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Solimar Research

"Measuring Sprawl" finds California metros denser than many

Apr 8, 2014

An academic study that gauges sprawl in cities nationwide has placed San Francisco very high in its compactness rankings ? one alternate standard, buried deep in the report, actually ranks it first. It also rates Los Angeles above a surprising number of other cities, considering it's stereotyped as suffering from low-rise growth.

The study, "Measuring Sprawl," rates cites on a spectrum from "sprawl" to "compact and connected" based on four factors, each representing a basket of variables: "development density" (residential and otherwise), "land use mix" (based on data about WalkScores and types of jobs near each other), "activity centering" (roughly, whether downtowns are busier than peripheries), and "street accessibility", which values short blocks, four-way intersections and "blocks that are urban in size".

This four-factor approach ranks the New York/White Plains/Wayne NY-NJ metro area highest for compactness, followed by San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City, California. Next in California are Santa Barbara/Santa Maria/Goleta, #4, Santa Cruz/Watsonville, #6, and Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine, #10. The Los Angeles/Long Beach/Glendale metro comes in at #21. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos is #103 and Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville is #120. At the other end of the scale, the Riverside-San Bernardino/Ontario metro comes in at #215 out of 221 areas rated. The most sprawling metro in the ranking is Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, NC, just below Atlanta.

The co-authors of the study are Professor Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi, a graduate research assistant, both of the University of Utah's Metropolitan Research Center. The reports mention project team members from the National Cancer Institute and Smart Growth America and preparation for those entities plus the Ford Foundation. The Smart Growth America site offers an executive summary and 51-page version of the report at A 203-page version of the report and other supporting material are posted at

Asked about the California compactness ratings, Ewing wrote: "The favorable results for California probably mostly [result] from high housing costs, which translates into higher densities."

The 2014 study built on a 2002 predecessor effort by Ewing, who was then at Rutgers University, together with Rolf Pendall of Cornell and Don Chen of Smart Growth America. That study, with its separately posted ranking table for high and low levels of sprawl, is at

Ewing confirmed the research team chose to make few comparisons between the 2014 study and its 2002 predecessor due to the risk of "apples to oranges" misunderstandings. He wrote: "Metropolitan area definitions changed, and the variables we used to measure sprawl changed."

The main 2002 study ranked Riverside-San Bernardino worst for sprawl. At the top end of the scale, the New York City MSA's top ranking was followed by Jersey City, the Providence, R.I. area, and only then San Francisco. Los Angeles was then 39th, just below San Diego.

Ewing noted that an alternate set of "apples to apples" comparisons appears in Chapter 9 of the large report text on the Cancer Institute site. That chapter sets out and applies an alternate sprawl standard that is able to use data available in the same forms for both 2000 and 2010 with respect to 162 large "urbanized areas" (as distinct from metropolitan areas) that had populations of 200,000 or more as of 2010.

Tables on Pages 109-111 of the large report's PDF show urbanized areas' compactness levels changed little from 2000 to 2010 according to these "apples to apples" standards. In each case the most compact urban area was San Francisco-Oakland, California ? this is the alternate form of the study in which San Francisco actually ranked highest. In 2010 the top-ten list also included Oxnard and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim in eighth. In 2000, the only California urban area after San Francisco-Oakland on the top-ten list was Visalia. In both decades the only California urbanized area among the "most sprawling" ten was Victorville-Hesperia. In each case the "most sprawling" metro area was Atlanta, Georgia.
Boston and other Massachusetts towns weren't in either the 2014 rankings, nor the 2000-to-2010 comparisons, because they used Local Employment Dynamics (LED) data, which Massachusetts is alone in choosing not to collect.