Where America is Sprawling and What It Means

2014 Study Examines Metropolitan Development and Its Connection to Health, Quality of Life and Prosperity

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Reid Ewing is professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.

Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2014 2:06 pm

People in compact, connected metropolitan regions are more likely to move up the economic ladder, have lower household costs, enjoy more transportation choices and lead longer, safer, healthier lives, according to a report by Smart Growth America and the University of Utah's Metropolitan Research Center.

Measuring Sprawl 2014 evaluates development in 221 major metropolitan areas in the United States, and ranks these areas based on how sprawling or compact they are.

The report also examines how sprawl relates to life in those communities, based on factors like economic mobility, the cost of housing and transportation, life expectancy, obesity, chronic disease and safety.

“Smart growth strategies are about making life better for everyone in a community,” said Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America. “If policymakers are looking for ways to lower costs for their constituents, improve public health and support their broader economy, they need to be thinking about how to improve their development.”

“This is the most extensive study to date to define and measure the costs and benefits of sprawl development,” said Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center and primary author of the research. “We found that in areas with less sprawl—several quality of life factors were more positive, including greater economic mobility, lower combined costs of housing and transportation and higher life expectancies. This research demonstrates the many ways our development decisions may impact us every day, and informs how better development practices may improve our quality of life.”

“This report will have a strong influence on the next decade of research concerning relationships between the built environment, urban planning, and health both in the U.S. and worldwide,” said David Berrigan of the National Institutes of Health, which sponsored the research. “Dr. Ewing’s focus on urban sprawl as a modifiable environmental factor correlated with obesity, physical activity and environmental exposures is an important example of renewed efforts to align changes in planning with public health goals and to place these decisions on a stronger and more evidence based footing.”

Some places in the United States are sprawling out, some places are building in compact and connected ways, and the difference between these two strategies affects the lives of millions of Americans, notes the report's executive summary.

In 2002, Smart Growth America released Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact, a landmark study that has been widely used by researchers to examine the costs and benefits of sprawling development. In peer-reviewed research, sprawl has been linked to physical inactivity, obesity, traffic fatalities, poor air quality, residential energy use, emergency response times, teenage driving, lack of social capital and private-vehicle commute distances and times.

Measuring Sprawl 2014 updates that research and analyzes development patterns in the 221 metropolitan areas as well as 994 counties in the United States as of 2010, looking to see which communities are more compact and connected and which are more sprawling.

The data from 2010 used in the analysis are the most recent available. The complete analysis, methodology and databases included in the University of Utah’s research are available at http://gis.cancer.gov/tools/urban-sprawl/.

Researchers used four primary factors—residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network—to evaluate development in these areas and assign a Sprawl Index score to each. The report includes a list of the most compact and most sprawling metro areas in the country.

It also examines how index scores relate to life in that community. The researchers found that several quality of life factors improve as Sprawl Index scores rise. Individuals in compact, connected metro areas have greater economic mobility. Individuals in these areas spend less on the combined cost of housing and transportation, and have greater options for the type of transportation to take. In addition, individuals in compact, connected metro areas tend to live longer, safer, healthier lives than their peers in metro areas with sprawl. Obesity is less prevalent in compact counties, and fatal car crashes are less common.

Finally, the report includes specific examples of how communities are building to be more connected and walkable, and how policymakers at all levels of government can support their efforts.

See the rankings and download the full report at www.smartgrowthamerica.org/measuring-sprawl.

Smart Growth America is the only national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for and leading coalitions to bring better development to more communities nationwide. From providing more sidewalks to ensuring more homes are built near public transportation or that productive farms remain a part of our communities, smart growth helps make sure people across the nation can live in great neighborhoods. For additional information visit www.smartgrowthamerica.org.

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