September 15, 2011

Cities Gobbling Up Huge Land Masses

In the next 20 years, more than 590,000 square miles of land globally — more than twice the size of Texas — will be gobbled up by cities, a trend that shows no signs of stopping and one that could pose threats on several levels, says a Texas A&M University geographer who is part of a national team studying the problem.

Burak Güneralp, a research assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Texas A&M, says urban areas are growing faster than urban populations and by 2030, urbanized land worldwide will grow by 590,000 square miles — more than twice the size of Texas, or about the size of Mongolia. He is part of a team that includes three other researchers from Yale, Stanford and Arizona State and their work is published in the journal PloS ONE.

“This massive urbanization of land is happening worldwide, but India, China and Africa have experienced the highest rates of urban land expansion,” Güneralp explains. “Our study covered the 30 years from 1970 to 2000, and we found that urban growth is occurring at the highest rates in developing countries. However, it is the North America that experienced the largest increase in total urban land.”

The United Nations predicts that by 2030 there will be an additional 1.47 billion people living in urban areas. Güneralp says, urban population growth is a significant driver of urban land change, especially in developing regions such in India and Africa. However, economic growth is also important, particularly in China.

He notes that coastal areas are especially vulnerable to urban expansion.

“Where cities grow the most seem to be near coastal areas, and this is a very noticeable trend,” Güneralp says. “This makes coastal areas a special area of concern because people and infrastructures are at risk to rising sea levels, flooding, hurricanes, tsunamis and  other disasters. All over the world, people like to live by the water, so it’s a trend that will likely not change.”

Güneralp adds that often urbanization occurs near lands that are environmentally sensitive and in some cases, protected by law.

“This will challenge conservation strategies because future urban expansion is expected to be significant in total area extent and also as likely to occur near protected areas as in other regions,” he says.

There is a flip side to the urbanization trend, Güneralp points out.

“People who live in cities tend to have better access to health care, water and sanitation facilities, and cities are shown to be more efficient with regards to such things as energy consumption compared to rural areas,” he notes. “In cities, people exchange. They exchange ideas, experiences as well as materials. All these spur innovation and create business opportunities. Because of all these interactions, cities are the most likely places to come up with the solutions to the emerging environmental and economic challenges that we face.”


About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $630 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

Media contact: Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or Burak Güneralp at (979) 845-7141

5 Comments to Cities Gobbling Up Huge Land Masses

  1. You would think we, as a people, would put some resources behind this rather than leaving it up to developers and the free market. We have seen this result and it is not pretty.

  2. Craig Purcell on September 16th, 2011
  3. One has to wonder how much of this land was previously used in Agriculture and what the effect of the loss of farm and ranch land might have on the prices we pay for food.

  4. Fred Rodriguez on September 20th, 2011
  5. Craig, you hit the nail on the head. Just look at the indiscriminate growth occurring in the Bryan/College Station area–the haphazard conversion of farm & ranchland to poorly-planned and poorly-constructed apartments and subdivisions strains our infrastructure and costs us all more in taxes to subsidize. This unsustainable development cannot continue if B/CS is to retain its unique personality and attraction. Increases in numbers of students and permanent residents can be easily and efficiently accommodated if the appropriate planning measures are implemented, resulting in a higher quality of life for all residents and visitors.

  6. Julie Svetlik on September 20th, 2011
  7. Land is one of the Golden Cows used by City, State and National governments to carry out their personal agendas. Consider, for instance, municipalities gain parcels of land on a routine basis due to non-payment of property taxes. The disposition of these lands is often tied to an administrations array of programs, such as development of low income housing, that in part appear to serve the good of the general public. In reality, however, the programs are tools for public officials to grandstand. The long run winners of this use of land programs are the politicians and the contractors that are heavily subsidized to build affordable housing and the long term losers are the tax payers who pay for these subsidies.

  8. Juan Chavez on September 20th, 2011
  9. I am concerned that urban planning is constrained by existing expectations of the growing population. Those expectations include personal vehicles, consumable products in packaging intended to be discarded, and in general volumes of urban waste that is hauled “away” and often buried. The entire model needs to be examined systemically, in search of reducing waste and building upon the connectedness of people. Sorry, my friends, I have not yet seen a planned community that steps up to the challenge… Please prove me wrong.

  10. David Howerton on September 21st, 2011
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