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Slowly but surely, facts and figures from the most expensive census in history are leaking into the public consciousness. And with each new press release from the U.S. Census Bureau, special interest groups galore are grasping onto statistics in an effort to prove their points and further their causes.

So it is with the latest figures on population growth and density, which environmental groups like the Sierra Club are waving about as proof that urban sprawl is everywhere. What’s more, groups like this claim, sprawl is so serious a problem it threatens our very way of life, including motherhood and apple pie.

Now, before we leap into the new news, let’s revisit some revised figures release just months ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA, only 6.6 percent of the country’s land was developed as of 1997, up 32 percent since 1982. That 6.6 percent, however, stands far below what the general public perceives to be true.

What exactly is urban sprawl? Well, according to the Sierra Club, suburban sprawl is irresponsible, often poorly planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools and – get this – drives up taxes.

The federal government measures sprawl in terms of population density. In other words, a “good” city has people stacked on top of one another, while a “bad” city includes 1-acre lots. Using this criteria, cities across the United States were judged by comparing their population density in 1990 to the figure for 2000.

The verdict? Major sinners exist in the South, including such fast-growing cities as Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C.; Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Memphis, Orlando and Nashville.

According to a study by NumbersUSA released earlier this month, the nation’s 100 largest cities grew an additional 14,545 square miles over the last 20 years, swallowing 9 million acres of rural land.

And why did these cities sprawl so much? At last, environmentalists are acknowledging that two factors – not one – affect “urban sprawl.” In the past, most environmental groups cited only the “greedy” use of more and more land by each individual as development spread outward from cities. This included the growth of the suburbs which, let’s face it, most Americans prefer to inner-city living.

But now, another factor rings out loud and clear: population growth. Cities in the South and West experiencing the most sprawl are growing significantly in the number of residents.

“On average there are more of us, and each of us is using more urban land,” said Roy Beck, a public policy analyst who co-authored the NumbersUSA study. “Plans and programs to halt the urban sprawl that is devouring thousands of square miles of farmland, natural habitats and open spaces each decade must also focus on slowing population growth to be effective.”

According to the Sierra Club, population growth accounts for 30 percent of America’s land consumption. You can be sure that number is conservative and may reach even higher when collateral effects of increased population are fully accounted for.

In fact, Beck’s study contends that fully half of sprawl is caused by increased population.

A Sierra Club study points out that the effect of population growth on sprawl differs depending on the region. In areas where population is stable, sprawl is caused by urban flight. Yet in the South and West, population growth is a bigger factor.

So what’s next for the environmental lobby? Now that they know “poor urban planning” accounts for only half of sprawl, city growth limits won’t be enough. If an expanding population is the demon, what is the solution offered by envrionmentalists?

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