Historical Land Use Trends Show Moderating Urbanization Rates

Nationally, the most rapid rate of suburbanization occurred between 1920 and 1950.[22] A national study of more than three hundred fast-growth rural counties in the 1970s and 1980s — those on the fringe of development and most symbolic of sprawl — found land use trends moderating. These moderating trends are likely to continue as national population growth also continues to moderate. "The net effect of changing household number [size], household characteristics, and economic constraints on demand for land," note economists Marlow Vesterby and Ralph Heimlich, "is likely to mean less conversion of land for urban uses in the future."[23]

Where does Michigan "stack up" against other states? Nationally, 4.8% of the United States’ total land area is urbanized, including federally owned lands as defined by the U. S. Department of Agriculture.[24] The median — the proportion of land urbanized in the state that is the midpoint of all states ranked by their degree of urbanization — is just 5.2%. The most urbanized states are in New England: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut each have about 25% or more of their land area urbanized. New Jersey is the most urbanized state with more than 30% of its land area urbanized. Thus, despite centuries of urbanization, no state in the U. S. has more than half its land developed for urban uses. More than three quarters have over 90% of their land in rural areas (see Chart 4 ).

Michigan ranks 11th out of 50 states, with 9.8% of its land rated as "urban." At first glance, Michigan’s ranking relative to other states might be alarming. Yet, 9.8% of urbanized land implies that 90.2% is non-urban. Michigan is less urbanized than North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and as urbanized as New York, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

If Michigan were to double the proportion of its land currently in urban areas, 19.6% would be urbanized. Thus, more than three quarters of Michigan’s landscape would still be rural in character. In fact, despite the historically rapid increase in urbanization, the rural character of Michigan is unlikely to change based on long-term trends in farmland, forests, and urban areas (see Chart 5). The national data confirm that Michigan, like the vast majority of states, is largely rural.[25] State land use trends suggest this rural character will be maintained well into the future.

Michigan Statistics Overestimate Urbanization

The Michigan Agricultural Statistical Service (MASS) projects a slightly more alarming picture of urbanization because of its expansive definition of land uses "other" than rural or agricultural. Overall, 22.7% of Michigan’s land falls into this "other" category.[26]

Even using this data, however, the rural character of Michigan is evident. Most counties report less than one-third of their land is devoted to urban and transportation uses. A few counties are highly urbanized, most notably Detroit’s Wayne County, suburban Detroit’s Oakland and Macomb Counties, and Flint’s Genesee County (53.4%). All other counties have less than half of their land devoted to urbanized uses, including Ann Arbor’s Washtenaw County, Grand Rapids’ Kent County (41.3%), Kalamazoo County (41.3%) and Lansing’s Ingham County (35.7%). The county data suggest that urbanization is concentrated largely in built-up areas of the state. Concerns over urbanization and loss of farmland due to suburbanization will be concentrated in those counties on the verge of "tipping" from primarily agricultural uses to suburban and commercial uses. Not surprisingly, these counties include Washtenaw, Kent, Kalamazoo, and Ingham. For counties such as Wayne and Oakland, which have apparently already made the transition, concerns are more likely to revolve around central city and inner-suburb decline.

The national and statewide data, then, suggest that suburbanization and low-density development have not seriously jeopardized the rural character of Michigan. Nevertheless, concerns about the impact of suburbanization on the state’s agricultural sector have persisted, particularly since some analysts have claimed that new development has displaced some of Michigan’s most productive farmland. The next section evaluates this concern more fully.