Metropolitan population trends documented by the 2000 Census confirmed what land use analysts have known for a long time: most of the nations cities are eating up land for new development much faster than theyre gaining new residents.
But a new study suggests that, contrary to the conventional wisdom on sprawl, Western cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas are doing a more efficient job at using land to accommodate their population booms than are cities in other regions like the stagnant Northeast and the swiftly-flowering South.
"Although much of the West is auto-oriented and characterized by single-family residential development, the region is consuming land far more efficiently than any other part of the nation," wrote William Fulton, the leading author of the study and president of the Los Angeles-based Solimar Research Group, Inc.
"Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S.," a report prepared for the left-leaning Brookings Institution by analysts from Solimar and Cornell University, combines population figures from the 1980, 1990 and 2000 censuses with land use data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Inventory (NRI).
NRI data shows that the amount of developed land in the United States increased 47 percent, from 51 million acres to 76 million acres, between 1982 and 1997. Census figures estimate a 17 percent increase in the population between 1980 and 2000. Meanwhile, only 17 of the nation's 281 largest metropolitan areas actually increased in density.
Older cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis that have historically "high-density metro areas and ... fragmented local governments" witnessed the most extensive development relative to their population growth. Southern cities tended to follow a middle road, converting large amounts of rural land to absorb a massive infusion of new residents.
The report also found that cities in states with growth management laws "sprawled more" over the last two decades. The authors speculate that rather than encouraging sprawl, these states "adopted growth management legislation precisely because they were growing rapidly and experiencing rapid density declines."
Nine states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin - have enacted growth management laws within the last few years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Brookings report's findings hinge on its reliance upon unconventional data sets. Earlier studies used the Census Bureau's population-based definition of urban land density areas with more than 1,000 people per square mile to make their calculations. Fulton and his colleagues substituted NRI land consumption figures to obtain numbers they believe better reflect the existence of low-density outward development attached to nearby urban cores.
By that yardstick, California, Arizona and Nevada are home to ten of the nation's fifteen densest cities. Topographical constraints, federal land ownership, strong dependence upon public water and sewer systems and a trend toward high-density residential subdivisions have helped the West pack in newcomers, the report says.
The report acknowledges its concept of sprawl "in terms of land use resources consumed to accommodate new urbanization" is "not perfect by any means" but it authors say it is a more precise alternative to popular notions of meandering residential subdivisions planned around the automobile.
Samuel R. Staley, an economist with the Reason Public Policy Institute, a market-oriented think tank also headquartered in Los Angeles, said the study's standard of measurement is flawed.
"People aspire to having some yard for their single-family, detached home, as well as immediate access to publicly-owned open space. . . . As long as this open space exists, a community will technically "sprawl" using their definition even when housing is becoming more clustered, even when the real density that people live with every day is increasing," Staley said.
But City of Los Angeles Planning Director Con Howe said the study's main conclusions mesh with his professional experience in Los Angeles and New York City as well as with conversations with colleagues in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
"Growth, and how to handle growth, has been a consistent public policy issue in places like California, Arizona and Nevada for decades. In a lot of other parts of the country, the growth that is occurring is all on the perimeter. In some ways, growth as an issue has snuck up on those areas," Howe says.
Howe says that infill development and substantial investment in public transportation have been key components in Los Angeles' strategy, but that market trends in Los Angeles have also favored compact development. Angelenos tend to place a higher premium on the quality, rather than the quantity, of their open space, he said.