Satellite images measure urban sprawl

Satellite images measure urban sprawl

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Environmentalists and advocates of open space have a new way to look down on development in Connecticut. The University of Connecticut, using images collected by NASA satellites orbiting 438 miles above the Earth, has spent two years developing computer maps that may change the view of Connecticut development. Maps developed by the school’s Center for Land Use Education and Research provide the first measurement of change in Connecticut’s 169 communities over the past 17 years.

The pace of development was fastest during the late 1980s, and slowed during the recession of the early 1990s. Since 1995, buildings and asphalt have covered the land at an accelerated rate, stirring up opposition from environmentalists and advocates of open space.

Chet Arnold, associate director of CLEAR, said the maps show plenty of open space in the state.

“I’m still not prepared to look at this and say this is damning evidence that we’re the sprawl capital of the world here in Connecticut,” he told The Hartford Courant.

Don Strait, executive director of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, sees the maps differently.

“The data reflect what people in communities all across Connecticut knew but couldn’t prove, and that is we are fast losing our forests and natural resources, and we owe it to our children and all future generations to save what is left,” he said.

New buildings, parking lots and roads covered an average of 12 acres of Connecticut each day since 1985, CLEAR’s data show. During that time, the state lost on average 18 acres of forest a day. Between 1985 and 2002, the state lost about 170 square miles of forest, an area roughly equivalent to two-thirds of the state forest system. During that period, the amount of high-density urban cover expanded by 119 square miles. The “urban footprint” of developed land cover grew by 15 percent, roughly double the state’s rate of population increase.

Connecticut, however, still has much more land in forest — about 56 percent of the state — than under parking lots and buildings, which comprises about 19 percent. But the satellite-based maps provide striking evidence of a landscape in flux. The maps and land database suggest that the state has four significant development hot spots: the suburbs north and east of Hartford, the area along I-395 in southeastern Connecticut, the northern reaches of New Haven and Fairfield counties and lower Middlesex County shoreline towns such as Clinton and Westbrook.

Jim Gibbons, a land-use specialist at the University of Connecticut, said the maps show that the concentration of development roughly matches the state’s population concentration along major watercourses and roads that date to the 1770s. “I think the maps are showing that development has occurred pretty much where it should,” he said.