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Mar 06

The Facts: Compact Growth vs. Urban Sprawl

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 6:24 PM by Rachel Johnson

Mayor Fadness has discussed his vision for a smart, vibrant and entrepreneurial Fishers. An important part of being a smart city means being strategic about how we plan for growth in our community.  Fishers is a community that understands what it means to grow, as many residents can attest by the rapid increase in population during the last few decades.  Fishers’ population is projected to continue to grow to an estimated 131,500 by 2040. How do we ensure that as the community continues to grow we do it in a way that is smart, and in a way that will be sustainable for the long term?

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Land use patterns can have a large effect on the long term sustainability of Fishers and the quality of life of our citizens. There has been significant research done on the effects of land use patterns on quality of life indices. Research has shown that areas that have compact development patterns demonstrate increased benefits to public health, improved affordability for residents, and improved transportation options, among other benefits. These are important factors for our community to understand so that we are strategic about future growth and plan for development in a way that maximizes the quality of life for our residents.

One of the largest studies to measure development patterns was conducted in 2002 by Smart Growth America. The report, entitled “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact” has been widely used to examine the effects of sprawl development versus more compact development patterns. In 2014, the research was updated with 2010 census information. The resulting report, entitled “Measuring Sprawl” was prepared for the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health. The 2014 research analyzed development patterns in 221 Metropolitan Statistical Areas and 994 metropolitan counties. These included Indianapolis-Carmel Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as well as Hamilton county data specifically.

What do professional city planners and researchers mean when we talk about sprawl versus compact development, and why is it important for Fishers?

Sprawl is traditionally defined as any land use pattern in which related land uses have poor access to one another, leaving the car as the only alternative for the vast majority of trips. Often, the common denominator of types of development labeled as sprawl is that the land use pattern offers poor accessibility. There are social, economic and environmental costs to this land use pattern, and understanding what the research indicates about the negative effects of sprawl development helps planners understand how to plan for growth in a way that maximizes community health, safety and wellbeing.

The 2014 research on sprawl development analyzed four dimensions of sprawl across the country to develop a sprawl index. The first dimension included average population and employment concentrations to determine relative densities by census tracts. Second, the research looked at average block sizes to measure street accessibility. Smaller average block lengths translate into shorter, more direct routes from one destination to another. Conversely, areas with sprawl development often have longer blocks with fewer connections to surrounding land uses, making accessibility from one destination to another more difficult. The third factor that contributed to the sprawl index was a measurement of the mix of uses. This measurement quantified the balance between the population and jobs within subareas of a greater region, the diversity of land uses within the subareas of a region, and accessibility of residential uses to nonresidential uses. The fourth dimension of the sprawl index measured the proportion of people and businesses located near each other by looking at the range of population and employment size by census block groups. This was used to determine how well populations were centered in key activity areas.

How did the Indianapolis-Carmel MSA stack up against the 220 other MSAs across the country?

We ranked 63rd most sprawling out of 221 in the sprawl index, placing us in the bottom third. Our ranking across the four dimensions factored was fairly uniform. When looking at the Hamilton County data, the county also ranked high in the sprawl index, ranking 413 most sprawling out of 994 counties. Of the four measurements used in the index, the activity centering ranked the lowest, putting Hamilton County in the bottom 20% of all the counties measured. This demonstrates that activity centers, such as what is being created in the Nickel Plate District, have been sorely lacking in Hamilton County compared to other metropolitan counties across the country.

Researchers have found that as the sprawl index decreases, and areas demonstrate a more compact land use pattern, several factors used to measure quality of life improve, even when controlled for socioeconomic factors.

One interesting correlation between the sprawl index is to a location’s Affordability Index. The Affordability Index, developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, measures the average cost of housing and transportation in a given city, the two largest expenses for most individuals and families. According to the Location Affordability Index, the average amount spent on transportation in the U.S. is 22% (average cost as a percent of income for median-income family household). Fishers comes in slightly above the average at 25% with a combined affordability of 57% (meaning the average costs for transportation as a percent of income for a median-income household in Fishers is slightly greater than the national average).

The research shows that in locations with lower sprawl indices, the location is more affordable. Of course this intuitively makes sense because people in compact areas have more transportation options available to them (whether this is walking, biking or transit), and therefore can spend less money overall on transportation expenses. However, what is interesting about the correlation of affordability to sprawl is that there is not an equal trade-off between housing and transportation costs when moving from a sprawling land use pattern to a compact one. The research shows that in actuality, transportation costs decline faster than housing costs rise when moving to more compact land use areas, creating a net decline in household costs (Ewing and Hamidi 2014). This means that on average, more compact development leads to increased cost of housing while still reducing the overall affordability to the individual or family by providing greater savings in transportation expenses.

Research has shown that people in more compact areas walk more and spend less time driving. This leads to savings as well as health benefits. There have been numerous studies conducted in the public health field which demonstrate that people in compact land use areas are generally healthier. Through the Built Environment and Health Initiative, the Centers for Disease Control is actively working with planners across the country to study the effects of compact development and the effects that more accessible land use patterns have on public health. Land use patterns that support active transportation translate into a healthier community.

Better health, more transportation options, strong housing values, greater overall affordability, have all been shown as benefits to compact growth patterns. Fishers Community Development Department is analyzing this research to better understand the impact that land use decisions have on our citizens’ quality of life, and working to create long-range growth strategies that promote development patterns to improve the quality of life for Fishers residents.

The concerted effort toward strategically located compact growth nodes began in our downtown, the Nickel Plate District. The Community Development Department worked with the community to create a master plan and a new zoning code that supported compact, walkable, mixed use development at our core. As the Nickel Plate District develops and as the City continues to strengthen opportunities for a mix of business and residential uses, as we continue to reconnect our street and sidewalk grid to create  more opportunities for active transportation, we will have a real impact on the quality of life for those living and working in the area.

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In the upcoming year, the Community Development Department will expand long range land use planning efforts past the Nickel Plate District to reanalyze our land use patterns across the City. We are analyzing development patterns and the transportation network together to look for opportunities to better connect residents with the amenities they need, both through land use decisions and transportation improvements. Through strategic, well-planned and a comprehensive approach to future growth and development, Fishers will position itself well for long-term sustainability and continue to provide a high quality of life for our residents.

Rachel Johnson, Assistant Director of Planning 

Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi, “Measuring Sprawl 2014”

Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi, Measuring Urban Sprawl and Validating Sprawl Measures

Location Affordability Portal: Understanding the Combined Costs of Housing and Transportation; Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development and Department of Transportation

Centers for Disease Control Built Environment and Health Initiative


David Giffel
March 11, 2015 at 5:55 AM
Excellent report and I appreciate greatly the city providing us with information to support the future plans.

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