Planned growth vs. sprawl: the best and worst cities

In a sprawling area, families drive 40 miles more daily than those who live in cities with less sprawl

How does your community rate on the "sprawl meter"? If you live in New York, San Francisco, or Honolulu, your city has a low sprawl rating. But San Bernardino, Calif.; Atlanta; and Knoxville, Tenn., are among the 10 areas with the most sprawl.

According toSmart Growth America, the advocacy group that ranked 83 major metropolitan areas, sprawl is unplanned urban growth that happens outside the existing infrastructure.

The group recently released a comprehensive assessment of sprawl and its impacts. The project took three years to complete and ranks cities in four major categories: by residential density, by how well they incorporate a mix of homes, jobs, and services; by the strength of their downtowns and town centers; and by how interconnected their streets are.

The amount of land that's built upon isn't the point; the way it's used is.

In Omaha, for instance, which ranked sixth in the least-sprawling ratings, there's room to spread out, and the city does (it has a below-average residential density). But it scores well with its active, vibrant downtown and smaller commercial districts, and for its mix of housing, shopping, and offices.

No development pattern is inherently good or bad, the study's authors explain. It all depends on the consequences.

"In sprawling places, people drive more, breathe more polluted air, face a greater risk of car fatalities, have to own more cars, and walk and use transit less," says Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America and a co- author of the report.

In the most sprawling metropolitan areas, he adds, a family of four can be expected to drive 40 more miles per day than a family in a low-sprawl area.

In Riverside-San Bernardino, a bedroom community near Los Angeles, several factors contributed to its being ranked the most sprawling place in the country:

• More than 66 percent of its population lives at least 10 miles from a central business district.

• It's not very pedestrian-friendly. More than 70 percent of its blocks are larger than traditional urban size.

• Less than 1 percent of its population lives where there's enough density to be effectively served by mass transit.

Fortunately, cities that are poster children for sprawl can change the course of their development.

Reid Ewing, a coauthor of the report, says that Riverside-San Bernardino needs more dynamic centers of commerce and public activity.

But that won't necessarily happen quickly. "You have projects that start down the pipeline and need two, three, five years to do the design, start the entitlement process, and get the needed approvals," explains Michael Pawlukiewicz of the Urban Land Institute. "It's the old story of [taking time] to turn the battleship around."

And even when the spirit is willing, the building climate may not be.

There are often barriers to building more densely. Community policies and personal preferences can interfere with such common antisprawl techniques as placing homes closer together; using a mix of homes, shops, and workplaces; and building on unused or underused properties in already-developed neighborhoods.

"We want to remove those barriers," says Gary Garczynski, president of the National Association of Home Builders, "but you just can't ignore people's preferences for lower-density development."

New York and Jersey City, N.J., are ranked as the nation's least sprawling cities. But this doesn't necessarily make them the most attractive places to live for the many people who favor a house and yard in the suburbs.

Mr. Garczynski knows that home buyers vote with their pocketbooks - they go where they can get the most house for the least amount of money, and this often means looking at the edge of cities, where new sprawl is generated.

To avoid sprawl while providing the affordable housing that homebuyers want, Garczynski advocates comprehensive planning. And that requires participation and compromise by community members with diverse interests and views.

His company is a charter member of a Washington, D.C.-area planning coalition that brings together builders, activists, and environmentalists. "We agree on things we can support, and that establishes a level of trust and respect," Garczynski says. "We build on common interests before tackling the tough development issues. That's what has to be done, but it doesn't happen overnight; it's long-term."

Officials in Omaha, Neb., realize that keeping the city's high ranking could be a challenge. Steve Jensen, the city's assistant planning director, told the Omaha World-Herald that "we could slip in the future unless we are careful."

Still, the big question might not be what Omaha does, but what planners in neighboring jurisdictions and the region decide to do.

Which region of the US needs to do the most planning? According to the report, it's the South. After Riverside-San Bernardino, the next most sprawling metropolitan areas are Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point, N.C.; Raleigh/Durham, N.C.; Atlanta; and Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.

Authors of the report chalk up the South's sprawl tendencies to two factors: the absence, in many cases, of topographic restraints, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, which naturally contain growth; and the lack of planning and zoning that encourage denser development.

In Atlanta's case, part of the challenge has been a preexisting network of country roads. "Developers find it pretty easy, quick, and cheap to go out to where the next road is rather than to build a denser street pattern closer to the existing metro area," says Rolf Pendall, a third author of the sprawl report.

In future studies, the team intends to look at the impact of sprawl on racial segregation, the decline of central cities, the loss of open space, and public health.

For now, in the interest of encouraging more compact, but not high-rise neighborhoods, they offer these policy recommendations:

1. Reinvest in neglected communities and promote more housing opportunities.

2. Rehabilitate abandoned properties.

3. Encourage new development and redevelopment within the existing urban area.

4. Create and nurture mixed-use centers of activity, in some cases rezoning to permit multifamily housing in and around jobs-rich mini-cities on the edge of larger cities.

5. Support growth-management strategies, including preservation of prime farmland and sensitive environmental lands, forests, and other green spaces, in conjunction with careful planning for development in designated areas.

6. Craft policies that favor nonautomotive forms of transportation and maintain existing streets and highways in preference to building new ones.

Most and least sprawl

Areas with the most sprawl

1. Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.

2. Greensboro-Winston-Salem- High Point, N.C.

3. Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

4. Atlanta

5. Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

6. West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-

Delray Beach, Fla.

7. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk Danbury, Conn.

8. Knoxville, Tenn.

9. Oxnard-Ventura, Calif.

10. Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas

Cities with the least sprawl

1. New York

2. Jersey City, N.J.

3. Providence

4. San Francisco

5. Honolulu

6. Omaha, Neb.

7. Boston

8. Portland, Ore.

9. Miami

10. New Orleans

Source: Smart Growth America

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