Local Growth and Land Use Intensification: A Sociological Study of Urbanization and Environmental Change
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This dissertation takes a sociological look at the relationship between urbanization and environmental change. While sociological studies on urbanization have long addressed the social dimensions of the built environment, the natural environment has not been treated as a primary concept in urban sociology. Based on an analysis of local land use change across the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, this dissertation brings the built and natural environments together, recognizing both as important dimensions of urbanization. The expansion of the built environment, through deforestation and the covering up of fertile agricultural land, represents a modern form of land use change with direct and indirect impacts on the natural environment, the most severe effects of which are seen in biodiversity loss, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and climate change. Drawing on literatures and theories in environmental, rural, and urban sociology as well as demography and human ecology, the bulk of the dissertation involves empirical analyses of overall changes in forest cover as well as the loss of forest cover and agricultural land to the built environment (i.e., the impervious structures and surfaces that cover the land), a process I refer to as land use intensification. My dissertation project uses quantitative methods to examine the demographic, economic, and social forces behind this process in contemporary America. Hypotheses are derived from the various literatures mentioned above; to test these hypotheses, I integrate county-level data from US governmental sources with satellite imagery on land cover change from the National Land Cover Database (NLCD). For the years 2001-2006, I use the NLCD data to quantify three dependent variables at the county-level: overall change in the area of forest cover as well as the area of forest cover and agricultural land lost to the built environment. Results from regression analyses demonstrate that urbanization is a multidimensional process that differentially transforms the American landscape. With a focus on land use intensification, this study advances a sociological framework to address connections between urbanization and changes in both the built and natural environments.