The virtual void of population-stabilization plans within the anti-sprawl programs around the country is related to a belief that population growth can be accommodated without causing sprawl.
Theoretically, that is possible – for awhile: All new residents would have to move into the existing urban area, and none of the previous residents could move to the edge of the city. Such an occurrence over any period of time could happen only through the continual demolition of existing housing to make room for higher-density cluster houses, condominiums or apartment buildings; the demolition of apartment buildings to build higher apartment buildings; higher occupancy rates in existing structures, including some structures not intended for residential use such as garages, and building on any remaining vacant land.
Even if Americans were to accept the escalating governmental regulations that would be required to handle each year's population growth within existing boundaries, such a success would not ease the massive "ecological footprint" on the rural areas of the country.
It is important to recognize that the per-capita-land-consumption figure upon which nearly all conventional anti-sprawl efforts focus includes only the land consumed by an average resident inside his/her own Urbanized Area. It does not include all the rural land in other parts of the country that is required to obtain the food, fiber, minerals and energy for that resident, and to dispose of that resident's wastes – termed the ecological footprint of the Area.
A study of sprawl nationwide released in March of 2001 failed to find any American community that has shown an inclination to adopt the regulations and make the personal behavior changes that would counteract the effects of population growth for even a few years, let alone in perpetuity – which essentially is what would be required if current national population policies stay in place.
Los Angeles is a prime example of the limits to how far Americans will go in packing additional people into their neighborhoods. No city in America may be a better model of the goal of attempting to restrain sprawl by channeling population growth into ever-denser settlements, both in the urban core and throughout the suburbs. Between 1970 and 1990, per capita land consumption fell until the L.A. Urbanized Area was the most densely populated in the country. Many people find this hard to believe because of Manhattan's skyline. But New York's suburbs are only 60% as dense as those of Los Angeles. No other Urbanized Area provided so little land per resident as Los Angeles (0.11 acre). Most American communities have refused to come anywhere near the L.A. densities.
Yet despite accepting the densest living conditions in the country, the Los Angeles Area sprawled across another 394 square miles of orchards, farmland, natural habitat and other rural land. The reason? The addition of another 3.1 million residents.