NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sprawl Hits Small Cities as Well as Large

February 23, 2001

A USA Today study finds 83 percent of the country's 271 metro areas are sprawling more now than in 1990, but offers some surprising information about sprawl.

For example, Portland, Ore., which has some of the toughest anti-sprawl laws in the country, sprawls more than Los Angeles; and neither sprawls more than Nashville, Tenn., the most sprawling metro area of one million people or more.

The paper's sprawl index measures how densely populated a metro area is today and how that changed during the '90s. Some of its findings defied conventional wisdom.

  • A population boom doesn't necessarily trigger sprawl -- in fact, it can happen when population is shrinking.
  • A number of small metro areas (under 250,000) sprawl more than large metro areas -- in fact, more million-plus metro areas are experiencing the least sprawl.
  • The city scoring highest on the index -- the most sprawling -- in fact, is Ocala, Fla. (pop. 245,541).

Among other findings:

  • The availability of water is a major factor limiting or allowing sprawl -- for example, a desert city like Las Vegas has to stay close to its water lines.
  • Geography (mountains, oceans, other natural barriers) can force a metro area to grow compactly, while flat land allows development of any kind.
  • That's why Los Angeles is growing through infill, while in the flat Southeast, sprawl is creating a "string city" stretching 600 miles between Raleigh, N.C. and Birmingham, Ala.
  • Four of the top five sprawl cities are in the Southeast (Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta and Greensboro, N.C.) and 16 of the top 17 are east of the Mississippi.

Since 1997, 22 states have enacted land-use laws designed to rein in sprawl. But many free-market thinkers say the sprawl debate is much ado about nothing. Sam Staley of the Reason Public Policy Institute points out that the country has plenty of space, but 80 percent have chosen to live in metro areas, and they should have the right to choose between a condo in the city and a home in suburbs.

Source: Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, "What You Don't Know About Sprawl," USA Today, February 23, 2001.


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