Urban Sprawl: A Growing Population Can Restrict Coastal Ecosystem Services

Population and residential development along the coast is growing roughly at the same rate as the rest of the nation. However, this growth is occurring in a much smaller area (only 17 percent of total land), creating much higher rates of density. In addition, land consumption has grown at more than twice the rate of population growth (Beach 2002). When this land consumption occurs in primarily agricultural or other previously undeveloped areas, it is often referred to as urban sprawl. Although sprawl has been defined in a multitude of ways, there is no widely accepted definition. For the purposes of this case study, urban sprawl is the extension of low-density residential, commercial, and industrial development into areas beyond a city's boundaries that occurs in an unplanned or uncoordinated manner.

Sprawl is generally characterized by:

  • low-density development that is dispersed and situated on large lots (greater than one acre)
  • geographic separation of essential places such as work, home, school, and shopping
  • high dependence on automobiles for travel
  • increased impervious surface area in watersheds
  • habitat fragmentation and degradation

(Heimlich, 2001, and Beach, 2002)

These characteristics are known to have deleterious effects on critical ecosystem services in the coastal environment. Ecosystem services are the fundamental life-support processes necessary for all life to thrive. Ecosystem services that may be disrupted or become impaired due to coastal sprawl include:

  • removal of pollutants from air and water
  • mitigation of floods and drought
  • protection of coastal shores from erosion
  • open space and wildlife habitat for recreation

(Daily, 1997, and Heimlich 2001)

Numerous strategies were developed by government officials across the nation to reduce sprawl and its negative effects. These strategies include combination of regulation of development, incentives to guide development patterns, and purchase of important lands.

Regardless of the type of policy, the most effective have been characterized by efficient implementation of the details of the strategy, implementation of multiple strategies that reinforce each other, effective coordination between federal, local, and state governments, effective coordination between all affected communities with jurisdictional authority, and meaningful stakeholder participation throughout planning and implementation process.

Crystal Cove State Park and housing development in Orange County, CA

Crystal Cove State Park and housing development in Orange County, CA.
Credit: Bruce Perry, Department of Geological Sciences, California State University Long Beach

Key Fact:

By 1997 14% of the nation's coastal area was estimated to be developed (compared to 4% of interior watershed area). It is projected that over 25% will be developed by 2025. (Beach 2002)

For more information:

Urban Sprawl: The Big Picture

Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities Report

Coastal Sprawl: The Effects of Urban Design on Aquatic Ecosystems in the United States

Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems