Selected news coverage of

Outsmarting Smart Growth
Population Growth, Immigration,
and the Problem of Sprawl

August 2003

By Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven A. Camarota
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
The Fresno (Calif.) Bee

Study: Immigration Biggest Contributor to Sprawl
By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, September 8, 2003

WASHINGTON — 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 and NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation 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, 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.


Immigration called a key factor in sprawl
Controversial study discounts popular idea that aliens have little effect on development
By Brian Donohue
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey), August 27, 2003

Efforts by states and local governments to stem suburban sprawl are doomed because of high levels of immigration and population increases, according to a study released yesterday by a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The study by the Center for Immigration Studies discounts the notion, widely held by environmentalists and planners, that immigration plays little role in the loss of open space to development.

Nationwide, population growth accounted for 52 percent of the loss of rural land from 1982 to1997, the study found.

Meanwhile, increases in the amount of land used per person -- considered by many planners and environmentalists to be the driving force behind sprawl -- accounted for 48 percent of new development on rural land.

The study was conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates a reduction in immigration levels.

Researchers hope the findings will spark greater scrutiny of immigration's role as a contributing factor in sprawl.

"No one wants to talk about population growth," said Steven Camarota, CIS lead researcher and an author of the study. "Either people are unaware or they recognize that it's a bombshell."

"The question is, Do we want to be a nation of 400 or 500 million people? You're going to have to develop a lot more land, and if you say you're not, you're being disingenuous."

The study compared development statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service with population data from the U.S. Census.

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have had internal debates over whether to include immigration reductions in their platforms.

Jeff Tittel, director of the state Sierra Club chapter, disputed the findings of the CIS study, saying it greatly exaggerated immigration's effect on sprawl.

"The biggest immigration group causing sprawl in New Jersey are New Yorkers, not people from Central America," said Tittel. "It's the person from the West Side of Manhattan who now wants the backyard swimming pool."

The study cites a list of 20 other factors, including highway construction, affluence and zoning laws that have increased the amount of developed land per person by 16.2 percent over the 15-year time period.

But the study says a 15.5 percent increase in the nation's overall population has played an even larger role the loss of open space.

In New Jersey, the study found immigration has had a far smaller effect on sprawl than in many other states. That's because immigration was offset by a steady outflow of native New Jerseyans moving to other states.

In the 15-year period, the state's population rose just 8 percent. Overall land use, however, rose by 40 percent, the study found.

In fact, 76.3 percent of the increase in land use was because of factors such as larger house sizes, highway building, the movement of jobs to the suburbs.

The effect was far more pronounced in other regions that have seen their populations skyrocket over years included in the study. In Arizona, population growth alone more than doubled the amount of land being used, even as per capita land use shrank.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation and lead author of the report, said immigration's role in fueling sprawl was the result of two factors.

First, while most immigrants still live in cities, more are settling in the suburbs. Also, the arrival of new immigrants in the cities prompts job competition, cultural changes and other factors that prompt native residents to move further outward to rural areas.

"It just sounds far out," said Beck. "You think of immigrants, they are poor, they live in cities , they live on top of each other. How can you blame them for sprawl? But once we were able to just put the figures down, there is no question that population growth is a huge factor."


Immigration cited for sprawl
By Michael Doyle
The Fresno (Calif.) Bee, August 27, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Central Valley sprawl could be at least partly controlled by curtailing immigration, according to a study released Tuesday.

In a fresh twist on two familiar California controversies, analysts say admitting fewer immigrants would reduce population pressures they partially blame for unruly sprawl. And, the analysts say, they've got some numbers to prove it.

"If you're going to be admitting one-and-a-half million immigrants annually, you can't do that without paving over an enormous amount of land," said Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

About 1.3 million acres of California land were developed between 1982 and 1997. The state's population grew by 30% during the same period, thanks largely to immigration.

The Central Valley's population alone is expected to increase to 9.3 million in 2025, up from the current 5.7 million, according to state estimates.

Many new residents will be foreign-born or the children of foreign-born, as California typically becomes home to one in three immigrants entering the United States.

"Federal immigration policy would appear to be the single largest factor in determining how much sprawl will occur over the next 50-100 years," asserts the report, whose authors advocate tougher immigration restrictions -- a position long advocated by the sponsoring Center for Immigration Studies.

The center bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization founded in 1985 to conduct research and policy analysis on the impacts of immigration on the United States.

The center's findings were partially supported by a new Public Policy Institute of California study that noted that nearly 50% of the state's new neighborhoods are located in the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento metropolitan area or the Inland Empire around Riverside.

The institute describes itself as a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. It started in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.

Not everyone, though, pinpoints immigration as a prime instigator of sprawl.

"Of course, more people need more houses," said Carol Whiteside, director of the Modesto-based Great Valley Center, "but you can't make blanket statements about any population."

Whiteside noted, for instance, that younger immigrants with their traditionally larger families cluster in housing that does not induce sprawl. The Public Policy Institute's new study -- whose co-author, Hans Johnson, recently spoke at the Great Valley Center -- noted that California's "newest neighborhoods tend to be less racially and ethnically diverse than the rest of the state's neighborhoods."

Though the connection between sprawl and population growth seems intuitive, the Center for Immigration Study's analysts say they're the first to systematically quantify the relationship and to include the role of immigration. And they noted that population growth is not synonymous with sprawl, which often is characterized by low-density along with unplanned and auto-dependent development.

"It's like pornography," Whiteside said. "You know it when you see it."

In California, the new report contends that fully 94% of the state's sprawl results from population growth. In other states, population growth is said to make far less of a contribution.

The immigration analysts are thus also contrasting their policy prescriptions with that of "smart growth" champions who emphasize better planning, increasing density, putting homes near businesses and investing in public transit. Proposals to limit population growth, Whiteside noted, can be politically dicey.

"Most people I speak with in the public policy arena are willing to accept population growth as a given," Whiteside said.

The Center for Immigration Studies, by contrast, suggests immigrant admissions could be fruitfully cut to about 300,000 a year, down from the current levels that exceed 1 million.

The new study concludes that immigrants accounted for 58% of total U.S. population growth in the 1990s, when the U.S. population grew by nearly 33 million people.

At current rates, the country's population will exceed 400 million by 2050.