“Today, where the orange groves once stood, houses now stand within a few feet of one another. The wide open roads…are bumper to bumper with exhaust-spewing autos. Leisurely Sunday drives are still available, if your idea of attractive scenery is boom cranes, buildings under construction, and dirt mounds on the horizon in all directions. The lakes post pollution warnings to would-be swimmers and are depleted of fish. As for orange blossoms in the air, once the trademark of a warm spring night: Forget it.”
—Jill Krueger, writing in the Orlando Business Journal on a changing Florida1

Florida, once a sunny paradise that lured new residents with its friendly tax policies and high quality of life, is now paying the price for its rampant population growth. Its open space is vanishing, its highways are clogged with polluting traffic jams, and every day, 860 acres of its forests and farmland are lost to development.2

Certainly some growth can be beneficial. Early in the twentieth century, when Florida was sparsely populated, more people meant more jobs and more opportunities. And in a state with considerable land area and few people, every new resident lowers the cost of providing basic services to all. But as an area gets more populated, its infrastructure bumps up against its carrying capacity. Police forces, roads, and schools no longer satisfy the demands of a growing population. Farmland and forests are sacrificed to strip malls and housing developments. And eventually growth no longer lowers the average cost of services, but instead raises it. When this point is reached, population growth increases the tax burden on communities; the revenue brought in by new growth is outweighed by the costs it creates.3

Florida, the seventh-fastest growing state in the country, has reached this downside to growth. A mid-1999 survey of Florida voters found that more than 80 percent considered the state’s burgeoning population a problem and 40 percent said that Florida has become a less comfortable place to live over the past five years.4

But the population growth that has transformed Florida into a crowded mass of subdivisions, congested highways, and paved-over pastures has just begun. If current trends continue, the state’s population will increase by 5.5 million by 2025 and will have doubled by 2050, when its population could surpass 32 million – or twice the 15,982,378 counted in the 2000 census. (That does not include the close to one million “snowbirds” who reside in the state every winter.5 )

This study explores the detrimental effects of population growth on Florida, first sketching the dimensions of Florida’s expected population increase and then addressing what these projections mean for the state’s infrastructure, environment, and quality of life. The final section works through some strategies for slowing growth–strategies already underway in other states–and preserving the robust economy of the present while also safeguarding Florida’s future.

I. Sketching the Demographic Picture

In the early 1940s, Floridians numbered a mere 2 million. By 1990, the state’s population had reached just under 13 million. By 2000, the state was home to about 16 million permanent residents, a 23 percent increase in ten years, significantly higher than was expected. According to the Census Bureau, Florida adds about 750 people—net—every day of the year.

Large-scale population growth is apparent throughout the state, and, since 1990, not a single county lost population. Broward County grew by 368,000 in the 1990s, making it the third-fastest growing county in the entire nation. “That’s like plopping a city the size of Corpus Christi between Fort Lauderdale Beach and the Everglades edge, a city substantially bigger than Newark, NJ, Raleigh, NC, or St. Paul, MN,” noted the Miami Herald.6 Naples, Orlando, Ocala, and the Ft. Myers-Cape Coral area were also in the national top 20 fastest growing counties.7

Where is this population growth coming from? Populations grow or shrink as a result of shifts in three demographic variables: fertility, migration, and mortality. Changes in population size are dependent on net migration (people moving into the state minus people moving out of it) and natural factors (births minus deaths). Between 1990 and 1999, only one-fifth of Florida’s growth came from natural increase (19 percent). Just over half of all growth came from domestic migration. Another third resulted from international migration.8

The impact of immigration is better illustrated by the number of foreign-born residing in the state, which rose from 1.6 million in 1990 to 2.4 million in 1997, suggesting an annual increase of over 100,000 through immigration.9

If current trends continue, Florida’s population will reach 20.4 million in 2010, 25 million in 2030, and 32 million in 2050.10


Such projections may be on the conservative side, given the likely changes in age composition. By about 2025, the nation’s 50 million baby boomers will be entering retirement and are bound to have an impact on Florida. If large numbers of retirees continue moving to Florida, the number of elderly will climb even more than anticipated and an even larger population than the one predicted above could be noted by mid-century.

Additionally, the number of children under 15 will expand considerably in the first half of the 21st century: from less than 3 million today to close to 4 million in 2020.

The combined growth of the school-age and the elderly segments of the population will increase the pressures on services such as schools and health care. Indeed, the current shortage of health care providers will be dwarfed by future needs; between now and 2025, an additional 22,000 physicians and 122,000 nurses will be required just to maintain the current ratio of doctors to population.

II. Implications of Population Growth


Florida’s schools are overcrowded, and continued population growth means the problem will get worse. Already, schools are so overcrowded that legislators are considering paying students to go to private schools instead of public ones.11 Osceola’s student population has increased by almost 25 percent in the last five years.12 In Volusia, 17 public schools have enrollments that exceed the capacity of their permanent facilities by 20 percent. In Sarasota, some classrooms have more than 40 students at a time.13 In Manatee County, some days lunch lines are so long that students don’t have time to eat unless they miss class.14 Pasco County has opened six new schools in the last three years, has three more scheduled to open in the upcoming months, and still projects that by 2005, two high schools each will receive 700 more students than they have room for. No affordable land is available for further school construction.15

Because Florida’s high immigration rate means that population growth often exceeds projections, school enrollment projections (the basis of the state’s funding formula) frequently underestimate actual enrollments, “leaving school districts scrambling to provide additional personnel and programs without fresh infusions of cash.”16 Last year, lawmakers discovered they needed an extra $500 million to pay for an enrollment that exceeded projections by tens of thousands of students.17 In Miami-Dade alone, almost 15,000 foreign-born students registered in the first half of the 2000-2001 school year—after funding had already been calculated.18

The problem isn’t going away. Florida can expect another 50,000 public school students every year for the foreseeable future. That means building at least 50 new schools every year. To teach these additional students, Florida will need about 16,000 new teachers a year over the next decade—2,000 to 3,000 more than may be available for hire.19


Florida has 5.5 percent of the nation’s population but just 2.8 percent of the road mileage. Plans to widen roads and add lanes can’t keep up with the state’s population growth. Some roads are so crowded that emergency vehicles are taking longer to get to their destinations.20

Florida will not be able to maintain, much less improve, its transportation infrastructure unless population growth is drastically reduced. The state has attempted to keep up by approving a high-speed railway system (at an estimated cost of $5.6 billion21 ), but it would be far cheaper to address the problem at its source: continued population growth.


Nationwide and around the state, complaints about urban sprawl are increasing as population rises. Respondents in a study by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism named sprawl and traffic, tied with crime and violence, as the most important problem in their communities.22

Florida is now a leading state for urban sprawl. When the Sierra Club rated cities on sprawl, Florida had the largest presence of any state. Ft. Lauderdale ranked ninth among the “most sprawled threatened cities” of one million or more. Orlando and West Palm Beach ranked first and fifth respectively among urbanized areas with populations between 500,000 and one million. Pensacola and Daytona Beach were third and fifth among urbanized areas of their size.23

Unfortunately, discussions of sprawl in the news generally underestimate several key facts:

• When populations continue to expand, communities must find places to house, educate, and employ new residents and thus, even the best-intentioned “smart growth” efforts will eventually run up against population pressures.

• Many people like to get away from areas of concentrated growth and move to the suburbs, thereby creating even more sprawl. Indeed, history shows that as population grows, people move further away from the centers of growth. Eventually, the suburbs of one city begin meeting the suburbs of another city, which in turn may meet the suburbs of a third city.

While “smart growth” experiments do limit sprawl somewhat, sprawl can never end as long as population growth continues.


Housing developments have invaded the wetlands that used to cover much of the central and southern part of the state. As the natural habitat for so many species is destroyed, entire animal populations, including the Florida panther and the manatee, are rapidly disappearing. Pollution and disruption of natural water flows have dramatically reduced populations of wading birds and other species, damaged the Florida keys reef system, and degraded fisheries in Florida Bay.

Florida’s population growth and its accompanying urbanization, flood control, and draining of swamps for development are killing the Everglades. “Half the original Everglades has been swallowed by development; much of the rest, an area the size of Delaware, is dying of thirst,” reports The Washington Post.24 The state’s building boom has moved closer and closer to the Everglades. Hendry County, in the middle of the Everglades, had a population of 6,051 in 1950; by 1999, it had surpassed 29,000.

It’s not just the wetlands that are disappearing: Florida loses 450 acres of forest and 410 acres of farmland to development every day.25 In 1969, Florida had 14 million acres of farmland. By 1992, it had lost almost half.26

Population drives water consumption as well. “It was forecasted 26 years ago that there wasn’t enough water in the Peace River to meet the population demands,” Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council executive director Wayne Daltry told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.27 Florida didn’t listen. Today, the state’s reservoirs are severely depleted. In some parts of the state, the water shortage is so bad that some residents have been fined and ordered to appear in court for violating water rationing rules.28

“Today’s water crisis may be only a precursor,” notes the Miami Herald.29 A doubling of demand for water over the next twenty years is highly probable.

III. The Solution: Fertility and Migration

Population growth must end if Florida is to remain a truly livable place. Population growth can only be diminished through reductions in fertility and migration.

Fertility: Public and private agencies alike should work to raise the awareness of all Floridians about the problems associated with high fertility and population growth, through education, advertising campaigns urging responsible family planning, and wide availability of contraceptives. Schools should teach students the importance of responsible family planning and ensure they have the tools necessary to prevent teenage pregnancy.

Strong public support exists for these measures. Pollster James Kitchens, of The Kitchens Group Inc., polled greater Orlando voters about what degree of involvement the government should have in combating overpopulation. “The results just about floored me,” he wrote in the Orlando Business Journal. “More than one out of every two voters said it was time for the government to get involved, even if it meant taking away tax deductions for children…Looking at this (polling) data, educators afraid of teaching birth control and politicians pushing for bigger tax breaks for bigger families need to sit down and have a heart to heart with some real Central Floridians, not just the ones who talk most loudly.”30

Foreign migration: Florida is the third largest immigrant-receiving state31 and ranks fourth in illegal immigration.32 The U.S. Census Bureau projects that Florida will gain 1.9 million additional immigrants between 1995 and 2025.33

Illegal immigration can be combated on a number of fronts. Federal law encourages state cooperation agreements with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in assisting in enforcement of immigration law, including the removal of criminal aliens and agreements to screen the eligibility of non-citizens for a variety of state and federal benefits. Recent court decisions have confirmed that states may enforce immigration laws, as long as there is cooperation with the INS and their enforcement is consistent with federal law.

Federal law requires that states allow officials to turn over information to the INS about an alien’s illegal status. Also, there are a variety of federal provisions encouraging states to set up verification requirements for basic identification information, such as those that would support an application for a driver’s license, allowing states to play a vital role in the effort to halt illegal immigration. Meanwhile, laws preventing the hiring of illegal immigrants must be enforced and the INS given adequate resources to enforce regulations already on the books.

Legal immigration levels, which are determined by the federal government, also deserve a second look. The U.S. currently admits nearly one million new legal immigrants each year. If federal legislation limiting immigration to more traditional levels of about 200,000 annually were passed and if illegal immigration were drastically reduced, migration levels into Florida could be drastically reduced.

Eighty-one percent of Florida voters support tighter immigration restrictions.34

Domestic migration: Florida’s Growth Management Act, which requires all counties to draw up long-range plans outlining where growth should occur, could be a powerful tool to limit the seemingly never-ending housing developments cropping up around the state—if used aggressively. But while this is a worthy first step, Florida must do still more.

A better option is used by Oregon, where the people in the affected area—not the city or county councils—vote on development proposals.

Florida also could stop being a low-tax paradise by levying the revenue enhancements necessary to update and maintain its growing infrastructure. That might reduce the number of northerners who want to move to this “low tax” state.

Eben Fodor, an urban planner who advises communities struggling with growth issues, recommends correlating growth with the burden it places on services: “Development impact fees are an increasingly popular means of funding the many types of public infrastructure required by growth. At least 18 states have now adopted enabling legislation that specifically authorizes local governments to collect these fees. With a system of impact fees, developers and new home buyers must pay more of the full cost of their impact on the community ... Unless limited by state law, local governments can charge impact fees for providing the following new or expanded facilities: schools, roads, sewage treatment, storm-water systems, water supply, parks, and open space, recreational facilities, police stations, fire stations, libraries, and other government facilities that must be expanded to serve new growth ... Courts have consistently upheld all reasonable and properly designed impact fees.”35 Some Florida counties have impact fees, but many others do not and should consider implementing them.

IV. Conclusion: Reckoning With Growth

A growing awareness of the problems wrought by overpopulation in Florida gives reason for some optimism. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has commented: “Although Floridians recognize that growth has brought job gains, cultural advantages and other factors that enhance their quality of life, they are increasingly aware of its downside. And the sentiment against growth will accelerate as population pressures diminish what was once a paradise. More and more residents will wish for a magical growth repellent that does for Florida what birth control is doing for the developing world: saving its future.”36 Sarasota County commissioners followed up with a proclamation declaring a week in October Florida Overpopulation Awareness Week. The resolution notes that population growth has overstretched resources and states that there are limits to growth that must be addressed.37

Yet a recent study found that if all state-approved housing projects in all counties came to fruition, Florida’s population would surpass 101 million within twenty years!38 Florida must take a hard look at its conflicting priorities and begin to make planning decisions more in line with its professed desire to protect its environment and quality of life.


1 Jill Krueger, “Florida Living is Wonderful—I Sure Do Miss It,” Orlando Business Journal, January 22, 1999.
2 Geneva Overholser, Sarasota Herald Tribune, October 13, 1999.
3 Alan Altschuler and Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez, Regulation for Revenue: A Political Economy of Land Use Exactions (Washington: Brookings Institute; Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1993), p. 77.
4 Stephen G. Reed, “Poll: Pace of Growth Affects Quality of Life,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 14, 1999.
5 Kate Gurnett, “With Snowbirds Comes the Sprawl,” Times Union, February 25, 2001.
6 Neil Reisner and Tim Henderson, “Broward’s Growth is Fastest in Florida, U.S. Census Says,” Miami Herald, March 9, 2000.
7 U.S. Bureau of the Census
8 “State Population Estimates and Demographic Components of Population Change: April 1, 1990 to July 1, 1999,” Population Estimates Program, Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.
9 Schmidley, A. Dianne and Campbell Gibson, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P23-195, Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 1997. U.S Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 1999, Table 4.1.
10 For a detailed description of the assumptions used in preparing the projections used in this report, see Leon F. Bouvier and Bob Weller, Florida in the 21st Century: The Challenge of Population Growth, Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies, 1992, chapter 2.
11 Mark Lane, “Voucher Fever May Not Stop at Schools,” Daytona Beach News Journal, February 23, 2001.
12 Pamela Mercer, “Schools Bursting at the Seams,” Orlando Sentinel, August 26, 2001.
13 Courtney Cairns Pastor and Chris Davis, “Class Sizes, Small Budgets Strain Schools,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, September 2, 2001.
14 Ibid.
15 Kent Fischer, “Space Crunch Spurs Talk of ‘New School,’” St. Petersburg Times, March 18, 2001.
16 Laura Zuckerman, “Outlook for Education Spending is Grim,” Daytona Beach News-Journal, March 2, 2001.
17 Suzanne Robinson, “St. Lucie Student Number Topples Projections,” Vero Beach Press Journal, September 2, 2001.
18 Dara Kam, “State May Charge Foreigners Tuition,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, January 25, 2001.
19 “Teacher Shortage Growing,” News Herald, January 4, 2001.
20 Rachel Webb, “Growth Means More Traffic and, Sometimes, More Problems,” Bonita Banner, February 24, 2001.
21 Rick Bragg, “Florida Voters to Decide Whether to Take the Fast Train,” New York Times, November 6, 2000.
22 Joan Lowy, "Growth is a Sprawling Issue for Voters," Scripps Howard News Service, February 23, 2000.
23 Evan Perez, “Florida Dominates List of Cities Most Troubled by Urban Sprawl,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 1998.
24 Michael Grunwald, “In Everglades, a Chance for Redemption,” The Washington Post, September 14, 2000.
25 Geneva Overholser, op. cit.
26 Floridians for a Sustainable Population, “Florida Population Facts,” October 2000.
27 Rodney Crouther, “Water Suppliers Must Coordinate to Meet Area Needs, Council Says,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, January 12, 2001.
28 Timothy Egan, “Near Vast Bodies of Water, Land Lies Parched,” New York Times, August 12, 2001.
29 “Growing and Changing,” Miami Herald, March 29, 2001.
30 James Kitchens, “Should to Shoulder, Voters Seek Breathing Room,” Orlando Business Journal, March 5, 1999.
31 U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Legal Immigration, Fiscal Year 1998, Annual Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999).
32 U.S. Department of Justice, 1997 Statistical Yearbook.
33 “Florida’s Population Projections: 1995 to 2025,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population Division <>.
34 Adam C. Smith, “Floridians Favor Military Response,” September 23, 2001.
35 Eben Fodor, Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, Garbiola Island: New Society Publishers, 1999, p. 112.
36 Editorial, Sarasota Herald Tribune, “Outgrowing the Earth,” October 17, 1999.
37 Ibid.
38 Michael Browning, “Are We Full Yet?” Palm Beach Post, October 20, 1999.


In preparing this report, the authors received valuable support. We are especially grateful to Alison Green, NPG’s Communications Director, for her excellent research and editing. We would also like to thank Crystal Freeman, NPG’s Program Associate for her editing and desktop publishing of this report.


Leon Bouvier has taught at numerous universities, including Georgetown University, Tulane University, University of Rhode Island, and currently Old Dominion University. He has served as demographic advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Population and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. He is the demographic advisor to NPG.

Sharon McCloe Stein is the Executive Director of NPG and the founding Chairman of Pop.Stop, Inc. A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Stein has served in executive capacities of several national public interest organizations and is a frequent commentator in the media on population policy issues.

Permission to reprint is granted in advance. Please acknowledge source and author, and notify NPG.

In addition to this report, NPG also publishes:

NPG Forums, articles about population, immigration, natural resources, and the environment;
NPG Footnotes, shorter articles on topical issues; and
NPG Position Papers.

Founded in 1972, NPG is a national membership organization advocating a gradual and voluntary reduction of world and U.S. populations to more sustainable levels.


• Florida Survey Results
• NPG Summary: Focus on Florida: Population, Resources, and Quality of Life
Florida Population Facts & Figures
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