Ohio’s population is lagging but state’s urbanization is booming

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – While Ohio’s population growth lags behind much of the nation, the state is experiencing urban growth at much higher levels than most states, according to a Ohio State University study.

In addition, newly urbanized areas are substantially less concentrated than they used to be, and these “exurban” areas now cover 60 percent of the state’s land, said the report’s co-author Elena Irwin.

Exurban areas are defined as those that are sparsely populated, with 40-325 people per square mile and with homes on properties of five to 40 acres.

The rapid growth of such areas has implications for land use, communities and Ohio residents, Irwin said.

Farming result. One implication focuses on farming in Ohio. Between 1992-1997, a period of accelerated exurban growth, Ohio lost 212,000 acres of prime farmland.

No other state but Texas lost more prime farmland during those years.

Growth in exurban areas is due to a myriad of factors, including improved roadways, lower cost housing and congestion in urban and suburban areas.

Consequence. The particular form of exurban growth in Ohio may also be due to an unintended consequence of Ohio law, Irwin said, which exempts housing lots greater than five acres from local subdivision regulations.

“This conversion of rural land to developed land equates to a loss of open space for the community,” Irwin said. “The owner of a 5-acre lot gains private space, but for the community, it’s lost.”

Such development increases property values in former rural areas and can generate a substantial boost for local businesses, Irwin said.

At the same time, there are costs associated with providing infrastructure to an area’s new residents – costs communities often struggle to pay.

“With this kind of development, there’s a mismatch between population and infrastructure,” Irwin said. “Cities have roads, sewers, water, sidewalks; rural areas don’t have that. The urban areas’ infrastructure is underutilized and rural areas’ infrastructure is overtaxed.”

Farmland. In addition, development in more rural areas leads to a loss of open space, such as farmland, which often provides some benefit to local residents.

“The fact that farmland is land that is kept out of development is something that many people appreciate,” Irwin said. “It contributes to a more rural sense of place and can provide other benefits as well, such as habitat areas for wildlife.”

Residents who choose to live in these areas often pay the price in longer commute times to work, longer school bus rides, and longer response times from emergency vehicles.

Nevertheless, the financial costs of providing these public services are often not fully passed on to new residents, which creates an additional burden on township, village and county governments.

Paying up. “People should be free to move into these areas, but they should also be paying the full cost of moving into these areas,” Irwin said. “This includes the added costs of providing services and the cost associated with the loss of open space.

“I’m not saying people shouldn’t move into these areas, but I do think we need more public dialogue on the implications. How do people want their community to evolve? If people decide that preservation of rural land is important, or if the costs of providing services in these areas is a concern, then we need to do something differently.”

Some states tend to encourage cluster developments in newly urbanized areas: homes on smaller lots surrounded by a large area of open space. Such developments preserve much larger tracts of open space, which are often used as farmland or as neighborhood recreational areas.

Superseding. “Right now, Ohio has a small program for farmland preservation, and a variety of zoning regulations at the local level,” Irwin said. “But urbanization of land supersedes the localities – it occurs at a regional level. Support for regional cooperation among municipalities, townships, villages, and counties is needed to develop a more coordinated set of policies to guide urban growth.”

The report, Urbanization Trends in Ohio: Tracking Ohio’s Urban Growth and Land Use Change, is available at http://aede.ag.ohio-state.edu/programs/exurbs/.

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