Think sprawl and car-clogged Los Angeles freeways immediately comes to mind.
But new research examining urban sprawl in 221 major U.S. metropolitan areas finds that Fort Worth-Arlington is less connected and compact than L.A. and scores only slightly better than far-flung Houston.
The new study, Measuring Sprawl 2014, by Smart Growth America and the National Institutes of Health, says that people in compact, connected urban areas live longer, are healthier, have greater upward mobility, walk more and have lower overall costs of living.
Researchers used four primary components — residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network — to evaluate development and assign a sprawl index score to each area.
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Ilana Preuss, vice president of Smart Growth America, which advocates for better planning and denser development, said the study illustrates how development decisions are connected to people’s daily lives.
“Each time elected leaders invest in roads or sewer lines, or decide where to approve new developments our personal daily costs, our health and long-term economic opportunities are impacted,” Preuss said at a news conference last week in Washington, D.C.
Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center and primary author of the report, said it is the most extensive study to date “to define and measure the costs and benefits of sprawl development.”
Metro areas were compared based on 29 variables, he said.
“We found that in areas with less sprawl — several quality of life factors were more positive, including greater economic mobility, lower combined costs of housing and transportation and higher life expectancies,” Ewing said in a news release.
Residents of compact metros also tend to be safer and healthier and live longer than their peers in more sprawling areas, Ewing said, noting that obesity is less prevalent in compact counties and fatal car crashes are less common.
Surprisingly, Los Angeles was No. 21 and Fort Worth-Arlington ranked 172. San Antonio was at 179, just ahead of Houston at 182.
The report said that Los Angeles, which was second only to New York in density, improved its “sprawl index” through several public policies including a plan for development around transit stations.
“I’m not sure I believe we’re more sprawling than Los Angeles,” said Randle Harwood, planning and development director for the city of Fort Worth.
“We recognize we are sprawling, but we are also recognized as one of the most livable cities,” he said.
Harwood also points out that Fort Worth is one of the least densely populated large cities in the country, which makes it hard to compare to Los Angeles.
“We have grown so fast, we’ve added a city the size of Lubbock in just over a decade,” Harwood said, noting that the city is encouraging higher density developments.
“But you have to have a balance in growth in your core and on your periphery,” he said. “We are sprawling and there is a demand for that. But we are investing in our central city.”
No. 19 Laredo was the most compact Texas metro area, followed by No. 47 Corpus Christi, No. 48 Waco, No. 65 Lubbock and No. 71 College Station.
El Paso, at 100, scored best among large Texas cities, followed by No. 114 Austin and Dallas at 152.
The most sprawling metro areas nationally are Hickory, N.C.; Atlanta; Clarksville, Tenn.; Prescott, Ariz.; and Nashville, the report said.
The most compact metro areas are New York City; San Francisco; Atlantic City, N.J.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Champaign-Urbana, Ill.
Rapid growth is the primary culprit for sprawl in Fort Worth-Arlington and Tarrant County, said County Commissioner Gary Fickes, who has been heavily involved in the area’s transportation planning.
In the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Tarrant County added 30,000 people in the year ending July 1, 2013, the eighth-largest increase in the nation. From April 1, 2010, to July 1 2012, Fort Worth grew by 35,926, or 4.8 percent. The city has added 243,298 residents since the 2000 Census.
Among the four primary components of the sprawl index, Fort Worth’s worst score was for street connectivity, which Fickes said is the area’s next transportation challenge.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of getting the major routes improved in recent years. The connectivity is broken down when it comes to getting to the neighborhoods. It’s the mid-sized arterials that are causing the problems. That’s our challenge now,” he said.
“The other challenge is we are going to have to get some of these people out of their cars,” Fickes said.
The lack of connectivity is the nature of a large, rapidly growing city, Harwood said.
“But we are tackling the transportation problems to make better connectivity,” he said.
‘Room to grow’
Karla Weaver, a program manager for sustainable development at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said Fort Worth’s mammoth 350-square-mile footprint skews the sprawl scores for the city.
“Cities in the South are not going to fare so well as Northern cities which were built so much more compact. We have room to grow, that’s the thing,” she said.
“Our region is unique in many ways. We don’t have one main city where everyone can build around. Austin is like that, San Antonio is like that and even Houston to some extent,” Weaver said. “We have a lot of urban nodes that are each focused on their own destiny. We haven’t connected them that well on a big scale.”
Fort Worth is now working to create 16 urban villages, or “cities within the city” where small areas are zoned for dense, multiple-use development that are pedestrian-friendly and connected to mass transit, Weaver said.
“Both Fort Worth and Arlington have really been investing in their downtown core. They have a really strong historic street grid and infrastructure that they have been restoring and bringing back development to those areas in an effort to not go farther out and sprawl more,” she said.
The two cities are also investing more in alternative modes of transportation.
“They are investing in bike trails and making things walk-friendly. I think we are headed in the right direction,” Weaver said.