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Study: Suburban sprawl hurts social mobility

Metro areas with good, cheap mass transit can promote economic advancement and healthier living

Living in sprawling metropolitan areas hurts a poor child’s chances of moving up the economic ladder as an adult, according to new research published on Wednesday.

Despite the fact that urban sprawl has been linked to many social ills — obesity, shorter life spans and more car accidents — many U.S. metropolitan areas continue to spread out, the figures reveal.

Smart Growth America and the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Urban Center today released their second detailed sprawl ranking of metro areas and counties. Unlike an earlier 2002 report, this one factors in not just population density, transportation options and public health but also impact on income, life expectancy and housing and transportation costs.

One of the most striking findings is that living in more compact and connected metro areas can help low-income children get ahead financially as adults. “A child [in a low-sprawl area] born in the bottom 20 percent of the income scale has a better chance of rising to the top 20 percent of the income scale by the age of 30,” said Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and the lead researcher.

For example, the probability that an individual in the Baton Rouge, La., area — the sixth worst in terms of sprawl — will move from the bottom to the top income bracket is 7.2 percent, compared with 10.2 percent in Madison, Wis., the least sprawling among medium-size metro areas. “My explanation at this point is that a low-income person living in a very compact area has a much better access to jobs” and the city is “more likely to be well-integrated,” he said.

Research also shows that transportation costs are much higher in spread-out areas, especially those not linked by public transit. Evidence that sprawl equals poorer health is mounting, largely because living in an area that requires driving means less walking and more fast-food restaurants, Ewing said.

One of the most striking findings is that living in more compact and connected metro areas can help low-income children get ahead financially as adults.

Another finding from the study is that people live longer when they’re in a place that is less spread out. They’re thinner, have lower blood pressure and lower rates of diabetes.

When it comes to different regions of the United States, the South fared the worst in the rankings. Eight of the 10 most sprawling metro areas are in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. “The Southeast is the most sprawling region of the country,” Ewing said. “Atlanta can sprawl outward without limitations.” The Atlanta metro is the second most sprawling, after the North Carolina metro area of Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton.

Because of Southern states’ agricultural history, “property rights are extremely important, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas,” said Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge.

But the tide turned after the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “We had a sea change in how people felt,” Thomas said. “For the first time, looking at community good was more important than looking at personal property rights.” Before Katrina, only 12 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes had comprehensive development plans. “Today, almost 40 do. That’s been a huge paradigm shift.”

But metro areas in California, a state widely associated with congested megahighways, a fierce dependence on automobiles and far-flung suburbs, are not that sprawling after all. Four of the 10 most compact and connected metro areas are in California: San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine. “The best surprise story is Los Angeles,” Ewing said. “Los Angeles has actually densified substantially … Most of the development has been infill.” And the city’s rail and subway systems have contributed to more connected development, he said.

Charlotte, N.C., which launched a rail line and encouraged housing along transit lines, has dropped from fifth most sprawling to 11th. “Every time elected leaders approve roads and sewer lines, our health, our costs are all impacted,” said Ilana Preuss, vice president of Smart Growth America, a nonprofit coalition of private and public organizations. “This research is really a first step in understanding how to create great places. We need to think very carefully as we grow, as we become an increasingly urban country.”

The report showed that “despite all the city revitalizing, all the slowdown of the sprawl machine in the wake of the housing finance crisis … sprawl isn’t solved,” said Deron Lovaas, senior policy director with Urban Solutions, a program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Sprawl is still a problem,” he said.

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