Measuring Sprawl: How do North Carolina metros measure up?

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measuring-sprawl-thumb“Sprawl” is a word that comes up frequently in reference to the built environment in North Carolina. But what do we mean when we refer to sprawl? And is sprawl really “worse” here than in other parts of the Southeast, or of the country? A new report from Smart Growth America (SGA), a national non-profit that advocates for livable communities, provides a set of a quantitative measures of sprawl as well as a ranking of how each of the 221 largest U.S. metro areas perform on these measures. The report, Measuring Sprawl 2014, updates SGA’s landmark 2002 study on the costs and benefits of sprawl and its impact on communities.

SGA’s Index of Sprawl

SGA’s report offers an index that provides a quantitative framework to answer the question “what do we mean when we talk about sprawl?” Their index of sprawl is based on four factors (see the linked report for a more detailed methodology):

  • Development density, which looks at the total average density of the built environment and jobs, as well as what percentage of people live in low- and high-density areas
  • Land use mix, which looks at what is accessible in walking distance from a typical residence – both amenities like grocery stores and schools, as well as how many different types of jobs
  • Activity centering, which looks at the relative dispersion vs. clustering of the metropolitan area. In other words, if people and jobs were spread evenly (“peanut butter style”) over the metro area, that would be counted as the lower level of activity centering
  • Street accessibility, which looks at how well the street network is designed to support transportation by foot. For example, shorter blocks and four-way intersections are scored higher

In the 12 years since SGA’s initial report on sprawl, these factors have been linked in peer-reviewed research to a number of important elements of community health, including obesity, traffic fatalities, commute distance, and residential energy use.

How did NC metro areas score?

So how did North Carolina’s metropolitan areas measure up on the SGA sprawl index? The highest ranking metro area in North Carolina was Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, which at #107 the only metro area including NC counties that was above the national median. Raleigh-Cary comes in at #155, although with an above-average score on activity centering (how tightly clustered jobs and people are within the area). Wilmington is at #180; Asheville is #183; Durham-Chapel Hill is #191; Charlotte is #197; Fayetteville is #203; Greensboro-High Point and Winston-Salem are #208 and #209; and Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton is the lowest-ranked metropolitan area in the country at #221.

(For comparison, the 2002 report ranked 83 metropolitan areas, and Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point and Raleigh came in #2 and #3 on the list of most sprawling metros.)

What does it mean?

It’s clear from SGA’s rankings of North Carolina metro areas that our built environment doesn’t match the factors that SGA’s research says are important to community health. But to conclude that North Carolina has unhealthy communities begs the question of whether SGA’s measures are relevant to what we want our communities to look like. Do the four factors that SGA considers resonate with the character of our communities? Are there other measures that would do a better job of capturing what makes our communities great places to live? Or does the ranking highlight challenges that are important for NC planners and economic developers to think about addressing?

Julianne Stern is a dual Master of City and Regional Planning and MBA candidate. She is also a Community Revitalization Fellow with the School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI).

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