10 U.S. Cities with the Most (and Least) Urban Sprawl

Sprawl. Spraaaaaahhhhl. Even if you’re not a city planner, just saying the word clues you into its meaning. It spills off the tongue all slow and aimless–like molasses on a cold day. In the real world sprawl behaves in a similar manner, spreading across the landscape in a way that far outpaces population growth. It may sound innocent, but it’s not.

Sprawl is irresponsible, often poorly-planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools, and drives up taxes,” challenges the Sierra Club. Sprawl is development that eats up the rural (often agricultural and environmentally sensitive) land on the edges of an urban area. Sprawl happens even though there isn’t yet a population to necessitate the growth. And because sprawl is all spread out, stores and parking lots akimbo, it forces people to depend on personal vehicles to get around.

Just this week, Smart Growth America released its second landmark report on the state of sprawl in America. Measuring Sprawl 2014 [PDF] analyzes development patterns in 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States as of 2010, looking to see which communities are more compact and connected, and which are more sprawling.

“Researchers used four primary factors: 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 in these areas and assign a Sprawl Index score to each,” explains a press release.

To arrive at a national ranking, each metro area was evaluated on four main factors: 1) development density; 2) land use mix; 3) activity centering; and 4) street accessibility. These four factors were then combined in equal weight and controlled for population to calculate each area’s Sprawl Index score. The average index is 100, meaning areas with scores higher than 100 are more compact and connected while areas with scores lower than 100 are more sprawling.

Here are the results.

10 U.S. Cities with the Most (and Least) Urban Sprawl

The metro areas with the MOST sprawl are:

1. Kingsport/Bristol/Bristol, TN-VA 60.0
2. Augusta/Richmond County, GA-SC 59.2
3. Greenville/Mauldin-Easley, SC 59.0
4. Riverside-San Bernardino/Ontario, CA 56.2
5. Baton Rouge, LA 55.6
6. Nashville-Davidson/Murfreesboro/Franklin, TN 51.7
7. Prescott, AZ 49.0
8. Clarksville, TN-KY 41.5
9. Atlanta/Sandy Springs/Marietta, GA 41.0
10. Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, NC 24.9

The metro areas with the LEAST sprawl are:

1. New York/White Plains/Wayne, NY-NJ 203.4
2.San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City, CA 194.3
3. Atlantic City/Hammonton, NJ 150.4
4. Santa Barbara/Santa Maria/Goleta, CA 146.6
5. Champaign/Urbana, IL 145.2
6. Santa Cruz/Watsonville, CA 145.0
7. Trenton/Ewing, NJ 144.7
8. Miami/Miami Beach/Kendall, FL 144.1
9. Springfield, IL 142.2
10. Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine, CA 139.9

“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,” explained Reid Ewing, Director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center and primary author of the new research. “This research demonstrates the many ways our development decisions may impact us every day, and informs how better development practices may improve our quality of life.”

See all the rankings and download the full report at www.smartgrowthamerica.org/measuring-sprawl.

Related Reading:

Top 10 Most Walkable Cities in America

How Cities and Wildlife Can Be Friends Instead of Enemies

5 Cities Where Bikes are Taking Over

Image via Thinkstock


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago


Christine Stewart
Christine S3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Lynn C.
Lynn C3 years ago


Kathleen R.
Kathleen R3 years ago


Robert O.
Robert O3 years ago

Thank you for the lists.

Vasu M.
.3 years ago

The Marine Base at Camp Pendleton and land owned by the military there has prevented San Diego from being encompassed by the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

The cities on the West Coast are flourishing, and it's not just because of the warm climate! In high school we learned that many of the cities and urban sprawl in the Sun Belt grew up in the post-World War II era, with the automobile as the accepted method of transportation...

...whereas the cities on the East Coast, with their inner cities, had slums long before the automobile was invented.

The downside, of course, is that the cities on the East Coast have better public transportation (like New York City's extensive subway system).

"I am still livin' with your ghost
"Lonely and dreamin' of the west coast
"I don't wanna be your downtime
"I don't wannabe your stupid game

"I just wanna see some palm trees
"I will try and shake away this disease

"Walk right out into a brand new day
"Insane and risin' in my own weird way
"I don't wanna be the bad guy
"I don't wanna do your sleepwalk dance anymore

"We can live beside the Ocean
"Leave the fire behind
"Swim out past the breakers
"Watch the world die..."

--Everclear "Santa Monica" (1995)

Nimue P.

Want to see a wonderfully well-planned city? Come to Melbourne. That's Melbourne Australia, not Florida.

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Okay, it's true that the Grand Canyon could swallow every human being on Earth with plenty of room left over. But the so-called "development" perpetuated by over 7 billion people and counting has caused the entire planet to have the worst case of world-wide urban sprawl in it's history.

And what's with this Smart Growth America business? The term "smart growth" is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as smart growth in a finite world with limited resources. The smart thing to do would be to level off and stabilize our population and then bring it back down to a sustainable level in a controlled manner before nature steps in and does it for us in a disastrous, chaotic way.

But it doesn't look like this is going to happen because the one thing that desperately needs to be growing---namely human intelligence---appears to be doing just exactly the opposite if anything. So Gaia, do your duty when ready. And for your sake, the sooner the better.

Kamia T.
Kamia T3 years ago

I think they totally blew it by not making the Los Angeles - San Diego metroplex area number one worst in the world. Just imagine an 150 mile long, 50 mile wide area of stunning ecology that started out as a small group of villages in one tiny village, and now houses over 40,000,000 people covering nearly every square inch of it except for mountain tops that some rube hasn't yet built on!

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago