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An Index of Sprawl (Pittsburgh Is Worst)

Posted by: Peter Coy on May 11, 2006

You could argue that sprawl is a phony issue.suburbansprawl.jpg After all, people have to live somewhere. And why should those ensconced in suburban and rural splendor be allowed to close the gates and prevent more people from coming to live with them?
On the other hand, it’s clear that sprawl does matter to a lot of people. A 2000 survey by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism found that 18% of Americans said urban sprawl and land development were the most important issue facing their local community. That was the top response, tied with crime and violence. (Does that mean having a development go up in the cornfield down the road street is as bad as getting mugged?)
Now, there’s some fascinating research into the extent and causes of sprawl. First, here are some stats from the research, which appears in the May issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics:

(For metro areas in 1992, the percentage of undeveloped land in the square kilometer surrounding an average residential development.)

Pittsburgh 57.7
Atlanta 55.6
Charlotte 52.7
San Diego 45.6

Chicago 31.8
New York 28.9
Phoenix 27.6
Memphis 27.4
Miami 20.7

The biggest surprise to me is Phoenix ranking so low in sprawl. But it makes sense when you understand the researchers' methodology. They looked at high-altitude photos of the U.S. in 1976 and 1992 to see how sprawl occurred. They chopped the country into nearly 9 billion quarter-acre parcels. They figured that if residential development occurred in areas that were previously empty, that was sprawl. If new houses were squeezed into gaps in already developed areas, that was not sprawl. Phoenix has grown like mad, but its housing consists mostly of big subdivisions, not dinky houses set off by themselves.
One thing that came across is that the United States is one heck of a large country. Even in 1992, they found, only 1.9% of the country was built-up or paved, up from about 1.3% in 1976. Another finding is that sprawl didn't get worse. Yes, more of the country was developed. But builders weren't any more likely to leapfrog into virgin areas in 1992 than they had been in the earlier period.
Here are some of the things that seem to make sprawl more likely:
*Available groundwater
*A temperate climate
*Rugged terrain
*Decentralized employment
*Early public transportation infrastructure
*Uncertainty about metropolitan growth
*Unincorporated land in the urban fringe

The authors of the paper, "Causes of Sprawl: A Portrait from Space," are Marcy Burchfield of the Toronto-based Neptis Foundation, Henry G. Overman of the London School of Economics, and Diego Puga and Matthew A. Turner of the University of Toronto.

Reader Comments


May 11, 2006 11:58 AM

I haven't tracked down the journal yet ... but I'm surprised that Pittsburgh was at the top. In Pittsburgh itself, the houses are pretty close together. And you can cross Pittsburgh pretty quickly as long as you know what you are doing. I'm guessing that two things have skewed their data for Pittsburgh: the prevalence of large parks in the city; and the amount of land that is realistically unbuildable because of the hills and valleys.

Peter Coy

May 11, 2006 5:45 PM

PHD: As to your point about Pittsburgh ranking high in sprawl, these stats are for the whole metro area, including outlying areas with scattered hamlets and houses in the woods.

Tom Steels

May 12, 2006 12:15 PM

Unfortunately, your analysis and formula (that you so passionately adhere to) fails to recognize the correlation between sprawl and auto-dependency. Communities that are auto-dependent, which is almost the entirety of the Phoenix metro (outside of Downtown…..good infill is occurring), constitutes as sprawl development, even if the community is within the city limits. I am not disputing the fact that Pittsburgh has its fair share of sprawl/auto-dependent development (Cranberry, Monroeville). However, unlike Phoenix, some of Pittsburgh’s suburbs are traditional, pedestrian orientated communities (Mt. Lebanon, Oakville, and even some of the communities in the Mon Valley), not to mention the plethora of well established inner city neighborhoods. In terms of percentages, the Pittsburgh metro has about 55% of the pop (aprox. 1 million) living in traditional, pedestrian orientated neighborhoods (according to Allegheny County Infrastructure Analysis, 2000). Compare this to Phoenix’s 5%, if that. Peter, please carefully look at all the statistics prior to making bold statements such as “Pittsburgh is Worst (Sprawl)”.


May 16, 2006 4:04 PM

Sprawl is not an either-or issue. Just as with growth, the real issue is not growth versus no growth but what kind of growth. In the same vein it would be helpful to focus of what kind of sprawl, where, etc... For example most of the US suburban landscape is 1 to 2 stories while in Europe the suburban landscape on average is 1 to 6 stories. Or some developments may have smaller lots but more open public open space.

Such discussions are as valuable as any statistical analysis particularly since without understanding the exact statistical modeling, the results don't mean very much.

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BusinessWeek editors Chris Palmeri, Prashant Gopal and Peter Coy chronicle the highs and lows of the housing and mortgage markets on their Hot Property blog. In print and online, the Hot Property team first wrote about the potential downside of lenders pushing riskier, "option ARM" mortgages and the rise in mortgage fraud back in 2005—well ahead of many other media outlets. In 2008, Hot Property bloggers finished #1 in a ranking of the world's top 100 "most powerful property people" by the British real estate website Global edge. Hot Property was named among the 25 most influential real estate blogs of 2007 by Inman News.

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