Suburban sprawl in numbers

A Sierra Club handout from the unimpressive NYC Green Festival shows a country that is sprawling in very uneven ways. On the one hand there are boom-towns exemplified by Charlotte: it’s population increase 63% between 1970 and 1990. That by itself is not out of line with a ~2% average population growth the US itself has experienced during the same time. But Charlotte’s “urbanized area” (a misnomer since this largely describes the expansion of suburbs) expanded by 129%. Kansas City showed a modest 16% increase in population but over triple that growth in area at 55%. Even Chicago which maintained its population more or less unchanged expanded by a quarter. Then there is Pittsburgh that managed to expand 30% in spite of a drop of 9% in population.

On the other side is Seattle with an almost perfectly balanced 41% population growth over 42% sprawl increase. (It’s a safe assumption that the miserable climate has deterred more people from moving to the Pacific Northwest.) A few cities even became more “dense” during these two decades: Las Vegas population grew threefold but it’s land area only doubled. Salt Lake City shows the same pattern.

These are the exceptions. US Department of Housing report cited claims that nationwide urban areas expand at about twice the rate of population growth. This is the great suburban flight all over again. (Strangely a survey for Pew Center found sprawl tied with crime as top local concern for most Americans– the same ones checking out of urban centers because of intractable problems such as crime.) Sierra Club attributes the problem to misguided government subsidies that encourage development at the fringe while robbing the urban cores of resources necessary for education, as well as haphazard planning at the state level. Cue in the usual refrain about investing in public transportation, mixed-use approach which blends residential areas with commercial ones and not encroaching on wildlife habitat for building the next subdivision. The New Urbanists have been beating this drum for a while without much success. If anything the housing bubble has aggravated the problem of the  Suburban Nation by making it more attractive to purchase property in what appeared to be the next up-and-coming regions such as Phoenix, Arizona. The report concludes with a somber reflection on the connection of sprawl to population but no viable solution aside from the same platitudes.


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