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Urban Sprawl in the US: The 10 Worst Offenders

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 density, 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 density of the city's downtown area relative to surrounding areas; and street accessibility, taking into account the size of blocks, number of intersections and density 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:Rory Stott. "Urban Sprawl in the US: The 10 Worst Offenders" 25 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>