Land Use

Sprawl. The subject is coming up everywhere from Al Gore’s presidential campaign to back yard barbecues in the state’s booming ‘burbs. Old-timers in just about any community in Massachusetts can probably point to a subdivision or a strip mall and remember when it used to be a farm, or a forest, or an open field.

But how much of the state’s land actually has been developed and how much is protected? And more important, how much is at risk?

The Massachusetts Audubon Society came up with some surprising answers to these questions in a recent report entitled “Losing Ground.”

Almost one-fourth of the state’s land area has already been developed, according to the report. Though growth has slowed since the 1980s, it continues at an “alarming rate.” Every day, Massachusetts loses 44 acres of woods, fields, or farms to residential, commercial, or industrial development. That’s about two square miles each month, 25 square miles a year.

More land is developed; more habitat is protected

The spectrum of land – 1970

Developed Land 15%
Truly Protected Wildlife Habitat 4%
Other Open Space & Protected Agricultural Land * 3%
Unprotected Agricultural Land 11%
Unprotected Wildlife Habitat 67%

The spectrum of land – 1997

Developed Land 24%
Truly Protected Wildlife Habitat 17%
Other Open Space & Protected Agricultural Land * 13%
Unprotected Agricultural Land 10%
Unprotected Wildlife Habitat 36%

*This category includes golf courses, school yards, ball fields, and other land the Audubon Society considers to be of low ecological value, as well as agricultural land with limited protection.

Almost one-third of the Commonwealth has been protected in some way, but only about 17 percent is what the report calls “truly protected” wildlife habitat. That’s in striking contrast to the 40 percent of protected open space the Cellucci administration has been claiming – a figure that includes golf courses, capped landfills, and other spots no longer of high ecological quality. (The Audubon report says another 13 percent of the state is open space of low ecological value and agricultural land with only limited protection.)

The rest of Massachusetts – about 46 percent of the total land area – is “up for grabs.” It has not yet been developed, nor protected. It includes unprotected wildlife habitat (36 percent of the state) and unprotected agricultural land (10 percent).

“If current trends of sprawling development continue, Massachusetts will become an incoherent patchwork of cities, suburbs, isolated shopping malls, roadside strip developments, and abandoned infrastructure, with few, remnant, open spaces,” the report states. “Community character and quality of life in our cities and towns will be diminished.”

For copies of the report, call the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Advocacy Department at (781) 259-9500, ext. 7202.


1971 1996
Meet the Author
Total Developed Acres

774,910 (15% of Mass.)

1,230,909 (24% of Mass.)

Residential 584,314 895,464
Commercial/Industrial 75,806 124,459
Transportation 53,869 67,795
Other (mining, waste disposal, recreation) 60,921 143,191