As more people move into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, more land is cleared for the development of roads, homes and businesses. Residents have expanded out of traditional urban centers and into bigger houses on larger lots, turning forests, farms and other valuable landscapes into subdivisions, shopping centers and parking lots, and impacting the health of our rivers and streams.
Development itself does not have to harm the Chesapeake Bay. But the way we develop the land—where we put new roads and buildings and how we construct them—can have a lasting impact on the natural environment.
When low-density residential and commercial areas are built far from existing cities and towns, new infrastructure—schools, roads, shopping centers—is built along with them. Over time, the once-open areas between these new developments and existing cities and towns are filled in. This type of development, called sprawl, chews up forests, farms and shorelines, and degrades land and water habitats.
As our communities expand out of existing cities and towns, our homes tend to take up more land than we need. According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American home built in 2013 measured 2,598 square feet. This marks a 57 percent increase from 1973, even as the average household population has fallen. Recent findings from the National Association of Home Builders, however, predict American homes will become smaller, thanks in part to the economic recession of 2008 and buyer concerns over affordability.
Development is one of the biggest threats to forest conservation.
A loss of forests means a loss of valuable habitat that protects clean water and air and supports the region’s economy.
The loss of farmland can also impact the environment: well-managed agricultural lands can restore rivers and streams and provide habitat to insects, birds and mammals. Agriculture is also a large part of the culture, heritage and economy of the watershed.
Development is inextricably linked to air and water quality. As we build more roads and homes and disturb more parcels of land, we create more pathways that send pollutants into our air and water:
Building outside of existing urban centers can change the heritage of existing communities. Development in small towns can impact local farming, fishing and forestry industries, and alter the visual character and “sense of place” that make the region unique.
Conserving land and sustaining forests, farms and maritime communities helps protect clean air and water and allows people to experience the natural beauty of our region.
As of 2011, about 55 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed was forested and 8 million acres of land—about 20 percent of the land in the region—had been permanently protected by Chesapeake Bay Program partners. In 2014, the Bay Program set a land conservation goal that should protect an additional 2 million acres of wetlands, forests and other landscapes by 2025.
Land conservation is supported by federal, state, local and privately funded programs. Land is protected through various methods, including conservation easements, purchase of development rights and land donations. Parks, recreational lands and publicly owned lands are also considered preserved land.
As part of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Chesapeake Bay Program partners committed to the goal of conserving landscapes treasured by citizens in order to maintain water quality and habitat; sustaining working forests, farms and maritime communities; and conserving lands of cultural, indigenous and community value.
For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.
To lessen the impacts of development on the Bay, consider reducing the amount of polluted stormwater that can run off of your property. Install a green roof, rain garden or rain barrel to capture and absorb rainfall; use porous surfaces like gravel or pavers in place of asphalt or concrete; and redirect home downspouts onto grass or gravel rather than paved driveways or sidewalks.
Individuals can also consider lowering air pollution by learning how to drive the Bay-friendly way; walking, biking or taking public transportation when possible; or using electric or manual yard tools instead of gas-powered machines.
Planners and developers can practice “smart growth” and “low impact development.” The former avoids sprawl and concentrates new development in areas that have existing or planned infrastructure; the latter uses natural processes to manage stormwater runoff.
Aerial photos show human impacts on the northern Chesapeake Bay
The percentage of Chesapeake forests that have been fragmented by development.
A total of seven New York conservation easements benefit the community
Marion Karl's New York property serves as a place to lay down deep roots and connect with the community
For many people, spending time in the wilderness can serve as habitat for the human spirit
As of 2015, an estimated 18,091,710 people lived in the Bay watershed, up from 17,986,898 in 2014. Experts predict the watershed’s population will surpass 20 million by 2030 and reach 21.4 million by 2040.
In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2011, just 55 percent of the watershed was forested. This data will be updated in 2017.