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12 maps show how American cities sprawl differently

Some big US cities are dense, while others are spread out. This affects the economy, quality of life, and the environment. Here's a way to visualize the residential density of the country's 12 largest regions and their varying levels of sprawl.

Images by the author.

Earlier this year, Smart Growth America released a report titled Measuring Sprawl 2014, finding that New York is the country's "most compact, connected large metro area," with an index score of 203.4, while Atlanta is the "most sprawling," with a score of 41.0.

But what does that gap really look like? The world's most iconic skyline on one extreme, contrasted with a highway full of motorists stranded overnight due to a snowstorm on the other? What about viewed through a wider angle lens, at a regional level? Next City recently published a series of GIFs illustrating regional sprawl over time, and this post tells a similar story from a different perspective.

The visualizations below show residential density (as one unit of height for every person per square mile), by census tract, for the nation's 12 statistical areas of at least 5 million inhabitants. The images show Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs) with the exception of Miami, which until recently was not part of a CSA. The regions are viewed from the same height and distance, but from different directions, most often from the south.













Note: One census tract, 307.2 in Chicago, was omitted from this visualization as its population density is off the charts. The tract essentially encompasses only the land on which these three high rises are located.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?

Chris Dickersin-Prokopp spends his days in Anacostia and nights in Petworth. He studied Latin American Studies and Urban Planning. He runs the blog R.U. Seriousing Me? and occasionally contributes to the Washington City Paper


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Nice pictures.

In a similar vein, part 3 of this post has a nice comparison of the density of Dallas and Madrid:

by Eric on Jun 26, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

Thanks for this fascinating comparison. Do those geographic areas represent city limits or the limits of the metro area or something else? The ATL map doesn't look quite like either the city area or the (much much much) larger metro area.

by Geoff Graham on Jun 26, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

@Geoff Graham:
They're county boundaries, which are what Census uses to determine CSAs.

In Atlanta's case, the extrusion at lower left is Chambers County, Alabama. The straight line north of that is the GA/AL border. The upper left corner is Bartow County. The upper right corner is Hall County, GA (Gainesville). The lower right corner is Jasper County, GA.

by Matt' Johnson on Jun 26, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

@Geoff Graham:
And to be clear, the whole boundary is the Atlanta Combined Statistical Area, which includes 31 Georgia counties and 1 Alabama county.

by Matt' Johnson on Jun 26, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson
Thanks for clarifying. So these are comparisons of CSAs and not cities. I think a comparison of actual cities would be pretty interesting, and I suspect ATL would fare better--not as great as we would like it to, but better nonetheless.

Atlanta-proper could do well to better distinguish itself from the suburbs and exurbs. As in many other cities, our city dwellers don't suffer the same traffic indignities as those in the suburbs and exurbs. While it may be getting tougher and tougher to get around outside the city, in-town is becoming more and more walkable.

Personally, I feel like I have it pretty good: I live in a house with my wife, children, and dogs in a great neighborhood with parks, offices, and retail all mixed in. From my front yard, I have a view of our skyline. I walked to work this morning, as I do on most days. Mine is a pretty common story for in-towners, it is seldom heard above the din of the "Atlanta's sprawl is horrible!" meme, and it's certainly not visible in an infographic about our entire region.

As a prideful Southerner and native Atlantan, I am clearly hypersensitive to criticism, but my sense is that our city gets more than our fair share. Given the massive size and population of our metro area, people seldom distinguish between "Atlanta The City" and "Atlanta The Region."

by Geoff Graham on Jun 26, 2014 2:41 pm • linkreport

I think a comparison of actual cities would be pretty interesting, and I suspect ATL would fare better--not as great as we would like it to, but better nonetheless.

Maybe, but there's also a chance that while the city would fare better it could have also seen some things happen/change that would have prevented the CSA from getting so large in the first place.

I don't know Atlanta well enough to comment definitively one way or another but I think it could be argued.

by drumz on Jun 26, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

you can get an idea of how dense each city is even with this regional-level view. Even Dallas and Houston have more core density than Atlanta.

by Birdie on Jun 26, 2014 2:58 pm • linkreport

Atlanta city density is still very low, though slowly improving. No way around it.

by h st ll on Jun 26, 2014 3:21 pm • linkreport

Boston isn't sprawl. Boston is just old and as is typical of New England, has lots of mid-to-large independent towns (main streets, commons, etc). That's what the polka dot look is all about.

by Catherine on Jun 26, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

I read this sprawl report when it came out. It contains these rankings of the most and least sprawled metro areas, supposedly based on a composite of different scores of density, land use, activity centering, and street connectivity. The DC metro area somehow ended up 91st, more sprawled than super-dense places like Oxnard, CA; Reno, NV; and Las Vegas. I could only conclude that the rankings were completely useless.

by MLD on Jun 26, 2014 3:34 pm • linkreport

I really like these maps illustrations of 'point' densities and using identical scales which are otherwise the most common problem for comparison of density. Not to mention using a picture to characterize density/sprawl as opposed to a single number which is nonsensical.

However, this map shows the spatial distribution of high density not sprawl. By any reasonable definition sprawl is the low pop per sq area which because of issues of contrast is the least visible feature in these diagrams.

This problem is illustrated with respect to Catherine's point. I'm a resident and 'defender' of Boston's urbanity, however, contrary to her point there is tons of sprawl between Rte 128 and I-495, the South Shore and up through Nashua which is not apparent in these charts.

One final point, there are multiple indications of sprawl, an alternative to density is the relative distance necessary to travel from home to work or other typical amenities.

by TYP on Jun 26, 2014 4:24 pm • linkreport

In re Atlanta: Comparing the "city" versus "suburbs/exurbs" is made difficult by some cities expanding their city limits and absorbing adjacent localities versus those that didn't. Early examples include New York, and later examples include (I think--anyone please correct any errors) Houston, Phoenix, and I think Atlanta. Some, like DC, can't for legal and political reasons. And, Boston is a hybrid where some places were absorbed (e.g., Dorchester and West Roxbury), whereas other parts that would be natural for absorption (e.g., Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline) were not for various reasons.

I lived in the Boston area for many years, and it was weird that Cambridge and Watertown, where I lived for 10 years collectively, were not only not part of Boston, but also separate entities. It was funny, when I moved to the area (Silver Spring and now Takoma Park), I was having a devil of a time finding out who was the mayor of Silver Spring, since it must be a city! Such a New England (and New Jersey, where I grew up) mentality...

At any rate, these maps are kind of fun because, within a CSA, it's hard to tell what are the political boundaries (which may be the point). Can we distinguish town-oriented development (e.g., Boston area) from other types?

by EMD on Jun 26, 2014 5:17 pm • linkreport

Atlanta is only 132 Sq miles. It's just not dense, has nothing to do with expanding city limits.

by h st ll on Jun 26, 2014 5:51 pm • linkreport

Would have been cool to post the cityscapes without names and let readers guess them.

by Willow on Jun 26, 2014 8:23 pm • linkreport

This series of graphics does a good job at identifying the densest places rather than the most sprawling. To do that, some other metric would need to be devised - perhaps something that used the built-out area (rather than CSA) as a base area, and then with a surface illustrating the densities in the outlying areas as well as those in the city cores. In this series, suburban Atlanta looks equally as empty as far eastern San Bernardino County in the LA CSA. But with population densities over 800 ppsm, that is clearly not comparable.

by Jacob Morgan on Jun 27, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport

@EMD: I experienced the same sensation when moving from MD to Boston a few years back. "What do you mean local government isn't conducted at the county level?" I grew to appreciate the New England style. People there seemed more engaged and to have a greater sense of civic involvement. I lived in Brighton, which is a part of Boston proper--made all the more odd because as you pointed out, Brookline is not.

by AL on Jun 28, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

These maps are very interesting, but also maybe a little misleading. I'm thinking in particular of the Los Angeles map. The "urban" CSA area includes eastern San Bernandino County which I think is still undevelopable desert and/or federal land. According to Wikipedia SB County is the largest county in the US at 20,000 square miles - vastly bigger than any county on the East Coast (38 times bigger than Loudoun County).

Similar problems probably exist with Miami (i.e. the Everglades) and some other cities. Even in DC, density numbers are affected by the higher-than-average proportion of the metro area that is owned by the federal government.

by Marc on Jun 29, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

The town of Needles, Calif, is about 100 miles or more from its County Seat of (San Bernardino or Riverside?). Many Needles residents want to secede from Calif. and join Arizona, which has lower taxes and cheaper gasoline.

by slowlane on Jul 1, 2014 10:52 pm • linkreport

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