Growth and Pennsylvanias Environment: The Facts


At the heart of the push for increased government control over land use in Pennsylvania is the contention that new suburban development consistently degrades the state’s environmental quality. A thorough review of federal data in Pennsylvania shows that the state’s environmental quality is, in fact, improving in many areas. Indeed, popular claims about the direct linkages of sprawl and environmental quality are misplaced and difficult to sustain based on the data. Problems being experienced by suburban residents as a result of growth are due to societal, rather than environmental, phenomena. “Smart Growth” policies that miscast suburbanization as an environmental issue are likely to have disappointing results for Pennsylvanians.

  • The oft-quoted assertion that Pennsylvania has lost over 1.1 million acres of farmland to development between 1992 and 1997 may be wrong-perhaps by a factor of four. The statistics on residential and commercial construction in Pennsylvania do not show the dramatic increase in development–or the roads and infrastructure to support itnecessary to match such a dramatic loss of farmland. The March 27, 2000 announcement by the United States Department of Agriculture that “almost all” of the 1997 NRI findings will have to be revised raises even more questions about their credibility.
  • The amount of farmland grew in Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing counties, and shrank in the counties that are losing population. The five Pennsylvania counties that gained the most population (Bucks, Chester, Montgomery,York and Lancaster) during the 1990s experienced a net increase in farmland of more than 15,000 acres between 1992 and 1997.
  • There are two major causes of land development: population growth and increased affluence. According to the Census Bureau’s “Low Growth” projection series, Pennsylvania will grow by less than 700,000 people over the next 25 years-less than California or Texas grow in two years at current rates. Hence the chief cause of suburban growth in Pennsylvania has been affluence: as more of its residents have moved up the economic ladder, they have chosen to move to suburban and exurban neighborhoods.
  • Improvements in air quality are one of the great success stories of American environmentalism. Between 1988 and 1997, Pennsylvania cities enjoyed declines in ambient air pollution in all six “criteria” pollutants (lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxides, and ozone) regulated by the federal Clean Air Act.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for Pennsylvania do not support the commonly heard “smart growth” theme that higher density development will contribute to better metropolitan air quality. The data show that there is little or no correlation between density and air quality, and some of the data suggests that the correlation between density and air quality is negative, i.e., higher densities experience higher levels of air pollution.
  • Data from the EPA’s 1996 National Water Quality Inventory (NWQI) show that Pennsylvania compares favorably with the national averages both in terms of the amount of its river and stream miles assessed, and in the quality of its waters. The implication of the NWQI data is that suburban development is a minor factor in surface water and groundwater quality in Pennsylvania.
  • The common perception is that traffic congestion is increasing because of “sprawl,” i.e., because people are “spreading out” and having to commute further to work each day. A closer look at the facts shows this perception is mistaken. Federal data show that traffic congestion has improved in both the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas between 1982 and 1997.
  • An analysis of traffic data from Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh demonstrates that the “smart growth” solution to traffic congestion-high-density development-only serves to exacerbate the problem.