by Mardee Handler, managing editor

From the nation’s most densely population urban centers to outer-ring suburbs, the U.S. population continues to shift, while the concepts of urban sprawl and smart growth remain hot topics in municipal circles. Well into the second decade of the 21st century, the trends are less clear, with people moving in and out of cities, to and from the suburbia and exurbia.

Urban Sprawl Sends Families Flocking to the Suburbs

Many U.S. cities experienced urban sprawl in the 1950s, when cars and an expanded infrastructure made commuting from outlying areas (offering fresh air, open space and freedom from congestion) to cities, and then back again, a viable option.  Affordable housing developments completed the picture, and many middle-class families packed up and headed out to the suburbs.

Sprawl continued, and by the 1980s and 1990s, developers began building subdivisions even further from urban centers; these became known as the “exurbs,” or outer-ring suburbs, and offered more affordable housing options in previously rural locations.

But the benefits to some posed disadvantages for others, with environmentalists and urban enthusiasts raising concern over land use – or abuse.

Coalition Promotes Smart Growth – Not Sprawl

Smart Growth America is a nationwide coalition formed to improve the quality of neighborhoods, founded on the belief that “smart growth solutions support businesses and jobs, provide more options for how people get around and make it more affordable to live near work and the grocery store.”

The coalition, comprised of national, regional, state and local organizations, opposes sprawl. “From providing more sidewalks so people can walk to their town center to ensuring that more homes are built near public transit or productive farms remain a part of our communities, smart growth helps make sure that people across the nation can live in great neighborhoods.”

It recently released a report entitled Measuring Sprawl 2014, a report that updates the findings from its 2002 landmark study, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.” The current report is based on the analysis of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States.

Smart Growth America assigned each area a Sprawl Index Score based on four factors:

  • residential and employment density;
  • neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services;
  • strength of activity centers and downtowns; and
  • accessibility of the street network.

As might be expected, New York City metro area was deemed the most compact and connected area based on this index. But others may come as more of a surprise: the San Francisco, Atlantic City, Santa Barbara, and Champaign, Illinois metro areas rounded out the top five most compact metro areas in the U.S., according to the report, which found jobs and homes more closely located than in other metros.

As might be expected, New York City metro area was deemed the most compact and connected area based on this index. But others may come as more of a surprise …

On the other end of the scale, the most sprawling metro areas were the: Hickory, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Clarksville, Tennessee; Prescott, Arizona; and Nashville, Tennessee metro areas.

Suburbs could be on the Brink of Change

The Urban Land Institute has conducted extensive research on urban sprawl, infrastructure and land use. In a September 2013 blog post, Ed McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute, says that while the end of suburban sprawl may not be here just yet, he has seen “ample evidence that the auto-centric model that has long characterized American suburbs is changing.”

“… large cities may be in store for something of a demographic comeback.” – William Frey, Brookings Institution

McMahon is referring to examples of suburbs – Carmel, Indiana; Garden City, Idaho; and Arvada, Colorado, to name a few – that have “transformed into more compact, mixed-use walkable communities.” In other words, many suburbs appear to be morphing into communities that resemble urban centers.

The focus among urban planners and many municipal leaders appears to be turning away from sprawl towards smart growth, emphasizing pedestrian-friendly developments.

The dialogue is taking place around the country. In Spokane, Washington, city and county leaders have agreed to work together to address urban growth and land use issues. “Sprawl has been an issue for as long as I can remember,” said Ben Stuckart, president of the Spokane City Council. “In fact, one of the reasons I ran [for office] was to address the growth of the outskirts of our city and the constant neglect of our urban core.”

According to Spokane Public Radio, “[Spokane Mayor David Condon] and the county commissioners have signed a joint development agreement that halts urban sprawl, for now.” The agreement, which will be in effect for one year, follows a disagreement over how developments outside of city limits should be given access to city utilities.

Is Another Population Shift in Sight?

In a May 2013 article entitled, A Big City Growth Revival, William Frey, Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Center Program of the Brookings Institution, writes, “… large cities may be in store for something of a demographic comeback.”

“During the 2000-2010 decade, including the pre-recession housing boom years, many big cities grew slowly or even lost population as residents decamped for growing smaller cities and suburbs. From 2010 to 2012, however, cities with over one-half million population grew considerably more rapidly than they did, on average, over the previous ten years,” he says.

In a recent report entitled Startup City: The Urban Shift in Venture Capital and High Technology, Richard Florida, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Global Research Professor at NYU, discusses the growth of cities – including Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis, in addition to several college towns like Austin, Raleigh, and Boulder – as venture capital centers for the high tech industry. Florida credits deep talent pools and levels of innovation typically found in these urban areas to be driving this shift.

Richard Ciccarone, President and Chief Executive Officer of Merritt Research Services, LLC and Co-Publisher of MuniNet Guide says, “I am a believer that during the past 15 years, there has been a considerable amount of infill residential construction activity in the major metropolitan areas that involved razing and rebuilding homes and that slowed the pace of sprawl.”

“It didn’t stop it but it slowed it.”