National Geographic or ‘National Deceptivegraphic’?

Published October 1, 2001

The National Geographic Society is proud of its maps. So it should be downright embarrassed by the map it published on pages 56 and 57 of the July 2001 issue of National Geographic magazine. (You can see the map at

The map purports to show the extent of urban sprawl in the United States. In fact, it exaggerates the extent of U.S. urban development by nearly 10 times.

Take, for example, Vermont, nearly one-third of which is covered by urban sprawl on National Geographic’s map. Yet USDA’s 1997 Natural Resources Inventory says that only 3 percent of Vermont is urbanized.

Or take Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to more than two out of three Oregonians. National Geographic’s map shows the valley covered with nearly continuous sprawl. Yet the Willamette Valley Livability Project, a pro-smart-growth group closely allied with 1000 Friends of Oregon, admits that less than 6 percent of the valley has been urbanized to date.

Take any state in the U.S. and compare the sprawl map with the National Resources Inventory, which itself is probably an exaggeration of the extent of urban development. (See and National Geographic has clearly overstated development by eight to 10 times.

Sprawling lights?

How could an organization that prides itself on its accurate maps make such a mistake?

The map is credited to “National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA; Raw Satellite Data: U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. National Geographic Maps.” In fact, the map looks very similar to one that can be downloaded from the National Geophysical Data Center’s Web site at (click on the U.S.), except National Geographic’s is in color while NGDS’s is in black-and-white.

But NGDS doesn’t claim its map represents urban sprawl or urban development. It is simply a map of “nighttime lights.” The agency proudly states its satellite (the Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite) can “observe faint sources of visible-near infrared emissions present at the Earth’s surface, including cities, towns, villages, gas flares, and fires.” If the satellite can pick up a gas flare, it can probably pick up the mercury vapor lamps that so many farmers use to illuminate their yards. Whatever it is picking up, it is not an accurate reflection of urban development.

National Geographic’s map uses different colors to show the change in urbanization since 1993. The magazine must have overlaid a 2000 nighttime lights map on top of a 1993 nighttime lights map. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the 2000 map reflects newer technology that is able to detect fainter sources of light than the 1993 satellite? This would account for the huge increase in urbanization since 1993 shown on National Geographic’s map.

Not just a mapping problem

The sort of sloppiness represented by this map pervades the National Geographic magazine feature on urban sprawl. The article opens by blaming “traffic jams, high taxes, and pollution” on urban sprawl (page 48).

The Web version puts it a little differently, saying “Most people agree that unchecked development is a bad deal for commuters, for taxpayers, for the environment” ( Whether or not most people agree, these claims have been thoroughly disproven by many analysts.

In a nutshell:

  • Low-density development is the response to, not the cause of, congestion. Congestion and high density go hand in hand; people move to low densities to get away from the congestion. (See The Vanishing Automobile, pages 257-259).
  • An analysis of actual tax rates shows that high taxes and high density also go hand in hand. (The Vanishing Automobile, pages 278-280)
  • Similarly, the cities and urban areas with the most toxic air pollution are those with the highest densities, because such densities are needed for pollution to concentrate to dangerous levels. (The Vanishing Automobile, pages 272-273)

The article goes on to assert many of the other myths of urban sprawl. “Sprawl keeps a person in the driver’s seat,” says the article (page 58), reversing cause and effect. In fact, people everywhere are driving more. This makes the suburbs attractive because low-density areas provide the best place for driving people to live. But even people in high-density central cities are driving more. (See The Vanishing Automobile, pages 253-256).

“By most accounts,” says National Geographic, “nothing moved the suburbs so efficiently towards sprawl as” the Interstate Highway System (page 62). In fact, people began moving rapidly to the suburbs right after World War II, and it is not clear that the freeways accelerated that movement at all (The Vanishing Automobile, pages 238-239).

As Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in Crabgrass Frontier (Oxford University Press, 1985), “suburbanization was not willed upon an innocent peasantry” (page 216). Jackson blames the federal government for racially discriminatory housing policies and concentration of the poor in the cities, but not for suburbanization. As urban economist Edwin Mills says, federal policies “have had a greater effect on how many live and work there.”

Atlanta new poster child

National Geographic has at least wised up to the “Los Angeles is the epitome of sprawl” myth. Instead, it turns to Atlanta, of which it says the metropolitan area is “larger than the state of Delaware” (page 58). Well, Delaware covers 1,945 square miles, while the 1999 Highway Statistics report the Atlanta metropolitan area covers just 1,757 square miles.

Besides, it is not as if Delaware were really a state in the same sense that Georgia, Oregon, or Minnesota are states: The Corporate Headquarters State is only about 4 percent of the size of the Peach State.

For what it is worth, the Natural Resources Inventory states that 8.5 percent of Georgia and 14.7 percent of Delaware have been urbanized. (See

“Sprawl is claiming farmland at the rate of 1.2 million acres a year,” says National Geographic. “Throw in forest and other undeveloped land and you’re waving goodbye to more than 2 million acres.” This one isn’t entirely a myth. According to the Natural Resources Inventory, forest lands are actually growing in area, but farmlands–especially pasturelands–are shrinking.

But are they shrinking due to urbanization? Or is it because U.S. crop productivity is growing faster than its population, meaning we need less land for growing crops each year?

The United States has nearly 936 million acres of farmland. “Losing” 1.2 million acres a year means we have a mere 780-year supply. Even the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which conduct the Natural Resources Inventory, admits urbanization is “not considered a threat to the Nation’s food production overall.”

Furthermore, is suburbanization really a “loss” of open space? Or does it merely transfer a tiny percentage of one kind of open space–farms and forests–to another kind–people’s backyards? Backyards get far more recreation use than farms and forests or even many city parks.

Oregon doesn’t work

National Geographic, of course, credits Oregon for being “the one state that has moved better than any other to put a brake on runaway sprawl” (page 66). Certainly, Oregon has imposed more draconian policies on landowners and drivers than any other state. But the data indicate those policies have had little effect on sprawl.

Between 1992 and 1997, Oregon’s population grew by a mere 9.1 percent. But the Natural Resources Inventory reports a 14.1 percent increase in urban development. Meanwhile, the sprawling population of Arizona grew by 17.7 percent but its urbanized area expanded by only 9.4 percent. Nevada’s population grew by 30 percent but its urbanized area expanded by just 8.1 percent. It sounds as if Nevada and Arizona have done more than Oregon to put the brakes on sprawl.

What is the secret of their success? For one thing, both Las Vegas and Phoenix have built a lot more freeways than Portland or almost any other urban area. Not exactly a great advertisement for smart growth.

Of course, National Geographic’s writer loved Portland, which he described as “a tight little city of 528,000” (page 66). Excuse me? Portland’s average population density is only about 3,500 people per square mile. By comparison, the density of Seattle, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles are all over 6,000 per square mile, while Sacramento, San Jose, and Honolulu are over 4,000 per square mile. Just what is so “tight” about Portland?

Of course, National Geographic lauded Portland’s “pedestrian-friendly downtown.” The main reason it appears pedestrian friendly is because the idiot who laid it out more than 150 years ago used 200-foot blocks–far smaller than in almost any other city. This means nothing is very far away, but it also means a higher percentage of Portland’s downtown is in streets than most other downtowns. Despite the downtown’s apparent friendliness, most Portland-area suburbanites and many city dwellers avoid downtown like the plague because it is so congested with automobile traffic.

Portland’s “residential areas [are] growing up, not out,” says National Geographic. Yes, there are four- and five-story apartment buildings sprouting up all over town. Nearly all of them are subsidized. Despite the subsidies, nearly all of them are unaffordable to low-income pople. The Portland Oregonian reports they typically have vacancy rates in excess of 10 percent.

Finally, the magazine says transit usage is outpacing auto driving. Maybe it did in 1999, but if so Portland wasn’t unique: The American Public Transportation Association claims transit outpaced driving nationwide. But over the past decade or two, the Texas Transportation Institute reports that per-capita driving has been growing faster in Portland than in almost any other urban area in the nation.

From 1982 to 1999, per-capita driving in Portland grew by 79 percent. Of the 68 cities tracked by the Texas Institute, only Laredo, Texas, Albany, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri grew faster. From 1990 to 1999, Portland per-capita driving grew by 29 percent. Only Laredo, Austin, and Louisville grew faster. Smart growth doesn’t appear to be changing Portland’s travel habits, unless it is causing them to drive more.

If it is worried about congestion, then National Geographic should have consulted the Texas Transportation Institute, whose data show Portland has the fastest growing congestion of any U.S. urban area. (See

If it is worried about taxes, it should have taken a look at the City of Portland’s Web site (, which currently features an article saying the city transportation department faces an 8 percent “reduction in services” unless the city imposes a new “street fee” tax on existing households. So much for smart growth reducing taxes. Of course, since this tax is totally unrelated to actual transportation usage, it will not change anyone’s travel behavior.

If it is worried about quality of life, National Geographic should have talked to Mike Weier, a Portland newcomer from Nebraska who (reports the Oregonian) nearly cried when he realized he couldn’t give his children the same large yard he enjoyed as a child. “The squeeze by Metro,” says the newspaper, “makes it impractical–and often impossible–to plan neighborhoods with big yards.”

But it is clear National Geographic made no attempt to hear the other side of the urban sprawl debate, or even to find out if there is one. A list of links that accompanies the online version of the article almost exclusively includes sprawl opponents such as the Sierra Club, Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, and Congress for New Urbanism. The online bibliography mainly refers to such writers as James Kunstler and Andres Duany. (It does list Crabgrass Frontier, but misidentifies the author as Peter Jackson.)

They’ve seen the future

Also online you can “explore a New Urbanist neighborhood” and see animated drawing of what life will be like in a smart-growth future ( It features light rail, mixed uses, and front porches.

Here are some of the features of this great new suburb (feel free to add your own snide remarks):

  • “Mass transit–light rail, buses, subways–within walking distance of most homes and businesses means fewer car trips, fewer highways, and less pollution.”
  • “On-street parking insulates pedestrians from traffic, encourages street life by requiring drivers to walk the final steps to their destinations, and lessens the need for parking lots and garages.”
  • “Mixed-use building allowing for apartments and offices above stores provides patronage for the shops, living space for lower-income residents, and activity for the sidewalk.”
  • “Mixed housing. Different housing types–apartments, row houses, detached houses–occupy the same neighborhood, encouraging cross-class understanding and long-term residency.”
  • “Subsidized home doesn’t look so different from the non-subsidized house next door. Subsidized homes that are integrated into a neighborhood might give low-income families a sense of pride and proximity to jobs that housing projects often lack.”
  • “Corner store is more than a convenience store. It’s a place you can walk to for a carton of milk, to have a chat with the owner, to catch up on the talk of the town. And it’s all but illegal in U.S. suburbs, due to zoning laws that prohibit retail in residential complexes.”
  • “Front porch. An invitation to neighborly interaction, a street-facing porch can provide a sociable barrier between the public and private realms.”

Needless to say, all of these statements are mere suppositions unverified or contradicted by available data. Ironically, this particular Web page is cosponsored by the Ford Motor Company–which is one more reason to buy a Toyota Prius.

National Geographic has always had a slight environmental bias. But it also usually tries to show all sides to a story, whether it is loggers vs. spotted owls, energy issues, or developing nations. This time neither the magazine nor its Web site made an effort to show any side other than that of the anti-auto, anti-low-density development crowd.

Maybe the magazine wasn’t aware there is another side or, if it was aware of it, didn’t consider it important enough to cover. Obviously, we need to do more to identify our goals–less congestion, lower taxes, and a cleaner environment–with our tools: freedom of choice, ending subsidies, and new incentives. To get the attention of mainstream media such as National Geographic, we need to get into more public forums, hold more conferences, and get more political leaders to understand and spread our message.

Randal O’Toole is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute, and is author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths. He submitted an abbreviated version of this article as a letter to the editor of National Geographic. He can be reached by email at [email protected], or visit the Thoreau Institute’s Web site at (