Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new project examines how natural expanses in 11 Western U.S. states are being lost to urban and agricultural activity.
States in the Western U.S. lost football field-sized swathes of natural land, including forests, wetlands, deserts, and grasslands, every 2.5 minutes between 2001 and 2011—mainly due to urbanization. That is among the revelations in a joint report and mapping project by the Center for American Progress and the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners.
“Natural areas in the West are going fast,” the authors of the report write in its introduction. “With each flight home, we get a bird’s eye view of sprawling new roads, oil wells, and pipelines. The Oregon woods we explored as kids are now stumps without songbirds. We see fewer stars through Santa Fe’s brightening lights.”
To identify the extent and speed of this change, the organizations analyzed data and satellite images from 11 western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Their main finding, via the report:
Human development in the West now covers more than 165,000 square miles of land. That is roughly the size of 6 million superstore parking lots.
These findings are illustrated in an interactive map. Here are two screenshots from it, showing states’ percentage of land loss in 2001 (below, top) and in 2011 (below, bottom). By 2011, mosts states are a bit warmer in color, which means they lost land at higher rates.
The map also illustrates the human activities that have driven this decade-long transformation. Urban sprawl is the main culprit; housing and commercial development has been responsible for more than half of the land lost between 2001 and 2011. Sprawl is followed by the expansion of energy infrastructure and transportation networks, and finally, agricultural practices.
In the map below, the warmer the color, the higher the extent of modification by these four human activities:
Of course, urbanization has always been pitted against nature as if it was a zero-sum battle, and sometimes it is. But as my colleague Laura Bliss has written, cities can also be heroes for the environment and the ideal breeding grounds for solutions to issues of sustainability. Plus, expanding energy and transportation infrastructure to connect communities that have previously been left behind has perhaps never been so important. Far from refuting that, the report is a rallying cry for conserving more of the West’s open spaces than we have been. “The good news is that, although natural areas in the West are disappearing quickly, there are still opportunities to protect what is left,” it reads.