Sprawl Without Growth: The Upstate Paradox


An analysis of growth and development trends and population in Upstate New York finds that:

  • Despite slow population growth, 425,000 acres of Upstate New York were urbanized between 1982 and 1997, resulting in urban sprawl in the form of declining density. The total amount of urbanized land in Upstate grew by 30 percent between 1982 and 1997, while its population grew by only 2.6 percent, reducing the density of the built environment by 21 percent.
  • Compared with other Upstate regions, Western New York sprawled less between 1982 and 1997, and Central New York sprawled more. All Upstate regions have falling population density, but Western New York’s density dropped only 16 percent between 1982 and 1997. Meanwhile, Central New York—which includes Syracuse, Utica/Rome, and surrounding counties—urbanized over 100,000 acres even though it lost 6,500 residents, resulting in a 32 percent decline in its density.
  • People, jobs, and businesses are leaving cities and villages and moving to towns. Upstate cities lost over 40,000 households in the 1990s alone, while unincorporated town areas gained over 160,000 households; businesses have also disappeared from cities while growing in towns.
  • Sprawl hits Upstate cities hard. City tax bases fell in the 1990s, vacant housing increased, and home ownership slipped. Towns remained comparatively prosperous.

Continued decentralization of people and jobs away from Upstate New York’s cities and villages is undermining the economic health and quality of life of the region. State and local leaders need to understand that these trends are not inevitable. Explicit state reforms in fiscal policy, annexation laws, and planning can go a long way toward fostering a better future for Upstate New York.