Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Coastal Demographics
and Development Patterns

Prepared by Jeffrey A. Zinn

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Population in the United States continues to concentrate along the coasts, with a declining portion remaining in the heartland. Over the next 20 years, projections published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that population in coastal counties will increase from 80 million to 127 million. As the population grays and retires, coastal locations are increasingly attractive destinations. These retirees, as well as others who prefer coastal locations, in turn, attract supporting development and commerce.

At issue is how to deal with the environmental impacts of this growth. Many coastal areas that attract development because of their natural attributes are also very fragile and development can disrupt coastal ecosystems and destroy economic and ecologic values. The result is that many of the qualities that attract people to move to a coast are being reduced or destroyed. There is interest in examining innovative ways to protect these environments and resources so that the attractive qualities will remain for future generations.

Background and Analysis

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reviewed population trends along the coasts from 1960 to 2010 in a 1990 report. This analysis examined coastal county and coastal state population trends using Bureau of Census data up to 1988 and projections into the future. The results are striking.

When examining the 451 coastal counties of the country (the country is divided into more than 3000 counties or their equivalents), the analysts found that a growing portion of the population continues to concentrate in coastal areas. At the state level, among the leaders in estimated growth in absolute numbers between 1960 and 2010 are California (19.2 million), Texas (11.6 million), and Florida (11.2 million). The leaders in percentage change over the same time period will include Florida (226%) and Alaska (203%). The study predicts that while overall growth will slow over the next 20 years, it will remain slightly greater in coastal areas than in non-coastal areas. It concludes that 17 of the 20 states with the greatest population growth for this 50-year period will be coastal states.

Coastal growth is not equally distributed. While coastal Oregon and Washington counties, for example, are likely to grow relatively slowly, coastal areas in the South are likely to grow rapidly. In terms of absolute increases in population between now and 2010, eight coastal counties in Florida and California are projected to be among the ten most rapidly growing ones in the entire country. The result of past and future patterns of growth is that population density in most coastal states and many coastal counties is much higher than the national and state averages, respectively. The most densely populated coastal areas include the northeastern states between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and Ohio and Illinois along the Great Lakes.

The pattern of growth has changed in recent decades, and in ways that threaten more coastal resources. Until the 1960s, growth was concentrated in urban areas and their immediate suburbs; obvious examples include New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. While these urban concentrations greatly stressed coastal systems, they encompassed only a relatively small portion of the total coast. Starting in the 1950s, for a variety of reasons, coastal development rapidly spread to more rural coastal areas. Reasons for this dispersal include an increase in general affluence and demand for second homes and vacation destinations, improved transportation systems (especially the interstate road network and bridges providing access to coastal islands) and a growing number of retirees seeking amenity areas. This growth has been dramatic in some areas; Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Hilton Head, South Carolina are but two of many examples.

Another important characteristic of this change is that, while much of the earlier growth had taken place along protected and semi-protected areas, especially harbors and ports, much of the new development has taken place along the open coast. This newer development can disrupt dynamic beach systems, and put rapidly-expanding private and related public investment at significant risk from coastal storms and changing coastal profiles. Florida's experience in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew, which devastated an area south of Miami, could be a precursor of the magnitude of coastal problems that could be caused by future hurricanes. The direct effects on public and private investment, and residual costs such as the availability of insurance for coastal property in southern Florida, indicate the high cost that can accompany coastal development.

Status of the Issue

As the average age of the population continues to increase, along with the overall population numbers, there is every reason to anticipate that demand for development in coastal areas will continue to grow. Congressional interest likely will center on several implications of these demographics, especially on the possible effects of more people in coastal areas. Congress has already addressed aspects of these concerns through programs such as the Coastal Zone Management Act, National Flood Insurance Program, and various infrastructure and environmental protection programs. Two conclusions are apparent when one examines the current array of federal programs. First, some may work at cross purposes; some encourage development (in the broadest sense) by not recognizing the special limitations of coastal areas, while others discourage it. Second, there is no coherent approach to recognizing and responding to current demographic trends in coastal areas in national policy discussions. But efforts to define a coherent arid consistent national approach likely will increase as more people choose to move to coastal areas.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. Demographic trends suggest that coastal development will persist. How can Congress develop and assure consistent federal policies toward development in coastal areas? Can, and should, federal policies be used to encourage a sounder, safer pattern of future development in coastal areas?
  2. Are demographic trends and predictions adequately available to Congress in setting policy? How can such information be effectively integrated into the policy process? How are demographic trends changing? Do these changes portend a greater urgency for addressing coastal policy?

Sources and References for Further Information

Edwards, S.F. "Estimates of Future Demographic Changes in the Coastal Zone." Coastal Management, 1989. 17(3): 229-240.

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service. 50 Years of Population Change Along the Nation's Coast: 1960-2010. Rockville, MD: 1990. 41 p.

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