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Published on April 7th, 2014 | by Cynthia Shahan


Shear Away That Sprawl — It Kills

April 7th, 2014 by  

measuring sprawl

An update of a thought-provoking 2002 report on the effects of sprawl has more data on the negative health effects of this development pattern. The study probes how sprawl affects a person’s well-being (or, alternatively, how connected and compact neighborhoods do). The study finds that urban sprawl does affect health in negative ways, creates more financial demands, and results in shorter lifespans.

This intriguing study examines the costs (financially and physically) and benefits of sprawling development. Findings, from peer-reviewed research, link sprawl 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.”

On the other hand, in the 2014 update (Measuring Sprawl 2014), those living in compact and connected metro areas have “greater economic mobility, … spend less on the combined cost of housing and transportation, … have greater options for the type of transportation to take, … [and] tend to live longer, safer, healthier lives than their peers.”

Wondering what sprawl is, according to these researchers? From an executive summary of the first report:

[T]he researchers identified sprawl as the process in which the spread of development across the landscape far outpaces population growth. The landscape sprawl creates has four dimensions: a population that is widely dispersed in low-density development; rigidly separated homes, shops, and workplaces; a network of roads marked by huge blocks and poor access; and a lack of well-defined, thriving activity centers, such as down-towns and town centers. Most of the other features usually associated with sprawl—the lack of transportation choices, relative uniformity of housing options or the difficulty of walking—are a result of these conditions.

In the update, this group of researchers marked development index scores for 221 metro areas and 994 counties in the United States. The four factors first identified were: “residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and down-towns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential building blocks of smart growth.”

Close, connected neighborhoods save money; save one’s time; and, in my experience, offer great convenience with a pedestrian ease of access. Shear away that armored vehicle. Build neighborhoods where one might find vitalizing juice or fresh produce at the corner store half a block away.

If you want to see specific leaders and laggards in terms of development style, Streetblogs USA pulled some tables out of the report:

Most Compact

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most Sprawling

Most sprawling metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Tanya Snyder continues for Streetblogs USA:

Take a close look at those index scores. They mean more than you may think.

For every 10 percent increase in the index score at the metro level, there is:

  • a 4.1 percent increase in economic mobility, or the probability that a child born to a family in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution by age 30

  • a 1.1 percent increase in housing costs relative to income — but a 3.5 percent decrease in transportation costs relative to income. That means the combined costs of housing and transportation fall when communities become more compact. Households in the worst-ranked Hickory, North Carolina, spend a whopping 29 percent of their income on transportation, about two-and-a-half times the percentage San Franciscans spend

  • a 3.9 percent increase in the walk mode share

  • an 11.5 percent increase in the transit mode share

Further on, she adds:

At the county level, for every doubling in the index score, life expectancy increases by about 4 percent, or about three years.

A whole host of health and safety risks factor into the link between sprawl and life expectancy. For one, the risk of a fatal collision rises with sprawl. “Counties with less sprawl have more car crashes,” the authors write, “but fewer of those crashes are fatal. For every 10 percent increase in the Index, fatal crashes decrease by almost 15 percent.”

Obesity and body mass index, blood pressure and diabetes also rise with sprawl. Air quality worsens.

Communities can change their built environment and all the health and economic indicators that go with it. They can enact zoning codes to encourage mixed use development, like Santa Barbara did. They can promote downtown residency and reinvestment in existing housing stock, like Madison. They can follow Los Angeles’s example and jumpstart development around transit stations, increasing allowable density and reducing parking requirements in those places.

Density isn’t destiny — unless communities do nothing to change.

Measuring Sprawl 2014
Download the full report including our entire national rankings, quality-of-life findings and methodology. Click here to download the full report.
Measuring Sprawl cover
Measuring Sprawl 2014: Executive Summary
Click here to download the Executive Summary.

Read related stories on Important Media:

Suburban Sprawl Cancels Out Benefits Of Dense City Living

U.S. Military Allies with Golden-Cheeked Warbler to Fight San Antonio Sprawl

Cities or Suburbs Which is the Better For The Environment?

Transit Oriented Development Helps Communities and Environment

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About the Author

Cynthia Shahan is an organic farmer, licensed AP, anthropologist, and mother of four unconditionally loving spirits, teachers, and environmentally conscious beings who have lit the way for me for decades.

  • Hate to have to say this, but almost every urban area with a substantial amount of housing built since Euclidian zoning was decided in the 1920s has ended-up with large single-use residential neighborhoods within city limits that are no better conservators of land than are most suburbs.

    Hence, the problem is not suburban sprawl, rather it is post-Euclidian single-use single-family residential zoning, which in some cities even predates the Euclid case too. Take Denver for-instance, where single-family residential lots built in the 1800s are the same square footage (about 8000 s.f.) as is the average suburban lot too.

    Also hate to say this but an eventual need for sustainability dictates against massive alleged smart urban high-density mixed use as the food, building materials, and consumer goods supply requirement is far too large for cities such as NYC to be sustainable.

    In-fact, just to supply the greater NYC-regional food need at an average 2000-calorie daily diet, the minimum amount of farmland needed at average crop yield is larger than the land area of the States of Connecticut and Rhode Island put together, a physical size clearly not walkable.

    How about if we instead grow their food supply indoors hydroponically with an average of two crops annually and six the average yield of crops grown in dirt, which still requires 500-600 square miles of urban hydroponic greenhouses?

    So maybe we should instead build outlying high-density mixed-use developments surrounding by our current suburban housing so as to reduce the amount of nearby hydroponic greenhouse capacity necessary to survive, as 60% of all food system carbon emissions come from moving food from the farm to the end user?

    And then use electric-powered mass-transit to connect the new outlying town centers to each other, as moving people via mass transit from town center to town center and to central cities will emit substantially less carbon than will having to move enough food, building materials, consumer goods, and trash to and from huge high-density urban areas.

  • Larry

    I didn’t see much reference to Urban air quality. Most metropolitan urban areas have a nasty air pollution problem to deal with. Coal fired power plants, oil refineries, steel mills, cement kilns–no thank you. Put all electric vehicles in those suburban garages and solar panels on their roofs to charge them and see how the equation realigns.

    • driveby

      top it off with self driving cars (less crashes) and increased automation and better communication (less need for people to be physically at their place of work)..

  • JamesWimberley

    Look at Port Grimaud in France, down the road from St-Tropez, a marina village started in the 1960s. No cars at all, high density – and very successful. http://www.bateauxverts.com/en/navettes/port-grimaudst-tropez/

  • Bob_Wallace

    “The brains of people living in cities operate differently from those in rural areas, according to a brain-scanning study. Scientists found that two regions, involved in the regulation of emotion and anxiety, become overactive in city-dwellers when they are stressed and argue that the differences could account for the increased rates of mental healthproblems seen in urban areas.

    Previous research has shown that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in those born and brought up in cities.”


    A pair of studies involving more than 400 women in two cities has found that 5-year-olds exposed in the womb to above-average levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, score lower on IQ tests. The compounds, created by the burning of fossil fuels, are ubiquitous in urban environments.


    Now, do we need to avoid building houses on good agricultural land? Yes.

    Do we need to clean up some of our suburban practices such as the use of chemical fertilizers? Yes.

    But we did not evolve living in huge masses of concrete. Should we be surprised that we do better when living closer to nature?

    • johnBas5

      Cavepeople lived in stone caves. Granite is like concrete.

      Urban area’s have more pollution it’s not the houses and the concrete. It is all the chemicals in the products that in urban areas stay around more concentrated, longer and get less filtered by nature because there is less nature to filter things.

      Pollution from cars, solvents and other sources are the cause here.
      Thus causing the differences. It’s not the houses, the most rocky materials in houses are quite inert on themselves. It’s the pollution and pollution filtering characteristics that matter here.

      • Bob_Wallace

        The front of their caves were open to fresh county air and the sweet, sweet sounds of birds in the morning.

      • Steve Grinwis

        You really want to argue the mental health of cave people?

        • Bob_Wallace

          I suspect their mental health was excellent.

          We’ve never found evidence of them turning to Fox Media.

          • Steve Grinwis

            Haha… That made me laugh.

  • Banned by Bob

    Too each his own. Not everyone can afford to live in a midtown Manhattan apartment.

    The offset is that young families raising kids need open spaces for them to run around in and stay active. Harder to do that in an urban setting.

    It’s nice that we have a variety of alternatives to fit a variety of lifestyles and preferences.

    • sault

      “Not everyone can afford to live in a midtown Manhattan apartment.”
      You’re cherry-picking one of the most expensive places in the USA in order to prove your point. 99% of the population DOESN’T live in Manhattan and therefore, your comparison is a little misguided. Regardless, the study determined that low-density areas saddle people with the expense of mandatory car ownership, fuel and maintenance costs and higher healthcare costs because of higher obesity and other maladies. You can have a lot more money in your pocket to pay for housing in denser developments if you don’t have to deal with these issues. Plus, you’ll be healthier and can actually enjoy going places instead of having more health problems holding you back.

      “The offset is that young families raising kids need open spaces for them to run around in and stay active. Harder to do that in an urban setting.”
      There are parks and activity centers in urban areas and they are easier to get to as well. Just a cursory glance at the childhood obesity rates in the densest areas compared to the most sprawling areas will show that living in a low-denisty area doesn’t do a kid any favors when it comes to their health.
      People manage to grow up in either environment just fine. However, rural areas have a MUCH higher impact on the environment per person than dense, urban areas do. Add in the fact that low-density areas contribute to all the problems highlighted in this study and it is hard to make the case that high-density is bad.

      • Banned by Bob

        So what do you propose? A ban on this kind of living.

        Keep in mind that many of the people who produce the food you eat and other products that you buy live in areas like this.

        • sault

          Well, I agree with “to each their own”, I was just pointing out the fact that rural areas aren’t as purely beneficial as you think.
          And I do think zoning laws that require a certain amount of parking spaces is the government picking sprawl over other options. Maybe we need zoning laws that require developers to account for transportation issues as they design new building projects too. And maybe fuel taxes need to increase until we pay to bring all our roads and bridges at least up to minimum standards. This would keep motor fuel from being nearly as artificially cheap as it is now. Removing the billion$$$ in oil subsidies we give out would help too.

      • K. Lam

        manhattan might be a cherry picked data point, but real estate living costs in urban areas generally offset the costs to maintain and run a vehicle and home (chicago, SF, LA, NY, philly, etc). Add the fact that urban environments generally have heavy traffic congestion throughout the day, I really question the study’s claim about health benefits.

  • RamboSTiTCH

    Nothing lowers my blood pressure quite like watching a sunset over a cornfield.

  • youareme7

    I loathe subdivisions that looks like the one pictured. But I also greatly dislike the “dense urban areas” favored in the study, too claustrophobic and too many people. I like my nice yard where I can actually see the stars thankyouverymuch. I think there are some people out there doing great things with new planning of developments, mixing in service and retail into the area gives a much more connected and social feel without the crushing prices and concrete of dense urban areas.

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