Advocates of “smart growth” and the nation’s builders continue to feud over their visions of America.
The latest spat centers on a report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact,” which was issued in late October by Smart Growth America, a coalition of 100 advocacy groups based in Washington.
The report, which was prepared by professors at Rutgers and Cornell Universities, found that metropolitan areas that sprawl more have higher traffic fatality rates, more traffic, and poorer air quality than less sprawling areas. Unlike previous studies, which used a couple of statistics to evaluate sprawl, the new report used 22 variables to rate metro areas on four different aspects of their development.
The "scores" for each factor indicate how badly those regions have sprawled in terms of spreading out housing and population, segregating homes from the activities of daily life, lacking the focus of strong economic and social centers, and building poorly connected street networks.
“For the first time we are able to define sprawl objectively so can see how it measures up,” said Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America. “What this study tells us is that sprawl has a direct and negative impact on our everyday lives,” he said.
The report's findings:
The daily distance driven per person is more than 10 miles more in the most sprawling places than in the least sprawling, adding up to 40 more miles of automobile travel each day for a family of four.
The 10 most sprawling places average 36 traffic deaths for every 100,000 people, while the least sprawling average 23 deaths per 100,000.
Ozone pollution levels are as much as 41 parts per billion higher in the most sprawling areas, which can mean the difference between safe air quality and dangerous air quality.
In addition, the researchers say that the sprawl they studied lacked the one benefit most often attributed to it: lower congestion.
People in sprawling areas endure no less traffic-related delay than those in more compact places, but have fewer alternatives in travel routes and modes, according to the study. While acknowledging that he agrees with much in the report, Gary Garczynski, president of the National Association of Home Builders, said that “the study completely ignores the importance of housing affordability and choice to the quality of life for working Americans.”
“Planning for growth requires a careful balance of all needs,” he said.
The report ranked 83 metropolitan areas, accounting for nearly half the country's population.
Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., ranked first as the most sprawling metro area overall, followed by Greensboro, N.C., and Raleigh, N.C.; Atlanta; Greenville, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla.
The most sprawling metropolitan area in terms of low-density housing is Knoxville, Tenn; the place with the poorest mix of homes, jobs, and shops is Raleigh.
The place with the weakest centers of activities such as town centers is Vallejo-Fairfield-Napa, Calif., and the place with the most poorly connected street network is Rochester, N.Y.
Riverside-San Bernadino received the lowest score by the researchers for the following reasons:
It has few areas that serve as town centers or focal points for the community. For example, more than 66 percent of the population lives more than 10 miles from a central business district.
It has little neighborhood mixing of homes with other uses. One measure shows that just 28 percent of residents in Riverside live just half a block of any business or institution.
Its residential density is below average. Less than one percent of Riverside’s population lives in communities with enough density to be effectively served by transit.
Its street network is poorly connected. More than 70 percent of its blocks are larger than traditional urban size.
At the other end of the scale, the metro area with the highest overall score was New York City, closely followed by Jersey City, N.J. Providence, R.I., San Francisco, and Honolulu rounded out the top five most compact metros, followed by Omaha, Neb., Boston, Portland, Ore., Miami, and New Orleans.
According to the Smart Growth America, the study shows that sprawl “is a real, measurable phenomenon with real implications for every-day lives.”
Among the suggestions to reverse sprawl, Smart Growth America suggests reinvesting in neglected communities and providing more housing opportunities; rehabilitating abandoned properties; encouraging development or redevelopment in built-up areas; creating and nurturing thriving, mixed-use centers of activity and crafting transportation policies that complement smarter growth.
In his comments on the report, Garczynski said the report “points to areas such as Portland, Oregon, and its urban-growth boundary approach to growth management as a solution.”
“But not all communities want urban-growth boundaries, and few want skyrocketing housing prices as a byproduct. Local and regional government agencies are best qualified to set transportation funding priorities. The appropriate role for the federal government is to help communities fund their individual plans.”