Study shows sprawl affects social mobility

While presidential candidates argue about the current health of the “American Dream,” in Utah the dream appears to still be attainable.  A new study found that while upward mobility is slipping away for many people in America, for residents in Provo it is more attainable than other-other large metro in the country.

The study, by University of Utah Department of City & Metropolitan Planning professor Reid Ewing and colleagues from Utah, Texas and Louisiana, was featured in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning and looked at how suburban sprawl impacts upward mobility.  The study found that compact metros tended to have higher levels of upward mobility.

“As the compactness index for a metropolitan area doubles, the likelihood that a child is born into the bottom fifth of the national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30 increases by 41 percent,” said Ewing in a statement.

The study compares upward mobility to a sprawl index calculated by Ewing and his team.  Salt Lake City joined Provo in the list of top 10 metros with highest levels of upward mobility.  But both metro areas are somewhat of a statistical anomaly in that they both have mediocre levels of compactness.

“The Salt Lake City metropolitan area isn’t the most sprawling, but it also isn’t the most compact,” said Ewing in a statement. “By discouraging sprawl, we can not only improve air quality and shorten commutes, but we can also promote upward social mobility.”

Racial Diversity could help explain why Salt Lake and Provo metros score high in upward mobility with lower compactness.  Most of the metros with the lowest levels of upward mobility have both high levels of sprawl and racial diversity.

According to data Ewing provided to City LabProvo and Columbus (GA) have identical scores on the sprawl index,  yet according to 2010 US Census data, Columbus’ population is 46.3 percent white while Provo’s metro population is 93.5 percent white.  Columbus ranked second to last in upward mobility.

The same connection could be made with Salt Lake, which has a metro population that is 88.5 percent white.

Sprawl not only affects upward mobility but according to a 2015 report by LSE Cities and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, suburban sprawl costs the United States over $1 trillion a year.

Another 2015 report by the Demographics Research Group, from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, found that the farther a person lives from the urban core the lower their income tends to be.

Utah residents are more likely to prefer suburban living over urban living than their national peers, but Utah’s unique geography makes the environmental and quality of life costs of sprawl more immediately felt.  While Utah metros still enjoy some level of upward mobility, as Ewing’s study shows, if local sprawl is unmitigated it could be at the cost of poor.

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