Newswise — Traffic jams on California freeways come to mind when people think about urban sprawl. Research by a University of Denver geographer, however, shows that true urban sprawl occurs most often in mid-west and southern metropolitan areas. California cities, by contrast, appear to be doing well at containing sprawl.

"Western cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have lower levels of urban sprawl than inland and mid-western cities such as Atlanta, St. Louis and Minneapolis," says Paul C. Sutton, professor of geography at DU.

Dr. Sutton examined urban sprawl in all US metro areas with populations of 50,000 or more. His research is described in the August 2003 issue of the journal Remote Sensing of Environment (Vol. 86, Issue 3) in a paper titled "A Scale-Adjusted Measure of Urban Sprawl Using Nighttime Satellite Imagery." You can access his paper at

One way to assess urban sprawl is to compare land use and population in metropolitan areas. Dr. Sutton used nighttime satellite imagery of city lights to measure the extent of urban land use. He used this to create a "regression equation" between urban area and population.

By doing so, he was able to calculate the nation's "sprawl line" which he describes as the average relationship between the geographic extent and the population of urban areas in the United States.

He believes that his method allows for a fairer comparison of urban sprawl "between larger and smaller metropolitan areas because a simple measure of per capita land consumption or population density does not account for the natural increase in population density that occurs as cities grow in population."

Based on the "scale-adjusted measure," here are the metropolitan areas that have the most negative numbers for urban sprawl. That is to say that they have the most urban sprawl as measured by their deviation from the nation's average "sprawl line."


1. Denison-Sherman, TX (-142)2. Clarksville, KY-TN (135) and Myrtle Beach, SC (-135)3. Jackson, TN (-131)4. Nashville, TN (-118)5. Bristol, TN-VA (-111) and Bloomingdale, TN (-111)6. Wausau, WI (-104)7. Beaumont, TX (-102)


1. Monterey, CA (+69)2. Salinas, CA (+59)3. Napa, CA (+57)4. Santa Cruz, CA (+56)5. Millville, CA (+53) and New York City Metro Area, NY-NJ-CT (+53)6. San Jacinto-Hemet, CA (+52) and Los Angeles, CA (+52)7. Santa Barbara, CA (+51)8. Erie, PA (+50)

Here are the numbers for a few larger metro areas. Negative numbers indicate that their amount of sprawl is greater than the national average. Positive numbers indicate sprawl that is less than the national average: Chicago (+18), Minneapolis-St. Paul (-28), Atlanta (-47), Baltimore-Washington, DC (-7), Houston (-47), Pittsburgh (-9), Portland, Oregon (+17), Boston (-41), Cincinnati (-34), Cleveland (-16), Kansas City (-25), San Diego (+41), Seattle (+16), Dallas-Fort Worth (-33), Denver (-3), Detroit (+6), Miami (+25), St. Louis (-48), Tampa (+7), Norfolk (+17), Philadelphia (+18), New Orleans (+32).

Dr. Sutton concedes that public perceptions of urban sprawl and the technical definitions of sprawl as used by geographers may not be in harmony.

"Most residents of Denver would claim that their city is experiencing urban sprawl," he says. "They would also claim that sprawl in Los Angeles is much worse than it is in Denver, despite evidence to the contrary.

"In many respects the term `urban sprawl' may be a means of complaining about the negative consequences of population growth or the changing scale of the total population of the city they live in. Future studies may show that total population may have more influence on both the public perception and practical assessment of what is conventionally termed "urban sprawl."

A satellite photo of the United States at night is available to illustrate a story on this research.

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Remote Sensing of Environment (Aug-2003)