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The Most And Least Sprawling Cities In America

Tracking changes in the shape of American cities over 10 years reveals which cities pack the most into a small space. But don’t worry, sprawlers: Los Angeles shows you can change your fate.

Today’s nearly 314 million U.S. residents will expand to 401 million in less than 40 years. Wherever you fall on the cultural spectrum between country and city mouse, the fact remains that we simply won’t be able to use up resources the way we do now in sprawling suburbs shaped by car culture. A new report, however, shows that even cities previously defined by sprawl can make dramatic changes for the better in just a decade.

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So how well-prepared are we for the future in 2014? The report, released by Smart Growth America, looks at which metropolitan areas are most compact, have mixed land use, strong downtown centers, and accessible streets. While some areas have continued to sprout strip malls and residential neighborhoods segregated from the rest of society, some of the more sprawling areas from the last major assessment–like Los Angeles–have made incredible improvements.


Los Angeles, known for its infamous car culture, actually climbed the rankings. With a sprawl index rank of 45 out of 83 metropolitan areas in 2002 (the lower the number, the less sprawl), the city now comes in 21st place overall.

“Los Angeles has actually densified very substantially,” explained lead researcher Reid Ewing on a conference call with reporters. “They’ve built light rail, and there’s been a lot of infill development.” In addition, the city has offered incentives to build affordable housing, giving developers the opportunity to build 25% higher if they include affordable units.

Still, much of the rankings show that many southeast American cities tip towards scattered development. North Carolinian cities had some of the highest sprawl ratings on the list, as did Tennessee and Georgia.


“The availability of low-cost land at increasing distances may account for some of it,” Ewing said. “Some of it may have to do with investment policies that have been made over time. Some regions of country putting more of their infrastructure dollars into transit, and others are putting more into superhighways. And we know that superhighways induce sprawl.”

The researchers also updated the report with new revelations about quality of life in areas defined by car use. Not only does living in a more sprawling area likely mean you’re less active and breathing in more pollution (because excessive car use increases the amount of ozone in the atmosphere); it also affects economic mobility and household expenses. New research has shown that poor people who grow up in compact areas show more upward economic mobility by the time they reach 30–likely, Ewing says, because of more access to opportunity in urban centers. And while the cost of housing generally tends to be higher in cities, other research has shown that decreased transportation costs eat up the difference.

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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