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Urban Sprawl in a U.S. Metropolitan Area

Ways to Measure and a Comparison of the Sacramento Area to Similar Metropolitan Areas in California and the U.S.

Robert W. Wassmer

January 2000, English

For more than forty years, urban planners, environmentalists, and other social engineers have used the pejorative catch phrase of urban sprawl to categorize much of what Americans dislike about suburban life in U.S. metropolitan areas. In the early 1990s, coinciding with Joel Garreau’s (1991) publication of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, the term urban sprawl grew to common usage in the public’s lexicon and is now a policy concern that is even debated at the national level. In his 1999 State of the Union Address, President Clinton devoted nearly 20 percent of his time to issues related to metropolitan development; he only spent more time on foreign policy. Vice President Al Gore, running for President in 2000, followed up with campaign speeches that attributed road rage, loss of fertile land, central city decay, and even a decline in family life to urban sprawl. Alternatively, Conservative commentators like Thomas Sowell (1999) and George Will (1999) attribute this national focus as the most recent crisis contrived by Liberals to justify government interference in what should be the private choices of where people and businesses locate.

Given this background, it is hard to find an individual or policymaker in any region in the United States who, at least publicly, favors urban sprawl. At the same time, it is equally difficult to find someone who can concisely define what urban sprawl is and how to best measure the degree to which it has occurred in a region. However, it is not hard to find an individual or policymaker in the United States concerned over the negative outcomes that are widely attributed to urban sprawl: loss of open space, traffic congestion, air pollution, a greater percentage of the poor living in the inner-city, central city blight, etc. To correctly test the causal connection between urban sprawl and these negative outcomes, ways are needed to measure the degree that urban sprawl has occurred in a metropolitan area like Sacramento. Once this measurement is chosen, factors cited as causes of urban sprawl can also be tested for validity, and if appropriate, these tests can then form the basis for public policies designed to reduce sprawl and the negative urban outcomes attributed to it.


Economics, Farm Land, Job Sprawl, Public Policy, Urban Sprawl