Urban Sprawl in the US: The 10 Worst Offenders

  • 25 Apr 2014
  • by
  • Architecture News
Route 60 in Phoenix, AZ. Image © Wikimedia CC user Greg O’Beirne

A report released earlier this month by Smart Growth America investigates the topic of urban sprawl in cities in the USA. Analysing 221 US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and Metropolitan Divisions with a population of at least 200,000, they have ranked cities from most dense to most sprawling.

They also used this data to find a number of correlations between sprawl and poor quality of life, finding that people living in sprawling cities have higher living costs, shorter life expectancies, increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and lower economic mobility than those in dense cities.

Read on after the break to see the list of the 10 most dense and 10 most sprawling US cities

To give each city a “sprawl index score”, researchers used four primary factors: development , a measurement of how dense the built environment is; land use mix, an indication of how well different functions are mixed together; activity centering, a measure of the relative  of the city’s downtown area relative to surrounding areas; and street accessibility, taking into account the size of blocks, number of intersections and of intersections to measure connectivity.

The higher this sprawl index score, the more dense a city is, and the better its quality of life is likely to be.

The Top 10 Most Dense Cities Are:

  1. New York City, NY-NJ (Sprawl Index Score 203.4)
  2. San Francisco, CA (194.3)
  3. Atlantic City, NJ (150.4)
  4. Santa Barbara/Santa Maria, CA (146.6)
  5. Champaign, IL (145.2)
  6. Santa Cruz, CA (145.0)
  7. Trenton, NJ (144.7)
  8. Miami, FL (144.1)
  9. Springfield, IL (142.2)
  10. Santa Ana/Anaheim, CA (139.9)

The Top 10 Most Sprawling Cities Are:

  1. Hickory, NC (24.9)
  2. Atlanta, GA (41.0)
  3. Clarksville, TN-KY (41.5)
  4. Prescott, AZ (49.0)
  5. Nashville, TN (51.7)
  6. Baton Rouge, LA (55.6)
  7. Inland Empire, CA (56.2)
  8. Greenville, SC (59.0)
  9. Augusta, GA-SC (59.2)
  10. Kingsport, TN-VA (60.0)

Many entries on the list are perhaps not surprising (New York City as the densest US city for example). However, delve deeper into the list and there are some unusual results. For example Los Angeles, sometimes seen as a poster child for car-induced sprawl, appears at a respectable 21st on the densest cities list, and 7th on the list of cities with over 1 million inhabitants – even beating Chicago.

Another trend highlighted by the lists is a geographic split in the USA: while Miami is the only Southern city to make it onto the list of most dense cities, the list of the most sprawling cities is almost entirely propped up by southern states.

The sprawl measured by the report is linked to a number of negative consequences. Sprawl was found to increase peoples’ reliance on cars, reducing the amount of exercise they do and increasing the risks of obesity and diabetes. The large distances from the suburbs to the center of the city mean that poorer people are excluded from opportunity. It was even found that although denser cities have higher costs for property, the cost of travel in sprawling cities more than offsets this, making living costs higher in less dense cities.

This trend towards sprawl in southern cities has a measurable negative impact on millions of peoples’ lives. However, this outlook could be changed around: take the example of Oklahoma City, whose problem with obesity was linked to the city’s sprawling suburbs and unwalkable streets. In 2007, Mayor Mick Cornett embarked on an ambitious plan for the city to collectively lose a million pounds, and made a reappraisal of infrastructure one of the key parts of his plan. Will more southern US cities follow his lead?

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Urban Sprawl in the US: The 10 Worst Offenders" 25 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=500409>
  • Ray Brown

    Photo of Phoenix, yet, Phoenix is not a top ten sprawling City? Seems a little unjust?

  • Daniel

    Just goes to show that it’s about regional context as well; putting Santa Ana/Anaheim on their is a bit misleading. For one, Santa Ana is separate from Anaheim, but if you’re going to combine them for population/amenity purposes then you have to take the entire region into account, which is basically a massive ball of sprawl. The downtown core of Santa Ana is quite dense (for Orange County) and urban, but the city and the region are not. If there isn’t a better city out there to represent proper densities then we’re screwed.

    • Rory Stott

      Daniel – In the original study, the use of Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Metropolitan Divisions means almost all entries were a combination of cities. However for most cases there was a clear primary city, which for the sake of simplicity is what I listed in the article (for example “New York” rather than “New York/White Plains/Wayne”). Santa Ana/Anaheim was a special case as it seemed rather unjust to give primacy to one over the other, considering their comparable size.

      However your main point remains valid – in many cases the decision over where to draw the ‘boundaries’ of a city is as important as the city itself when it comes to the resulting statistics. It’s always advisable to bear this in mind when these studies are produced.

  • NewJerseyUrbanist

    I find it absurd that Atlantic City is on this list. I understand this study has a metric but to say the quality of life is going to be better because they have a higher score is absolutely ludicrous. I dare anyone to go AC and say that their compact nature (defined by the barrier island it is located on) has inspired a better way of life. You will find a schizophrenic city battling between casinos and underprivileged minorities.

  • Tim Lawrence

    I’m thoroughly confused how this report can be taken seriously if they are simply MISSING all data for MA, especially Suffolk County (Boston). How is Boston just not on this list? It’s not even mentioned in the document!

  • FM

    As descried, this incurs big bias… For instance, are we talking about Los Angeles urban area (including Santa Monica, Long Beach…) or just city ? Then, “the densest are the richest”… fine, but are the biggest also more likely to be the biggest (or just factually), and the biggest the richest, among these 200k+ inh cities?

    • FM

      err: “the densest more likely to be the biggest(…) and the biggest the richest, among 200,000+ cities”
      Noting that in large urban areas, the “city” itself includes the dense downtown but a small part of the sprawling neighboring administrative cities, as for Los Angeles city versus urban area, or New York…

  • Oscar

    Our Cities are in trouble, & of course Architectural / Construction Industry is partly responsible. But maybe the main reason is our outdated City Planning Rules & Regulations (ie. Zoning, Height Restrictions, Plot Ratios etc.) which forces our Cities to be centralized & spread out.
    To be fair we must acknowledge, that our Old-School City Planning Rules worked perfectly fine at micro scale for small towns of some 100.000+ people but now when they easily increase to over 1.000.000++ our Cities become dysfunctional & detrimental.

    But do we need new ideas?

    In the perfect world we would just stop everything & start anew, building NEW Decentralized, Self-Sustainable, Urban/Rural Cities, Live ‘like a King’ & be Triumphant.

    Of course everyone knows it’s just impossibility & nothing is changing any time soon. Maybe we should just enjoy what we got & work with what we have in hand.