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A major shift in U.S. land development avoids significant losses in forest and agricultural land

Building houses, roads, and other developments on land that was forested or farmed is one of the most fundamental ways in which humans impact the natural environment. Land development rates across the U.S. declined remarkably from 2000 to 2015. The research team explored this decline and found that higher gas prices have played a large role in the shift towards denser development.

Aerial view looking straight down at a highway interchange.
Land development fundamentally - and sometimes irreversibly - alters the natural landscape. Courtesy photo by Kelly, Pexels.com.

Despite relatively constant population growth since 1980, the current annual rate of land development has declined to less than 25% of the peak rate observed in the mid-late 1990s. This implies that the developed land base of the U.S. has become increasingly dense in recent years.

The widespread shift in land development rates resulted in 7 million acres of avoided land development, roughly half of which would have come from conversions of forested lands.

The study indicates that higher rates of development over the last two decades of the 20th century was driven by falling gas prices (an important component of commuting costs) and, to a lesser extent, rising incomes. Since 2000, however, income growth has been stagnant while gas prices have risen sharply. The study found that higher gas prices have played a large role in the recent shift towards denser development. Results illustrate an often overlooked effect of rising gas prices: they can indirectly prevent losses in forest and agricultural land by reducing land development rates.