'Sprawl index' ranks U.S. metro development patterns

Wed, 2014-05-21 06:00 -- Doug Cooley


An organization that promotes the benefits of compact and connected communities has published a report that ranks 221 metro areas on the amount of sprawl included in their development patterns.

Council Advisor Smart Growth America just released Measuring Sprawl 2014, a study that analyzes development in major metropolitan areas across the United States. It also looks at the relationship between development and quality of life indicators in those areas. A follow-up to its 2002 study Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact, the report analyzes development patterns in 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the U.S. as of 2010 and creates a “sprawl index” that ranks which communities are more compact and connected and which are more sprawling. Researchers relied on four primary factors in developing the index scores:

  • Residential and employment density
  • Neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services
  • Strength of activity centers and downtowns
  • Accessibility of the street network

The report presents a complete ranking the most compact and most sprawling metro areas in the country. The most compact, connected metro area in the United States is, no surprise, New York City, with an index score of 203.4. The country’s most sprawling metro area is Hickory, NC, with an index score of 24.9.  

The report also breaks down index scores by the size of the metro area. For large metros (more than one million people), the report points again to New York City is the most compact and connected. Atlanta is the most sprawling, with a score of 41.0.  For medium metro areas (between 500,000 and 1 million people), Madison, WI, is the most compact and connected with a score of 136.7 and Baton Rouge, LA, is the most sprawling, with a score of 55.6. For small metro areas (less than 500,000 people), Atlantic City, NJ, is the most compact and connected, with a score of 150.4, and Hickory, NC, is the most sprawling.

The researchers found that as sprawl index scores improved -- meaning areas became less sprawling -- several quality of life factors improved along with them.

  • People have greater economic opportunity in compact and connected metro areas.
  • People spend less of their household income on the combined cost of housing and transportation in these areas.  
  • People have a greater number of transportation options available to them.  
  • People in compact, connected metro areas tend to be safer, healthier and live longer  than their peers in more sprawling metro areas.

Based on original research published by the Metropolitan Research Center, the report also includes examples of four cities where planning has emphasized more connected development, and how policymakers are supporting those efforts.