is a level of detail that is unprecedented, the researchers say. http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/library/HousingData.asp.

Their data show tremendous housing growth in the West and the Southeast regions of the United States over the past few decades. A higher percentage of public lands in the West has prevented even more dispersed growth and steered many of the new housing units to transportation corridors.

In the South, the Carolinas and Georgia have grown substantially, Hammer said, in large part because of expanding metropolitan areas and a growing number of seasonal and retirement homes in non-metropolitan areas. Part of that growth is attributed to a “ricochet” effect of retirees and others – sometimes referred to as snowbirds – moving from colder climates to the South, but unable to afford higher-priced locales in Florida and settling instead in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The seasonal home phenomenon also is responsible for growth in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Although the researchers didn’t specifically look at seasonal homes, they conservatively estimate that there are more than 3.6 million of these dwellings in the United States. The rate of seasonal homes has more than doubled since 1940, from 5.6 per 1,000 persons to 13 per 1,000 persons.

This trend toward rural sprawl has major environment impacts, according to Radeloff, who is an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology.

“With housing development, we see an increase in exotic, invasive plants and negative effects on many forest bird species, habitat fragmentation and rising numbers of human-caused wildfires,” Radeloff said. “People like to live near lakes, in the mountains, and close to the coasts. But as more and more people move away from the cities, we have to recognize that there are consequences.”

Radeloff said there are several responses individuals and society should consider to the rural sprawl trend. Homeowners can choose to plant only native and non-invasive plants on their property, and restrict their pets to fenced areas, especially during sensitive times like wildlife breeding seasons. County and municipal administrators can monitor where they will allow housing developments based on environmental impacts. And on a national basis, the United States should consider policies that encourage, if not subsidize sensible local land use, and move away from policies that foster housing sprawl.

“We don’t need Congress to decide land use,” Radeloff emphasized, “but we do need programs that provide assistance to develop comprehensive land use plans that take the needs of both people and the environment into account.”

Areas with natural resource amenities and recreation often are targets for this “rural sprawl,” according to Stewart.

“Rural sprawl often takes small communities by surprise and can overwhelm their capacity for planning and land use enforcement,” she said. “Our housing growth trends are coming into conflict with our love of nature and we need to resolve the conflict while we can.”

The shift of more housing into rural areas also has placed homeowners in conflict with another part of nature – wildfires. In February, OSU’s Hammer testified in Washington, D.C. to the House Interior, Environment & Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on wildfire management. In that hearing, he told the House that the confluence of forest management decisions and housing location decisions will put more Americans at-risk from wildfires during the next several years.

“Large forest fires are not new to this country and especially to the West,” Hammer said. “But as more and more people move into these rural areas, the problem will continue to worsen.” http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/Library/WUILibrary.asp.