Urban Sprawl: Get Fat, Stay Poor, And Die In Car Crashes

A new report on metro density says it straight: Quality of life improves in compact cities.

That urban design improves the quality of people’s lives is an old idea. A new study, Measuring Sprawl 2014, now finds that people who live in densely populated regions benefit in many ways. In brief, they have greater economic mobility, they're healthier, and they live longer.

University of Utah city planning professor Reid Ewing and graduate research assistant Shima Hamidi helmed the study, which was commissioned by advocacy organization Smart Growth America. The study scored sprawl in 221 metropolitan areas (200,000 people or more) and in 994 counties, using measures such as development density, the mix of land use, the proximity of people and businesses, and the size of street networks.

Ewing then compared those scores to various measures of quality of life, including rates of obesity, chronic disease, safety, and the cost of living.

The results were startling. Poverty, the report suggests, is far from intractable. Living in a densely populated city appears to help people achieve success. For example, For every 10% leap toward density in the sprawl score, there was a 4.1% increase in the chance that a child born in the bottom 20% of the national income distribution would graduate to the top 20% by age 30.

It's also cheaper to live in dense cities. In those areas, people spend slightly less of their income on the combined cost of housing and transportation. (They have more low-cost transportation options, including walking, which of course is free.) Also useful, in the report, are a run-down of specific investments that some cities have made to improve quality of life. Madison, Wisconsin, instituted programs that help people buy homes, and Los Angeles is adding light rail.

In the U.S., Ewing tracked fewer fatal car crashes in counties with less sprawl. More densely populated counties actually had more car crashes (more traffic), but fatalities were lower. So a person living in Walker County, Georgia, is three times as likely to be killed in a car crash than a person living in Denver County, Colorado.

People who live in compact cities also tend to live about three years longer than people who live in less compact cities. The gap is probably thanks to more driving (which means more fatal crashes), a higher Body Mass Index, higher blood pressure, and more diabetes in less-compact cities. A useful way to look at it is the scale: A 5' 10" man in Arlington County, Virginia, typically weighs four pounds less than a peer in Charles County, Maryland. Obesity, as we know, has many health implications.

While it’s difficult to prove sprawl directly causes poor health, Ewing says this is, at any rate, the most extensive study so far on the costs and benefits of the sprawling model of development that has dominated American cities for decades.

Pinpointing the ways that the design of our cities affects our health and happiness is vital considering how difficult it remains to reverse these trends in development. Though in the long term many people are starting to gravitate back toward urban, walkable places, as Ewing told the Wall Street Journal "in the intermediate term, we’re still sprawling pretty badly as a nation."

[H/T: Wall Street Journal]

[Image: Suburbs of Scottsdale, AZ and Aerial suburb via Shutterstock]

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  • Great summary. Seems it comes down to car use. This isn't specific to the US. If international cities are added to the analysis, more dense cities generally use cars less [mixed sources].

    MORE DENSITY = LESS CAR USE = MORE EXERCISE Populations who use cars less get more incidental exercise through walking and cycling. Even people who take transit tend to walk more than people who drive [Toronto Public Health].

    MORE EXERCISE = MORE PRODUCTIVE PEOPLE Fit people are more productive [University of Bristol]. Better brain function, more energy, etc. But maybe there's more... A person living close to work who walks 25 minutes for their commute kills two birds with one stone. Somebody living further away from the office in a low density neighbourhood is more likely to use their car than any other form of transportation [Census data]. So for these people to get any exercise, they have to tack on additional time outside of their commute unlike those who walk/bike.

  • Agree with Travis. People forget that the amount of money they spend just on transportation alone is far greater in less dense cities. Not only is getting around more costly, but infrastructure like roads, water pipes, sewers, etc. are more costly because the have to cover more distance. Keep in mind, it costs millions of dollars to build a single mile of road. Add that up and what you have is people in low density cities like Atlanta spending about 35% of their income on transportation (taxes, infrastructure, gas, transit, etc.) while in cities across Europe its about 10 to 15%.

    And lastly, Manhattan is just one example of many dense cities across the country.

  • Taylor Aldridge

    I work from home, so there is no commute, no crashes and so on. Living in a city would defiantly increase my cost of living.