Piedmont Sprawl Study

Vanishing Open Spaces in the Piedmont

The Southeast is home to one of the fastest growing regions in the United States in recent decades. Emerging in the southern Piedmont is the country’s newest “megalopolis” – a region containing one or more metropolitan areas connected by transportation corridors and typically characterized, especially in United States, by urban sprawl.

The Piedmont is currently one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. From 1982 to 2010, the population in Piedmont counties grew by 6.7 million. During that time, 3.7 million acres of open space were lost.

Giant urban sprawl could pave over thousands of acres of forest and agriculture, connecting Raleigh to Atlanta by 2060, if growth continues at its current pace…It will nearly mirror the decades-old development of the Northeast corridor, from Washington to Boston…

The Washington Post, August 9, 2014

At its most basic level, there are three reasons for an increase in the area of developed land: 1) each individual, on average, is consuming more land; 2) there are more people; or 3) a combination of the two factors is working together to create sprawl.

This study by NumbersUSA, one in a series on sprawl, focuses on the loss of previously undeveloped land in the 128-county Piedmont study area in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia and quantifies the two fundamental factors behind sprawl: rising per capita land consumption and population growth.

We relied on two main sources of data, the U.S. Census Bureau data on Urbanized Areas (UAs) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service’s National Resources Inventory.

What we found was that 86% of total sprawl in the southern Piedmont from 2002-2012 was caused by population growth.

Population growth in the Piedmont, as it is in other area of the United States, is due to federal, state, and local policies, and the attractiveness of the area to businesses and residents.

According to Census Bureau data, 40 percent of the recent population growth in the Piedmont is attributable to new immigrants and their U.S. born children. This means immigration is a major contributor to population growth in the region, but it also means that the majority of new people moving to the region are coming from regions within the United States. Overall, new immigration is responsible for almost the entirety of U.S. population growth, which will reach 404 million by 2060.

Because the Piedmont region has lower population density and more open spaces than Northeastern states, the Piedmont has been an attractive place for Americans in more populated (in some cases severely overpopulated areas) to relocate to, and is popular as a retirement destination. As the American population continues to age, and as immigration causes crowding in other areas of the United States (e.g. Florida, New Jersey, and the New York and Washington D.C. metro areas), the population in the Piedmont is projected to grow exponentially.

What Is Lost to Sprawl?

Urban sprawl is replacing our nation’s forests, wetlands, and prime farmland with subdivisions, new and expanded roads, strip malls, and business parks. On average, every new person added to the United States population entails the development of about half an acre of farmland or natural habitat.

This leads to the disappearance of natural habitats dominated by communities of wild plants and animals, replaced by biologically impoverished artificial habitats dominated by human structures and communities, and gives rise to invasive species.

It's not just animals and plants who suffer. There are physiological and psychological benefits of open space, and severe negative consequences when those open spaces are lost.

People often say that they like nature; yet they often fail to recognize that they need it...Nature is not merely “nice.” It is not just a matter of improving one’s mood, rather it is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning.

– Stephen Kaplan, “The Restorative Environment: Nature and Human Experience,” 1992

What Can Be Done?

Ongoing sprawl in the Piedmont is not inevitable. The future depends on decisions made at the local and national levels. The choices made today will affect residents of the Piedmont into the next century.

These choices can be difficult, and creating a consensus depends on an informed citizenry working toward a common goal. The most important thing is to understand what is happening and why it is happening. Immigration is not the main cause of population growth in the Piedmont, but it is a major cause, and it is far and away the main cause of population growth in the United States. Discussing the effects of immigration population growth, and devising better immigration policies, is vital to maintaining open spaces in the Piedmont.

Here are some simple yet effective ways of combating sprawl.


Read the full Piedmont Study.

Read an abridged version of the Piedmont study.