By Pop X, Center for Biological Diversity, October 19, 2012
As the world's population grows, so does the human footprint. A new study predicts that in less than 20 years, urbanized areas on the planet will expand by 463,000 square miles -- that's nearly three times the size of California. Or, imagined another way, that's like adding 20,000 football fields of paved-over urban jungle every day.
It will be, as one researcher calls it, "an unprecedented era of urban expansion and city-building." Much of that's going to happen in Asia, especially China, but not all. The researchers at Yale, Texas A&M and Boston University tell us that in North America, where nearly 8 out of 10 people live in a cityscape, urban land will nearly double — to 96,000 square miles -- by 2030. All of that comes with the construction of roads, buildings, power plants, parking lots and housing subdivisions. It's a daunting image of nature paved over, but, the researchers say, it can be -- and should be -- seen as an opportunity to do development with minimal harm.
"Given the long life and near irreversibility of infrastructure investments, it will be critical for current urbanization-related policies to consider their long impacts," said Karen Seto, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Yale. "We have a huge opportunity to shape how cities develop and their environmental impacts."
There's another important point in that same study: The more homes we build for ourselves, the more homes we destroy for wildlife. The researchers project that the urban growth expected by 2030 will "encroach on or destroy" habitat for 139 amphibians, 41 mammals and 25 birds considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That estimate seems perilously low to us, but every species we lose forever amounts to a collective tragedy.
"It's not all about carbon footprint, which is what mayors and planners typically think about now, but we need to consider how urban expansion will have implications for other, nonhuman species and the value of these species for present and future generations," said Burak Guneralp, one of the researchers at Texas A&M.
That's been a driving factor in our work here at the Center for Biological Diversity. Just this week, a California judge on one of our lawsuits confirmed that the proposed Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County, which would create a new town of 60,000 people on the banks for the struggling Santa Clara River, violated laws that protect endangered species. And earlier this year, we petitioned to protect 53 amphibians and reptiles around the country, many of which are threatened by urban expansion driven by the growth of our human population. One of the most important steps that can be taken is securing protected "critical habitat" for these species, a designation helps stem the replacement, by strip malls and subdivisions, of the few remaining homes these vanishing plants and animals have. A good example: More than 838,000 acres of critical habitat were recently proposed for the jaguar in the Southwest, a result we've been fighting to achieve for more than a decade.