BOULDER, CO-Sprawl, sprawl and more sprawl. That’s what the University of Colorado at Boulder predicts in 11 Western states. The UC study’s crystal ball is looking out over the next 50 years. By 2050, the total number of developed acres in the contiguous states is expected to grow by more than 26 million acres as the population surges by 48 million, according to geography professor and project leader William Riebsame Travis.

“The pattern of growth is as important as the population involved,” Travis says. “We’re spreading out more and more. The next 50 years will be more sprawling than the last 50 because we find that low-density development grows faster than does population.”

The projections are based on US Census data, which forecasts population through the year 2025. The research team extrapolated those figures through 2050.

“Development is a permanent feature–once you get it it’s there forever,” Travis says. “Looking out just 20 or 25 construction seasons just really doesn’t capture how much this region will develop, so we tried to look 50 years ahead.”

The Western Futures project of the CU-Boulder Center of the American West was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

“What we offer is a plot of the development ‘footprint’ in the Western states,” Travis says. “Our goal in this effort is to help Westerners think about the future.”

Sprawl increases because the percentage of people choosing to live in low-density areas is increasing faster than the overall population, the study found. The pattern was evident in the West from 1960 to 1990 and is accelerating today.

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