Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark
NumbersUSA has released our latest sprawl study, this one for the state of Oregon.

Like previous reports, it measures the extent of sprawl using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What we found was that between 1982 and 2015, Oregon lost 419,000 acres (656 square miles) of open space as the state’s population grew by 1.3 million.

Oregon has been one of the fastest-growing states over the last three decades. Much of that growth has been in the Portland metropolitan area, with the Eugene, Salem, Medford, and Bend areas experiencing significant increases in population, too.

Oregon has also been one of the leaders in anti-sprawl efforts, limiting the amount of sprawl per person. However, population growth has caused sprawl to continue as Oregon officials have failed to accommodate its growth population within exiting urbanized area. On average, 0.311 acre of land was developed to accommodate each new resident during the 33-year period covered in the study.

Top Ten State Rankings of Area of Sprawl per Person in
Newly Developed Land from 1982 to 2015

(lower number reflects less sprawl)

In these studies, we use the term “Overall Sprawl” to mean the amount of rural land – forestland, rangeland, pastureland, cropland, etc. – lost to development.

There are two factors in sprawl.

  1. Population growth
  2. Per capita land consumption

In Oregon, 82% of sprawl has been caused by population growth and 18% by an increase in per capita land consumption. Much of that growth has been due to population increases in urbanized areas, which is unsurprising since people moving into Oregon state overwhelmingly choose to settle in existing population centers. This is true of all the states with the least amount of sprawl per person (see table above). Significant population growth in existing urbanized areas, due in large measure to in-migration, has resulted in greater population density, but it has not prevented sprawl.

(Note: The Census Bureau defines an urbanized area as an area of contiguous census blocks or block groups with a population of at least 50,000 and an average population density of at least 1,000 residents per square mile.)

On average, on each of the 12,053 days in the 33 years between 1982 and 2015, approximately 35 acres of open space in Oregon succumbed to the bulldozer’s blade, asphalt, concrete, and buildings. It is noteworthy that the amount of rural land converted to developed land rose and fell significantly during the 33-year time period, from 43 acres per day in the early 1990s to a peak of 60 acres per day in the late 1990s, and back down to 9-10 acres per day by 2007 to 2015, a reflection of increasing population density and also a response to the Great Recession of 2008 and its aftermath.

– Population Growth and Sprawl in Oregon, p. 18

Sources of Population Growth in Oregon

Population change is measured by natural increase (births minus deaths) and net migration (the number of people who moved into the state minus those who moved out of the state). The Census Bureau also measures the increase in the foreign-born population, as well as births to foreign-born mothers.

The majority of Oregon’s recent population growth has come through migration from other U.S. states and international migration (immigration) from abroad. From 2000 to 2015 just 38% of Oregon’s population growth was due to natural increase. The rest (62%) came from in-migration from other states (32%) and immigration (30%).

Losing open space isn’t the same as filling up empty space. What Oregon is losing to urban sprawl are croplands, forestlands, wetlands, and wildlife habitats, all vital to a healthy ecosystem. There are also physiological and psychological benefits of open space.

Being able to enjoy natural areas is important to 85% of Oregonians polled as part of the sprawl study. Oregon’s natural beauty and opportunity for outdoor recreation is what draws so many people to the state, and it is Oregon’s growing population which threatens these landscapes.

Oregon residents express a clear preference for slower growth, and a plurality are open to cuts in immigration, while very few favor increases. There is a lot that Oregonians can do to stop sprawl in their state, but as long as the U.S. population continues to grow at its current rate, millions more will likely move to the state. Oregon’s government has projected that the state’s population will reach 5.6 million by 2050, almost 1.5 million more than its current population.

While immigration is not responsible for most population growth in Oregon, it is a significant contributor, and it likely factors into the decision of many who move to Oregon from out-of-state. Consider that California is by far the more recent state of residence for those who move to Oregon, followed by Washington, Illinois, New York, and Texas. These are all states that have seen significant increases in their population, driven in large-part by immigration. Of those who moved to Oregon as an adult from another state, 44% said they did so “seeking a better quality of life.”

It is important to note that the additional sprawl that occurs because of high immigration levels has nothing to do with the quality of immigrants as people or individuals but everything to do with the quantity of population growth that occurs because of immigration.

Oregonians strongly prefer to preserve open spaces in their state, yet the policies put in place to do so have proven ineffective. Like most Americans, residents of Oregon must make a choice:

Take adequate steps to prevent urban sprawl, which must include slowing population growth, or accept the continuing disappearance of the state's habitat and farmland and unspoiled natural areas.

To read the report, and other sprawl studies, go to

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Thu, Feb 20th 2020 @ 10:20pm EST

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