Report: Atlanta is the most sprawling big metro in the U.S.

A study released today by Smart Growth America looks at the impact of sprawl on healthy, safety, and economic opportunity
Traffic on Saturday, March 29, downtown Atlanta

James Burns

Metro Atlanta’s status as poster child for sprawl remains firmly in place. According to a report that will be released today by Smart Growth America, Atlanta is the most sprawling big metro region in the country (those over 1 million in population). The Measuring Sprawl 2014 study looked at 221 metro areas and 994 counties. Considering all metro areas, not just big ones, Atlanta rates second for sprawl, at 220 on the list. Congratulations, little Hickory, North Carolina: at 221, you can claim the title of overall sprawliest.

The study is a follow-up to Smart Growth’s 2001 influential study, Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact. For the new study, researchers dug even deeper into the correlation between development patterns and quality of life issues.

According to the research, people in more compact areas are healthier, safer, less likely to be obese, and have greater life expectancies. Simply put, people in more compact areas “live longer, healthier lives,” said Reid Ewing, the University of Utah researcher who directed the study.

Sprawl is often attributed to affordability. The thinking goes, people live further out from city centers because it’s cheaper. But when housing and transportation costs are combined, they represent a far greater burden for households in sprawling areas versus more compact ones.

The study also considered the connection between sprawl and economic mobility. People who live in high-sprawl metro areas have lower rates of economic opportunity than those who live in more densely developed cities. “A low income person in a compact area has much better access to jobs,” said Ewing.

To rank metro areas for sprawl, the researchers examined four major factors: development density; land-use mix; “activity centering,” or how clustered businesses, people, and services are; and “street accessibility,” which includes factors like short blocks, dense intersections, and street connectivity (i.e. fewer cul de sacs or dead-ends). Based on those factors, the researchers developed a sprawl index. Areas with indices above 100 are more compact, those that scored below 100 are more sprawling. Metro Atlanta’s index is 41. The New York/White Plains area, ranked most compact in the country, has an index of 203, while San Francisco’s index is 194.

The research was conducted by the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. Smart Growth America is a coalition based in Washington D.C.

Most Sprawling Large Metros
Riverside-San Bernadino, California
Warren, Michigan

Most Compact Large Metros
New York
San Francisco
Santa Ana, California

Large or small, the majority of sprawling cities are in the South, and the Southeast is the most sprawling region. “We don’t have a complete explanation,” said Ewing, who spoke with journalists on a conference call yesterday to preview the study. He said that the lack of geographic barriers for many Southeastern metro areas contributes to sprawl. “Atlanta can sprawl pretty much without limitation,” Ewing observed.