New report shows the costs of sprawl

The Daybreak community is a master-planned community that encourages walkability through making amenities within close proximity to residences. Photo by flickr user Photo Dean.
A neighborhood in South Jordan’s Daybreak, a master-planned community that encourages walkability through ensuring that amenities are within close proximity to residences. Photo by Flickr user Photo Dean.

Suburban sprawl costs the United States over $1 trillion a year according to a new report by LSE Cities and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.  According to the report, sprawl has social and economic costs while increasing per capita land development and encouraging vehicular traffic.

The Wasatch Front, Utah’s largest urban area, has geographic limitations that make controlling sprawl imperative to the health of the region.  The increased vehicular traffic caused by sprawl exacerbates the area’s poor air quality.  The mountains that surround the Salt Lake region not only are physical barriers to expansive sprawl, but the mountains also trap bad air creating winter and summer inversions.

The report is from the New Climate Economy (NCE), the flagship project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.  The commission is made up of leaders from six continents and is chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón.

The NCE report mirrors a report released in 2013 by Steven Farber, a University of Utah geography professor, that found that sprawl produces fragmented societies and limits social interaction.

A 2014 report released by Smart Growth America with research from the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center, found that sprawl had health and economic consequences.  Because most jobs and activity centers are in urban centers, sprawl increases the average travel times for both work and play.  The study further found that those who lived closer to urban centers paid more for housing, yet transportation costs were significantly less than those living the furthest from city centers.

According to the 2014 report, “sprawl has been linked to physical inactivity, obesity, traffic fatalities, poor air quality, residential energy use, emergency response times, teenage driving, lack of social capital and private-vehicle commute distances and times.”

The Smart Growth report found that those living closer to urban centers had a higher probability for upward mobility.  In Salt Lake, residents living in the exurbs or at least 30 miles from the city center had significantly lower educational attainment and average incomes than those living near downtown or in suburban communities closer to the city.

The NCE report calculated the social and economic costs of sprawl by measuring the reduced agricultural and ecological productivity, increased public infrastructure and service costs, increased transport and consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers and reduced public fitness and health.

The analysis found that U.S. sprawl costs $400 billion to residents outside of sprawled communities and costs $625 billion to residents living in areas of sprawl.  The study concludes that smart growth and efficient planning  has “large economic, social and environmental benefits.”

Utah has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.  Another 2014 study found that Utah had the second fastest rate of sprawl in the country between 2002 and 2010.  According to the study’s authors, urban areas in Utah grew by 17.6 percent, consuming 203 square miles for new development during the eight-year period.

While Utah has experienced significant sprawl, the state is the 9th most urban in the country.  Over 90 percent of Utah residents live in urban areas, compared to just 80 percent in 1970.  Utah’s population is expected to double by 2050, and the majority of that growth is anticipated to occur along the Wasatch Front.

Many leaders along the Wasatch Front are recognizing the need for effective planning and development in the region.  Several cities along the Wasatch Front are developing urban clusters around transit corridors, especially rail transit, based the priorities established under the Wasatch Choice for 2040 Consortium.  The consortium of local officials seeks to prepare the region for an estimated one million new residents by 2040.  Wasatch Choice envisions urban centers around transit nodes throughout the region, more mixed-use development and the rehabilitation of older housing stock to limit sprawl.

South Jordan’s Daybreak development in South Jordan shows suburban cities can provide a range of housing options, including single-family detached homes, but be built around mass transit and walkable communities.

Several communities along the Wasatch Front have little to no open land left for sprawling development.  West Valley City placed a six-month moratorium on rezoning for residential development for the city’s remaining 300 to 500 acres of open land, while city officials completed the West Valley City General Plan that would determine how to best develop the city’s last significant undeveloped land.

Smart growth doesn’t mean the end for single-family homes but instead ensures that growth is beneficial to both the immediate and surrounding communities and that a diversity of housing options and are available to better meet the needs of residents.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at