The Sierra Club Sprawl Campaign Advocates
Mopping Faster Rather Than Turning Off Spigot

Observations on the New Sierra Club Population-Sprawl Paper

by Leon Kolankiewicz


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The Sierra Club's white paper "New Research on Population, Suburban Sprawl and Smart Growth," posted on its website at, concedes that population growth "... often contributes in a major way to sprawl." In view of the short shrift given to population in several years' worth of earlier reports by the Club's sprawl campaign, this admission of what seems obvious to many - and what has now been documented in the new study Weighing Sprawl Factors in Large U.S. Cities - is like a breath of fresh air.
But that one tantalizing whiff of the truth is about all one gets. Otherwise the white paper reverts to form by incorrectly minimizing the actual role of population growth and by trotting out the same tried-and-true list of "smart growth" tools touted by virtually all smart growth literature. These are declared "effective solutions" to sprawl - although it seems premature to make this claim. In contrast, efforts to discourage population growth are "actually associated with more sprawl" according to recent planning research cited by the white paper.
Come again? How could less population growth lead to more sprawl? Within this seeming paradox lies the curious and tragic tale of the Sierra Club establishment's abject unwillingness to come to grips with national population growth. For in this white paper, "slowing population growth" does not refer at all to cutting down annual U.S. population growth of about 3 million a year. The level of overall national population growth, now and projected, that Sierra leaders (along with demographers, politicians and big business) seem to believe must be accommodated at all costs, is never even mentioned at all, as if it were either irrelevant or inevitable. Rather, discouraging population growth refers specifically to the use of low-density zoning by some outlying communities in metro areas around the country to keep out unwanted high-density growth by making real estate so expensive that only a few super-rich can afford to build nearby. It is not at all surprising that such "exclusionary" zoning could lead to greater overall sprawl, both by causing development to leapfrog around it and by lowering overall density in an urbanizing region.
But this is not the means of "slowing population growth" that SUSPS and other population stabilization advocates have in mind at all. Most stabilization advocates promote a mix of measures to slow and then stop population growth at both the global and national scale. Just as letting air out of a balloon reduces the pressure on its entire surface, so would reduced national population growth diminish the demographically-driven development pressures faced by most urban areas around the country.
Imagine water pouring out of a spigot onto the floor, forming an ever-spreading puddle, like sprawl. The Sierra Club, and indeed all smart growth advocates have decided to ignore the spigot altogether and focus all their energies and efforts on better mopping. They will get a bigger mop, a more comfortable mop handle, a sturdier bucket; they will mop harder and harder, and so on and so forth, in a vain effort to try and mop up the floor. But with water continuing to pour unabated out of the spigot, the floor will never get dry. Anti-sprawl forces must recognize that the spigot of national population growth can be turned off or at least slowed down; until this happens, sprawl will continue laying siege to the vanishing American countryside. Even if their efforts succeed, all it will do is slow the pace of sprawl.
Urban planning consultant Eben Fodor, author of Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, puts it this way, "The fact that sprawl can't be 'fixed' merely by growing better (aka smart growth) without controlling population growth is the elephant in the living room... planners and policy-makers (encouraged by development interests) are the ones pretending that we can solve the problem through artful growth accommodation. Sadly, many environmental groups have adopted this myth as well...Virtually all planning done today is based on the 'endless growth model' that assumes growth can be accommodated indefinitely, or at least that any real restraints are so far in the future that they can be completely ignored. Remarkable!"
Remarkable indeed. And truly disappointing that the Sierra Club, once a national leader in the drive toward U.S. population stabilization, has opted for this delusion. Which is one reason the late David Brower, a Club icon for half a century, resigned in protest from the Board of Directors just months before his death last year. The man who declared way back in the 1960's that: "We feel you don't have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy," accused the Club leadership of fiddling while the world burns in May, 2000. And he added: "Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us... It has to addressed." So far the Club has chosen to ignore his admonition.
As long as Americans acquiesce to rapid national population growth, smart growth might at best be able to cut the rate of sprawl in half. So it may take twice as long to pave over the same area, but the bottom line is, it will still be paved over.
LEON KOLANKIEWICZ is coauthor of four population-sprawl reports, including the 100 City Sprawl Report at that quantifies the role of U.S. population growth in the two most recent decades of Sprawl in the 100 largest Urbanized Areas as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Mr. Kolankiewicz is a national environmental/natural resource planner and a former planner with the Orange County (CA) Environmental Management Agency. He has a B.S. in forestry and wildlife management from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in environmental planning and natural resources management from the University of British Columbia. He has worked as an environmental professional for more than two decades, including stints with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Washington, University of New Mexico, and as a national parks technical advisor with the Peace Corps in Central America. He has written more than 70 articles and reports and is the author of Where the Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett, 1993).


Information on Sprawl

The Sprawl Ballot Question

The Overlooked Factor in Sprawl

The Sprawl Ballot Question - Looking for the Root Cause

Facing the Future and Sprawl

StarWhat you can do to help

Sprawl and Population

Supporting statement (short)

Census Adjusted Upward

Supporting statement (long)

Sprawl: It's Too Many People

Sprawl resolutions passed by Club Chapters shows
population-sprawl relationship

Frequently Asked Questions


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