Consequences of Counterurbanisation in California (Sierra Nevada)

Abstract from project preliminary report

While from 1990 to the present more Californians have left their state than U.S. citizens have migrated to California, the Sierra Nevada has experienced the opposite trend, as domestic migration has continuously increased the population in this region. On the one hand, this migration can be found already in the foothills, which have meanwhile become part of the Sacramento metropolitan area; on the other hand, there is also considerable population growth in various areas of the high mountains - far removed and sometimes isolated from metropolitan areas ("counterurbanization").

The current study presents first results of a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund. It attempts to show the effects of settlement expansion in high mountain regions - a phenomenon rarely taken into account in the various analyses of demographic deconcentration. Using different methods for data acquisition, the study seeks to show the impacts of high mountain counterurbanization on socio-economic conditions.

There is no doubt that, compared to pre-1990 decades, the overall population growth in the High Sierra has meanwhile become less impressive. Nevertheless, availability of private land designated for residential construction purposes is becoming increasingly limited. At the same time, the vertical expansion of human settlements continues unabatedly. Their upper limit in the Lake Tahoe/Donner region has moved up to above 2,400 meters, and in the Mammoth Lakes area it is not uncommon for human settlements to be situated even above 2,600 meters. Tourism provides the most important impulse for High Sierra counterurbanization. We should not forget that the (later) migrants from Californian metropolitan areas initially came to know and appreciate the high quality of life in the High Sierra as a result of vacation and travel experiences. Furthermore, tourism constitutes the major source of employment. Newcomers, i.e. the population that has migrated to the research areas from 1990 to the present, tend to be white, well-educated, with considerable household earnings, but certainly do not fall into the senior citizens category. There is no doubt that their demand for vacation or permanent homes has increased housing prices enormously. Planning and ecological problems which tend to come with settlement expansion in high mountain areas represent a certain potential for conflict between the local population and the newcomers. So does the fact that a majority of homes are meanwhile priced well beyond the reach of local salaries.

The study finally discusses the various deficits of appropriate planning strategies in the Sierra Nevada. In this context, it asks whether it would be possible and advantageous to adopt the specific land use models applied in the Eastern Alps which have served to prevent non-desirable dispersed patterns of human settlement.


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