The southern megalopolis: using the past to predict the future of urban sprawl in the Southeast U.S

PLoS One. 2014 Jul 23;9(7):e102261. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102261. eCollection 2014.


The future health of ecosystems is arguably as dependent on urban sprawl as it is on human-caused climatic warming. Urban sprawl strongly impacts the urban ecosystems it creates and the natural and agro-ecosystems that it displaces and fragments. Here, we project urban sprawl changes for the next 50 years for the fast-growing Southeast U.S. Previous studies have focused on modeling population density, but the urban extent is arguably as important as population density per se in terms of its ecological and conservation impacts. We develop simulations using the SLEUTH urban growth model that complement population-driven models but focus on spatial pattern and extent. To better capture the reach of low-density suburban development, we extend the capabilities of SLEUTH by incorporating street-network information. Our simulations point to a future in which the extent of urbanization in the Southeast is projected to increase by 101% to 192%. Our results highlight areas where ecosystem fragmentation is likely, and serve as a benchmark to explore the challenging tradeoffs between ecosystem health, economic growth and cultural desires.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cities*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods
  • Ecosystem*
  • Forecasting
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Population Density
  • Southeastern United States
  • Urbanization / trends*

Grant support

This research was supported by the US Geological Survey ( through the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center ( and the Dept of Interior Southeast Climate Science Center ( through grant agreement G11AC20524. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.