skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Where sprawl still rules

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 11, 2013

, , , ,
Share | | |

  North Myrtle Beach, #2 on the list (by and courtesy of Payton Chung)

For several years now, many of us have been predicting - or even celebrating - the end of the era of unfettered sprawl.  Central cities have been making a comeback; car ownership is down among young adults; in some places, exurban greenfield land recently designated for residential development has even reverted to farming.

I just took a look at a newish database, and all that seems to be mostly true.  But not entirely.  The good news is that, in an overwhelming majority of US metropolitan areas, well more than half new construction is taking place in infill locations or as redevelopment of already-built sites.  The not-so-good news, though, is that sprawl still dominates new construction in emerging metro regions in certain parts of the country:  a counter-trend, if you will, to the main trend.

  the 29 metro regions where sprawl still rules (via Google Earth)

The pattern of the counter-trend is fascinating:  The places in America where sprawl remains the predominant building pattern are not the spread-out icons of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and the like.  Instead, they are small and medium-size regions in South Atlantic states (particularly Florida), in Texas and the southern Rockies and, perhaps surprisingly, in pockets of the Pacific Northwest.  Instead of Phoenix, think Yuma; instead of Las Vegas, think Provo; instead of Atlanta, think Warner Robins.

  Fort Collins, #6 on the list (via Google Earth)

Real estate analyst Chris (Arthur C.) Nelson compiled a massive amount of underlying information while researching his latest book, Reshaping Metropolitan America.  To say that his database contains a lot of detail is quite the understatement:

Reshaping Metropolitan America: Development Trends and Opportunities to 2030, includes an extensive Excel database of the US population, age and dependency ratios, household size and population, household type, householder age, housing tenure, housing units, space-occupying jobs and non-residential space, and the Reshape America Index. These numbers are included at the level of the nation, census regions and divisions, states including DC, combined statistical areas, metropolitan statistical areas, and micropolitcan statistical areas—a total of 1,132 geographic units. The database includes more than 200 numbers for each geographic unit, which are coded based on census protocols. 

Brownsville, #10 on the list (courtesy of Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons)The book’s main point is one that Nelson and others have been making very persuasively for years:  Unless we change our building patterns, we are about to be significantly oversupplied (relative to future demand) in large-lot housing and significantly undersupplied in more walkable, urban forms.  This is due to shifting demographics and a host of related factors.

But I already knew that.  I was at a meeting in 2005 where Nelson actually predicted the burst of the housing bubble that caught all the rest of us by surprise two years later, sending the world’s economy into a tailspin.  So I’ve been paying close attention ever since.

What caught my eye was a column in the database titled “Percent of Net New Space in Non Infill or Redevelopment Locations.”  This column showed, for each of the 1,132 geographic units, the share of new construction claimed by greenfield development beyond the reach of the region's existing development footprint.  I wasn’t about to look at every single item in the database, but I did look at this category for the 381 metropolitan areas recognized by the US government.

  sprawl marches west from Florida's Palm Bay (via Google Earth)

The data appear to confirm, for the vast majority of US metros, that builders have already shifted to infill and redevelopment to a large extent.  But I was curious to learn about the outliers.  Where does sprawl still rule the development game?  Below are the 29 metro areas - and there are only 29, unless my late-night reading missed one or two - where development beyond the existing footprint comprises 40 percent or more of the total.  I ranked them:

  1. Palm Coast, FL - 83%                              
  2. Myrtle Beach, SC - 66%
  3. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX – 65%             
  4. St George, UT – 63%
  5. Naples-Marco Island, FL – 58%
  6. Fort Collins, CO – 57%                           
  7. Olympia, WA – 56%
  8. Bend, OR – 55%
  9. Bellingham, WA – 54%
  10. Brownsville, TX – 53%
  11. Provo, UT – 53%
  12. Raleigh-Cary, NC – 53%
  13. Grand Junction, CO – 52%
  14. Riverside-San Bernardino, CA – 52%
  15. Winchester, VA-WV – 52%
  16. Ocala, FL – 49%
  17. Austin, TX – 48%
  18. Greeley, CO – 48%
  19. Port St Lucie, FL – 47%
  20. Santa Fe, NM – 45%
  21. Warner Robins, GA – 45%
  22. Punta Gorda, FL – 44%  
  23. Dover, DE – 43%
  24. Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, WA        - 43%
  25. Yuma, AZ – 43%
  26. Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood, TX – 42%
  27. Wilmington, NC – 42%
  28. Laredo – 41%
  29. San Antonio – 40%

As you can see from the maps accompanying this article, there is a clear geographic distribution to these places, and a generally prevailing size, too.  Of the 29, only a few have a metropolitan population exceeding a million residents:  sprawl still rules in parts of Florida (via Google Earth)Riverside, Raleigh, San Antonio, Austin.  I researched the populations of the top ten, which ranged from a low of about 162,000 (Bend) to a high of about 800,000 (McAllen).  I confess that I did not know all of the names on the list.  But the fact that infill construction and redevelopment constitute a strong majority of the total in over 90 percent of US metro areas is significant.

The conclusions, of course, beg some important questions, particularly the definitions of infill and redevelopment (they must be generous) and how Nelson was able to ascertain which increments of construction met the definition.  I’m also curious about the time span from which the construction data were taken.  Perhaps the answers are in Nelson's book, which I have not been able (yet) to read in depth. 

Whatever the fine details, I suspect the conclusions are absolutely correct with regard to the general direction in which the industry is moving – shifting practices to more urban forms, in response to increasingly clear market signals.  But not necessarily, particularly in certain parts of the country.

Related posts:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

Share | | |


Joseph EdgeApr 11 2013 02:47 PM

The population of Bend is closer to 62k than 162k. Only one city in Oregon has more than 115k population.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 11 2013 03:01 PM

True if you're looking only within the city limits. These data are for metropolitan regions.

Ryan VanApr 11 2013 09:37 PM

The metro size factor interests me.

It might suggest that the decline of sprawl in larger metros is due to 'push' factors (i.e. the areas available to sprawl into are just not viable); as opposed to 'pull' factors (i.e. a growing appeal of inner-city living).

For those truly dedicated to the suburban lifestyle, suburbs of smaller metros offer an alternative-to-the-alternative of inner cities.

If so, it shows there's still work to be done to make higher densities appealing to a broader cross section of the community.

MihirApr 11 2013 09:58 PM

This makes sense since I've experienced I've lived in the Chicago and DC areas, but am now living near Columbia, SC, a small, Southern, but sprawling city. The costs of sprawl (to the individual, not necessarily the environment) are more manageable when you live in a metro of 500,000 vs. 5,000,000. It is why Atlanta, etc. has hit serious limits of how far it can grow (especially in terms of the reach of highway and water infrastructure). In Columbia, you can live on the outer fringe of the metro and still be 45 minutes in rush hour from the opposite corner in rush hour. You can't similar be on the outer fringe of a large metro and expect to have a reasonable commute to the entirety of the metro's jobs.

Rolf PendallApr 12 2013 06:27 AM


Looks to me a lot like second/ vacation homes drive a chunk of this, except in most of Texas. The housing bubble delivered massive injections of money into the top 1% of the income distribution. They didn't lose all that much of it, and they now benefit disproportionately from the big stock market increase. Why not buy a vacation house everywhere you want? Bend, Santa Fe, near the beach in Florida. For at least the first vacation home you can still write off the mortgage debt up to $1.1 million. Considering the magnitude of income inequality, we need to do a better job understanding the land-consumption habits of the super-rich.

LeeApr 12 2013 01:03 PM

I believe that the National Center for Smart Growth Research is working on a paper about this topic, as is EPA's Office of Sustainability.

David T. WhitakerApr 12 2013 02:42 PM

Bend's metro population was estimated at 170,705 as of July 1, 2009. The Bend MSA is the 5th largest metropolitan area in Oregon.,_Oregon

Matt DApr 12 2013 03:20 PM

Kaid, are you looking at the last column in the spreadsheet? ("Percent of Net New Space in Non Infill or Redevelopment Locations")

I don't think that column shows the percent of development that is currently occuring as sprawl - it is mathematically impossible for San Bernardino/Riverside to be at 52% but the state of California as a whole to be at 0%. Also 262 out of 366 MSAs at 0%? Just doesn't seem right.

Looks to me like that section of the spreadsheet is doing an analysis of projected growth by 2030 and how much of that growth could be accommodated within the existing developed area. So maybe it will be, maybe it won't be.

It seems to me that there is starting to be a trend of smart growth advocates using the economic crisis to declare victory over sprawl. But the sprawl machine is creaking back to life all over the country.

I agree that the market signal is clear - people want to live closer to other centers of economic activity. And developers aren't stupid; they like making money and want to build things that people are willing to pay money to have. But until building infill is easy (from a zoning/permitting standpoint) at the same scale as sprawl is easy, we're not going to get the infill we want to see.

Ben HApr 12 2013 07:59 PM

Very interesting. Outlying land in smaller cities may not seem as far from things as it is in larger cities that have already sprawled.

JJ EApr 18 2013 03:10 PM

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I was just reading another blog post discussing whether California's proposed high speed rail's main impact will be to unlock real estate in the San Joaquin Valley as opposed to environmental benefit or monetary cost. Putting that idea together with this post, I wonder if high speed rail in California will add to the "Percent of Net New Space in Non Infill or Redevelopment Locations.”

As somebody who cares deeply about protecting open spaces, I at least wonder if high speed rail traversing through large land areas could ever have a similar impact as interstate highways in facilitating sprawl, or if the other blogger's argument is overstated. The post is here:

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In