We have been taught to hate sprawl in America, yet, in the past 10 years, our country has become, on average, slightly more sprawling than in the decade prior.
That was one finding of Smart Growth America’s Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, released earlier this month. The study, conducted by University of Utah city planning professor Reid Ewing and graduate research assistant Shima Hamidi, found that with patterns of development varying widely in the U.S., the cities that favor “smart growth” principles fare better on several social and economic measurements than do those built in a way typified by the term “sprawl.”
The word sprawl generally brings to mind images of suburban cul-de-sacs, housing far removed from places of employment, and places built to prioritize automobiles over people. But a more precise definition of sprawl, according to Cornell University, is the “slow decentralization of human occupancy.” That is, the phenomenon of sprawl refers to a gradual trend towards requiring more land and space to supply the same given population with housing, employment, and recreation. Sprawl is a lack of good planning and a movement towards entropy and inefficiency.
The Measuring Sprawl 2014 study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the Ford Foundation and the Brookings Institution, looked at 221 metropolitan areas’ development patterns (with data culled from multiple sources) for elements that either indicate sprawl or the opposing planning principles of connectedness and compactness. Ewing’s study, based on similar research he performed in 2002, looked specifically at density, land-use mix, street connectivity, and activity centering, combining these four factors into a Sprawl Index.
The study showed that “compact, connected” communities were correlated with greater upward economic mobility, less money spent on the combined expenses of housing and transportation, more transportation options, and longer, healthier, safer lives. Or, as Fast Company describes the relationship in its eye-catching headline: Urban Sprawl: Get Fat, Stay Poor, and Die in Car Crashes.
The top five most connected and compact metropolitan areas in the United States, according to the Measuring Sprawl 2014 study, are as follows:
- New York/White Plains/Wayne, NY-NJ
- San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City, CA
- Atlantic City/Hammonton, NJ
- Santa Barbara/Santa Maria/Goleta, CA
- Champaign/Urbana, IL
While the Washington/Arlington/Alexandria metropolitan area ranked an unimpressive 91st out of 221 regions, the study’s writers have called this particular outcome “counterintuitive,” resulting from the diversity of Washington’s metropolitan area, which includes rural outliers as far away as West Virginia.
On an individual basis, in fact, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, and Arlington all scored extremely well. Out of 993 cities and counties, D.C. ranked 6th, Alexandria 15th, and Arlington 18th.
The health implications of sprawl have been one of the more publicized outcomes of the study. While the link between active transportation and improved health is emerging, the study’s researchers found a surprising relationship between sprawl and life expectancy that they attributed to “driving rates , body mass index , air quality, and violent crime.”
The report’s authors specifically recognized Arlington County as an example of an area with a low BMI, not surprising given the variety of active transportation options for which the county is known. The study states by way of example that “a 5’10” man living in Arlington County, Virginia is likely to weigh four pounds less than the same man living in Charles County, Maryland.”
Some parts of the United States are sprawling, while others are building in compact and connected ways. Smart Growth America has stated, regarding its study, that “the difference between the two strategies has huge implications for the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans.”
Hopefully, local political and civic leaders will use the information in the study to take a closer look at their land-use and transportation policies. Sprawl is no longer just an issue of good design. The stakes, we are learning, may be somewhat higher than that.