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The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl:

Which Land Should Be Considered?*

Article  in  The Professional Geographer · February 2005

DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.2005.00462.x


92 170

6 authors, including:

Harold Wolman George Galster

George Washington University Wayne State University


Michael Ratcliffe Andrea Pierce Sarzynski

U.S. Census Bureau University of Delaware


Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects:

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Economic Development Planning and Strategy View project

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The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl:
Which Land Should Be Considered?*

Harold Wolman
George Washington University
George Galster
Wayne State University
Royce Hanson
George Washington University
Michael Ratcliffe
U.S. Census Bureau
Kimberly Furdell
George Washington University
Andrea Sarzynski
George Washington University

Lack of agreement on how to define and measure sprawl has hampered development of policy related to its causes
and consequences. We question previous work for two reasons: the use of study areas that overbound or
underbound sprawl landscapes, and the failure to account for land unavailable for development. We formulate
‘‘extended urban areas,’’ based on housing density and commuting patterns and argue that they represent a
preferable geographic basis for measuring sprawl. We operationalize with satellite imagery a way for measuring
land unavailable for development in these areas. We then compute five measures of urban development using the
National Land Cover Data Base and decennial census data to assess the extent of sprawl in the extended urban
areas of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington. Our sensitivity analyses reveal that the
measurement of sprawl critically depends on which land area forms the basis of the analysis, and, to a lesser
degree, how one accounts for land unavailable for development. Key Words: sprawl, urban policy, urbanized

Introduction: Pinning Down an gation ( Johnson 2001; though, see Kahn 2001;
Elusive Concept Lopez and Hynes 2003; and Pendall and
Carruthers 2003). The lack of such research in
otwithstanding the volumes of print re-
N cently expended on the subject (e.g.,
Squires 2002; Wievel and Persky 2002), there
a form that permits quantitative comparison of
a large number of metropolitan regions within a
common analytical framework hampers thought-
remains a paucity of rigorous, replicable exam- ful public debate and policymaking (Galster et al.
inations of the statistical relationships between 2001). The common nexus of difficulty consists
metropolitan sprawl and a variety of hypothe- of pinning down what is meant by sprawl, how it
sized (or asserted) effects such as congestion, should be measured, and what geographical
pollution, inequality, housing costs, and segre- area and type of land should be considered.

* This research was funded in part by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) under Cooperative Agreement No. 01CRAG0009, whose support is
gratefully acknowledged. The opinions expressed in this report are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USGS or the
organizations for whom they work.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Doug Towns and Jackie Cutsinger of Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies for their GIS and
programming assistance. Anonymous referees provided helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.

The Professional Geographer, 57(1) 2005, pages 94–105 r Copyright 2005 by Association of American Geographers.
Initial submission, May 2003; final acceptance, February 2004.
Published by Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, U.K.
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 95
Galster et al. (2001) observed that ‘‘sprawl’’ than 3,500 persons per square mile). Fulton
was a term without an agreed-upon content that et al. (2001) define sprawl as ‘‘land resources
existed in the equivalent of a semantic wilder- consumed to accommodate new urbanization,’’
ness. After reviewing the literature, they noted and measure it as the ratio of growth in land
that sprawl has frequently been used to charac- consumption to growth in population of
terize one or more of the following: (1) the pat- the metropolitan area.2 Lang (2003) extends the
terns of residential and nonresidential land use, work done by Nasser and Overberg (2001) and
(2) the process of extending the reach of urban- offers two sets of density measures for the fifty
ized areas, (3) the causes of particular practices of largest metropolitan areas, using, first, the Cen-
land use, and (4) the consequences of those prac- sus Bureau-defined urbanized area and then the
tices. They further observed that sprawl can be Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources
defined as either a condition or a process. When Inventory (NRI) urban land uses. While the
used to describe or signify a condition charac- authors acknowledge that sprawl cannot be ad-
terizing an urban area, or part of it at a particular equately measured by density alone, each of
time, ‘‘sprawl’’ is a noun. When used to describe these studies is nonetheless limited by its sole
a process of converting land from nonurban to focus on density measures to the exclusion of
urban uses over time (Fulton et al. 2001) or other dimensions of sprawl.3
changes in the extent or intensity of urbaniza- A different set of studies has conceptualized
tion, particularly at the urban fringe, it becomes sprawl as a multidimensional concept, with each
a verb. dimension requiring a distinct measure. Torrens
When the definition of sprawl is so ambigu- and Alberti (2000) offer several sophisticated,
ous and idiosyncratic, it is impossible to know spatial-statistical measures for aspects of sprawl
with any confidence its causes or consequences such as density, scatter, leapfrogging, intersper-
or the effects of any policies designed to contain sion, and accessibility.4 The sprawl measures
it. Clearly, a critical first step must be to work developed by Malpezzi and Guo (2001) include:
toward consensus about what sprawl is and then average population density, density of the me-
measure it in comparable fashion across a large dian and the 10th percentile tract, the Gini co-
number of comparably defined urban regions efficient of tract densities, various forms of
(ideally, over time, as well). Such careful work is population density gradients, the regression
a necessary precondition for examining the crit- fit of population density gradients (which they
ical public policy questions related to the effects term a measure of discontinuity), and the ( pop-
of sprawl on concerns such as congestion, pol- ulation-weighted) average and median distances
lution, housing prices, income and racial in- between tracts and the CBD (which they term a
equality, and other urban issues. measure of compactness). Ewing, Pendall, and
Fortunately, there have been a number of re- Chen (2002) developed a composite ‘‘sprawl in-
cent seminal efforts to define and empirically dex’’ for eighty-three metropolitan areas, based
operationalize sprawl.1 Several works have fo- on four dimensions: residential density; neigh-
cused on sprawl as a ‘‘low-density’’ phenome- borhood mix of homes, jobs, and services;
non (Fulton et al. 2001; Nasser and Overberg strength of activity centers and downtowns;
2001; Lopez and Hynes 2003) and have meas- and accessibility of the street network. Galster
ured their concept for a substantial group of et al. (2001) defined sprawl as a pattern of land
urban regions in the United States. Nasser and use in an urban area that exhibits low levels of
Overberg (2001) quantify sprawl as the per- some combination of eight distinct dimensions
centage of a metropolitan area’s population of land use: density, continuity, concentration,
that resides within the Census Bureau-defined clustering, centrality, nuclearity, mixed use, and
urbanized area (contiguous blocks general- proximity. Galster et al. (2001) then developed
ly having one thousand or more persons per operational measures for each of these dimen-
square mile). Analogously, Lopez and Hynes sions and calculated them for a small, prototype
(2003) operationally define sprawl as the differ- set of urban areas.
ence between the percentage of a metropolitan Each of these pathbreaking efforts to measure
area’s population living in ‘‘low density tracts’’ sprawl has its strengths and limitations of con-
(200 to 3,500 persons per square mile) and the cept, data, and methods. A detailed analysis of
percentage living in ‘‘high density tracts’’ (more these elements is left to another time. The pur-
96 Volume 57, Number 1, February 2005

pose of this article is to address two questions rather than the MA.6 Using the urbanized area
common to all of them and crucial to the effec- is not an ideal solution, however, and likely
tive measurement of sprawl: ‘‘underbounds’’ the appropriate area in which to
measure sprawl. Territories included in urban-
1. What is the appropriate geographic scale ized areas are contiguous and generally have a
over which to measure sprawl? density of at least 1,000 persons per square mile,
2. How should land that is not available for thereby excluding development at and beyond
development (lakes, parks, designated open the urbanized area fringe that many consider the
space, and/or environmentally protected ar- essence of sprawl. Thus, the resultant measures
eas) be treated? of sprawl will be biased downward.
These questions are important because they af- Most studies have essentially sidestepped the
fect the precision of measurement of sprawl and, problem of what to do about the development
thus, our understanding of the extent and char- between the urbanized fringe and the MA
acter of several of its dimensions. This, in turn, boundary that is often regarded as the essence
influences the policy responses that may be ap- of sprawl (but see Fulton et al. 2001; Lopez and
propriate in reducing or avoiding its causes, Hynes 2003). One might attempt to deal with
ameliorating or preventing its consequences, or this issue by arbitrarily extending the boundary
exploiting any of its advantages. beyond the urbanized area for some distance to
This article, therefore, focuses on the issues try to capture all or part of the fringe sprawl.
surrounding these two questions. In doing so, However, this approach can leave out places
we contribute to the evolving sprawl literature beyond the arbitrary demarcation line that have
by: (1) providing a new, theoretically grounded sufficient density and economic ties to the core
specification for the study area over which urban area to be included, while, at the same
sprawl is measured; (2) devising a way to meas- time, including rural areas with none of the
ure land that is not available for development; characteristics associated with sprawl. Such an
and (3) assessing how sensitive sprawl measures approach strikes us as arbitrary, atheoretical,
are to variations in the study area and the treat- and difficult to replicate using consistent deci-
ment of unavailable land. sion rules across different areas.
A Proposal: The Extended Urban Area
The Challenge of Specifying We believe that an appropriate sprawl study area
Appropriate Geographic Scale should include the densely populated urbanized
core, adjacent urbanized or urbanizing territory
The Over- and Underbounding developed at densities below the urbanized
Biases Problem area threshold of 1,000 persons per square mile,
In past empirical work, it has been conventional and additional developed territory linked to
to use metropolitan areas (MAs) as the relevant the urbanized area through commuting ties.
unit of spatial analysis (Fulton et al. 2001; Kahn Accordingly, we propose the following speci-
2001; Malpezzi and Guo 2001; Nasser and fication of the appropriate area for sprawl meas-
Overberg 2001; Ewing, Pendall, and Chen urement:
2002; Lopez and Hynes 2003; Pendall and The Extended Urban Area (EUA)7 consists of
Carruthers 2003). Though handy from the the Census Bureau-defined urbanized area,
standpoint of ease of data collection, MAs like- modified to follow census tract boundaries, as
ly ‘‘overbound’’ the area over which sprawl well as additional ‘‘outlying’’ one mile square
should be measured. MAs are based on one or grid cells that contain 60 or more dwelling units
more counties and, as such, often contain large, (identified using data at the census block level),
outlying rural areas that are not functionally and are located in census tract from which at
connected to the central core and in which little least 30 percent of the workers commute to the
urbanized area.
or no development is occurring.5 The addition
of such peripheral areas might well bias upward The U.S. Department of Agriculture/Eco-
the estimates of sprawl. nomic Research Service’s (USDA/ERS) Rural-
By contrast, Galster et al. (2001) made use Urban Commuting Areas (RUCAs) provided an
of the Census Bureau-defined urbanized area, efficient means of identifying each EUA. Using
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 97
1990 census data, the USDA/ERS assigned each ary line around the core of the MA. Census
1990 census tract a rural-urban commuting blocks within the MA with sixty housing units in
code based on its level of urbanization or its 1990 are shaded in dark gray. Finally, RUCAs in
commuting ties with urban centers (Morrill, the MA with the requisite 30 percent or higher
Cromartie, and Hart 1999). The RUCA classi- commutation rates are shown as medium gray
fication consists of ten levels, ranging from tones. Our EUA consists of the urbanized area
‘‘metropolitan area core’’ (rural-urban commut- plus all dark gray territory (qualifying density)
ing code 1) to ‘‘rural areas’’ (rural-urban com- within the medium gray territories (qualifying
muting code 10). Commutation between each commutation RUCAs). Treating the entire MA
census tract and various-sized urban cores is (all territory shown in Figure 1) as the study area
calculated, with each tract classified based on would result in the inclusion of considerable
the size and destination of its primary and sec- amounts of rural territory that have little devel-
ondary commuting flows. Tracts within RUCA opment or economic relationship to Atlanta. By
codes 1 (within the metropolitan core), 2, 4, 7, contrast, use of the urbanized area as the study
and 10 (all outside of modified urbanized area area in which to measure Atlanta’s sprawl would
boundaries) were initially selected as potential overlook substantial urbanization in the com-
candidates for inclusion within the EUA. The muter shed just beyond the urbanized area
tracts were then included if 30 percent or more boundary.
of their residents commuted to jobs that were
located within the modified urbanized area. The A Sensitivity Analysis
RUCA system provided a rich amount of detail What are the consequences for the measure-
describing each tract in terms of both structural ment of sprawl of switching from the urbanized
and functional characteristics, with the added area to the EUA as the relevant unit of geo-
advantage of being freely available on the Web graphic analysis? We tested the sensitivity of
site: http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/rural/data/ results for the Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Los
desc.htm. Angeles, and Washington, DC, areas as well as
This RUCA selection process yielded a set of for a consolidated Baltimore-Washington area.
census tracts that were either part of the urban- We first note that the EUA was, on average, 61
ized core of a metropolitan area or had relatively percent larger than the urbanized area, varying
strong ties with the core, as measured by com- from 26 percent larger in Boston to 75 percent
muting. Application of the minimum dwelling larger in Los Angeles.
unit threshold of sixty units per one mile grid We next examined the impact of adding
further identified those census blocks that we this land for various dimensions of sprawl.
believe exhibited levels of development typically Throughout we employ five measures of sprawl
associated with urbanization or extension of developed by Galster et al. (2001).8 The respec-
suburban sprawl. tive dimensions are defined as follows:
Our definition of an EUA yields a theoreti-
cally justifiable and reasonably sized study area.  Density is the average number of residen-
It avoids both the over- and underbounding tial units per square mile of developable
of the sprawl study area. Our EUA definition land in an area. Lower densities are more
makes it possible to account for any substantial sprawl-like.
development beyond the urbanized area that  Concentration is the degree to which hous-
has a gross density of approximately one resi- ing units are located disproportionately in
dential unit per ten acres, but it excludes areas a relatively few square miles of an area.
devoted primarily to agriculture or forestry and Less concentrated areas are deemed more
small villages that, though meeting density re- sprawl-like.
quirements, do not have strong economic ties to  Centrality is the degree to which residen-
the urbanized area. tial development is located close to the
We provide a visual portrayal of the result of central business district of an area. Low
our EUA specification for the Atlanta area in centrality is more sprawl-like.
Figure 1. The counties located within the At-  Nuclearity is the extent to which the built
lanta MA in 1990 are shown. The urbanized environment of an area is characterized by
area boundary is identified by the white bound- a single, highly dense node (as contrasted
98 Volume 57, Number 1, February 2005

Atlanta, Georgia
Metropolitan Area

Bartow Cherokee Forsyth

Cobb Gwinnett

DeKalb Walton
Walton Figure 1 Atlanta, GA, Metropoli-
s Fulton
Fulton tan Area and territory considered

for inclusion in the extended urban

Carroll Clayton

Newton area.

Fayette Henry



WSU/USGS Urban Sprawl Project, 11/8/01djt

- County
- RUCA* Tract extent
- Census Blocks containing at least
60 Housing Units
- Urbanized Area

with a multiple-nodal) pattern of devel- dramatic drop in housing unit density values.
opment. The more polynuclear (or less The average decline for our six test areas was
mononuclear) an area is, the more sprawl- 40.7 percent. However, the correlation between
like it is. the density scores for the two alternative study
 Proximity is the degree to which cross- areas remained very high (r ¼ 0.95), and there
area observations of a particular land use was very little change in the relative rankings
or pair of land uses are close to each other, (Baltimore moved from the fourth to fifth
relative to the distribution of all land most dense, changing places with Boston).
comprising the study area. Proximity is The Spearman Rho rank order correlation be-
maximized when all locations with the tween the urbanized area and EUA rankings
highest densities of the given land uses are was 0.94.
closest together. Low levels of proximity
are more sprawl-like.
Concentration The concentration index in
Formal equations for operationalizing these the EUA increased in each case compared to the
measures are presented in Galster et al. (2001). urbanized area (by an average of 35.5 percent),
We used 1990 census housing unit data to com- indicating, as expected, that more units would
pute the aforementioned dimensions for the six have to be redistributed in the larger area in
geographic areas investigated (see Table 1). order to achieve an equal distribution of hous-
ing units. However, like density, there was rel-
Density Switching the area of analysis from atively little change in rankings, and the rank
the urbanized area to the EUA resulted in a order correlation was 0.71.
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 99
Table 1 Percent Change from Urbanized Area to Extended Urban Area Using Census Housing Data, by
Index Atlanta Baltimore Boston Los Angeles Washington Baltimore- Average Pearson’s r*

Density 43.85 45.31 30.55 35.26 44.22 45.00 40.70 0.954

Concentration 51.09 28.88 12.64 25.41 43.68 51.46 35.53 0.683
Centrality 6.21 12.60 5.66 28.37 18.45 16.36 14.61 0.620
Nuclearity 20.63 1.58 12.47 15.71 49.97 28.79 5.26 0.732
Proximity 12.47 11.15 4.58 8.73 24.66 13.69 12.55 0.662

*Pearson’s r correlating values of sprawl dimensions using Census Housing Data for Urbanized Area and Extended Urban Area

Centrality Centrality declined by switching

for each area across the five dimensions. (A Z-
to the EUA since development far from the core
score is the number of standard deviations each
was added to the study area, and index stand-
observation is from the mean; it thus standard-
ardization by a larger EUA was insufficient to
izes units of measurement across the dimen-
offset this. The average decline was 14.6 per-
sions.) We then compared the summed Z-scores
cent, though the decline was particularly large
for the urbanized areas to those for the EUAs
for Los Angeles (28.4 percent) and Washington
to assess whether switching to the larger area of
(18.5 percent). There were also more substan-
analysis had a substantial effect on the relative
tial shifts in the rankings: Los Angeles shifted
rankings of overall sprawl on five dimensions
from the most centralized of the six areas among
(see Table 2a, b). Atlanta proved by far the most
the urbanized areas to fifth among the EUAs,
sprawled area overall for both urbanized areas
and Boston shifted from the fifth most cen-
and EUAs specified in our sample, while Balti-
tralized of the urbanized areas to third most
more was the least sprawled for both area
centralized among the EUAs. While the
measures. However, the ranks of the other four
Pearsonian correlation was 0.62, the rank order
areas appear more sensitive to designation of
correlation between the urbanized area and
study area, with the EUA making Boston and
EUA rankings showed no correlation (0.03).
Los Angeles appear relatively more sprawled,
Nuclearity Nuclearity declined for most of and Washington and combined Baltimore-
the areas by moving to an EUA, although it in- Washington less sprawled (see Table 2a, b).
creased substantially for Washington, DC, by Thus, switching from urbanized area to the
almost 50 percent. The increase in nuclearity EUA does make a difference for several dimen-
for Washington, DC, is explicable because of sions of sprawl in several of our study sites. We
the way the operationalization of nuclearity think the switch is one that is both substantively
idiosyncratically affected this area.9 important and corresponds more closely with
sprawl as a construct.
Proximity The proximity measure increased
for each of the areas when switching from
the urbanized area to the EUA. The average in- The Challenge of Specifying Land that
crease was 12.6 percent. The rank order corre- Is Unavailable for Development
lation was 0.77 (but Washington, DC, moved
from the fourth most sprawl-like urbanized area The Biases from Including Land that
to the sixth most sprawl-like EUA). Moreover, the is Unavailable for Development
Pearsonian correlation coefficient was 0.66. The The second difficult issue in specifying the ap-
change to higher (less sprawl-like) values of prox- propriate land for the measurement of sprawl
imity, despite shifting to a larger and less dense involves the treatment of acreage that cannot be
geographic area when using the EUA, results developed for various reasons. Bodies of water,
from the measurement procedure that standard- floodplains and wetlands, national, state, and
izes for size of geographic area investigated.10 local parklands, unstable soils and steep slopes,
As a rough summary measure of sprawl, we for example, may interrupt the development
calculated Z-scores for each of the study areas pattern of an area. As a result, sprawl may ar-
for each dimension and summed the Z-scores tificially appear to be intensified on various
100 Volume 57, Number 1, February 2005

Table 2a Z-Scores for the Five Study Areas on Each Dimension Using Census Housing Data, by Urban
City Density Concentration Centrality Nuclearity Proximity Total Z-score Rank by Z-score

Atlanta 1.336 1.737 1.941 1.429 0.550 6.994 6

Baltimore 0.350 0.772 0.332 1.440 1.297 3.491 1
Boston 0.759 1.474 0.569 1.070 1.262 2.478 2
Los Angeles 1.801 0.088 1.102 0.659 0.390 1.766 3
Washington 0.505 0.474 0.584 0.540 0.116 0.040 4
Balt-Wash 0.139 0.035 0.492 0.119 1.502 0.716 5

Table 2b Z-Scores for the Five Study Areas on Each Dimension Using Census Housing Data, by Extended
Urban Area
City Density Concentration Centrality Nuclearity Proximity Total Z-score Rank by Z-score

Atlanta 1.281 1.700 1.961 1.643 0.524 7.109 6

Baltimore 0.550 0.760 0.987 0.999 1.082 3.278 1
Boston 0.212 0.300 0.539 0.180 0.129 0.935 4
Los Angeles 1.988 0.760 0.587 1.055 0.838 1.252 5
Washington 0.199 0.040 0.404 0.707 1.460 2.730 2
Balt-Wash 0.143 1.380 0.617 0.811 1.305 1.360 3

dimensions. Apparent discontinuities in land identifying parks or national forests that are
use (‘‘leap-frog’’ growth) will be generated and readily available for the nation as a whole. Top-
average densities will be reduced if such acreage ographical data are available to identify areas of
were to be included among the geographic units steep slopes, but not without considerable re-
of analysis over which sprawl indices were source commitments.
calculated. In order to operationalize land that is una-
We think it highly desirable on conceptual vailable for development, we turned to the
grounds to measure several dimensions of United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Na-
sprawl based on the net land area that is actu- tional Land Cover Data Base (NLCDB). The
ally available for development in an EUA. For NLCDB is a satellite photography-based data
example, residential density measurements set that provides representations of land cover
should employ, in principle, developable land on small areas of land ( pixels) of approximate-
as the base. Similarly, a distinction should be ly thirty meters square. Each pixel can be
made between a break in continuity because of identified according to its general use.12 Conse-
the presence of a physical or policy barrier, such quently, we are able to distinguish in a con-
as a body of water or a state park, and discon- sistent, defensible fashion: developed land,
tinuous development resulting from skipping undeveloped land that is potentially developa-
over land that is suitable for development but, ble, and undeveloped land that is unavailable for
for some reason, has been withheld. development.
Developed land identifiable by the NLCDB
Empirically Estimating Land that includes land used for purposes of low-intensity
is Unavailable for Development residential; high-intensity residential; commer-
Despite the obvious conceptual attractions in cial, industrial, and transportation; and urban
doing so, it is difficult to identify land that is and recreational grasses. The NLCDB also al-
unavailable for development. The Census Bu- lows us to operationalize a reasonable measure
reau data used in most previous work do not of acreage that is not available for development
distinguish vacant land that has simply been due to natural conditions: open water; perennial
passed over but remains in the inventory of po- ice and snow; woody wetlands; and emergent
tentially developable land from land that cannot herbaceous wetlands. Similarly, it can be used to
be developed for natural or policy reasons.11 To identify developable land—land that is poten-
our knowledge, there are no GIS databases tially available for development but has not yet
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 101
been developed. Such land includes forest nearly 10 percent, and the percentage varies
and shrubland; orchards; grasslands; pastures and from 2.7 percent in Atlanta to 21.8 percent in
hay; land used for crops or grain; fallow land; Boston.13 Moreover, given the aforementioned
bare rock, sand, and clay; and quarries, strip resolution limits in our data, these are likely
mines, and gravel pits. underestimates.
We must note that NLCDB cannot provide In order to determine the effect that remov-
unambiguous information for operationalizing ing land unavailable for development has on the
the notion of undevelopable land. First, it can- relative sprawl rankings of our test sites, we cal-
not distinguish between developable land and culated values for density, using, first, total land
similarly appearing but unavailable land that is and then, developable land.14 We found that in
set aside for parks or wilderness areas as both the EUAs we examined, the increase in the den-
register the same aerial photographic images. sity value averaged 10.1 percent, ranging from
Second, it does not specify the slope of the to- an increase of only 2.6 percent in the Atlanta
pography, and thus steep terrain upon which it EUA to an increase of 27.1 percent in the Bos-
may be infeasible to build may erroneously ap- ton EUA (see Table 4). This changed Boston’s
pear developable. Third, we have assumed that ranking from third most dense to second.
certain categories of land that might not seem Nevertheless, the Pearsonian correlation be-
hospitable for development may nonetheless be tween the two different measures of density was
developed if there is sufficient demand. There- 0.98, while the Spearman Rho rank-order cor-
fore, for example, we classify bare rock, clay, and relation was 0.83. This suggests to us concerns
sand parcels as well as quarries, strip mines, over the potential problem of underdeveloped
and gravel pits as ‘‘developable.’’ It therefore land may be exaggerated. Of course, this must
appears that our operationalization tends to be accompanied by cautions that we tested only
understate the amount of land not available for one dimension of sprawl, for a small sample of
development. To the extent that this degree of EUAs, and with a suboptimal measure of land
understatement varies across study areas, it will that is unavailable for development.
introduce some bias into the sprawl estimates. We revisited our analysis of Z-scores across
the five study areas for EUAs, using the density
measure adjusted to reflect only developable
A Sensitivity Analysis
land (see Table 5). The Pearsonian correlation
between total Z-scores using unadjusted and
Would excluding land that is unavailable for
adjusted density was 0.998. However, Boston’s
development make a meaningful difference in
sizable increase in density when going from
measuring some dimensions of sprawl? In prac-
total land to developable land changes its over-
tical terms, being able to measure (even approx-
all Z-score ranking from fourth to third. The
imately) the amount of land unavailable for
Spearman Rho rank order correlation was 0.94.
development only matters if it amounts to more
than a trivial proportion of land in large urban
areas and if there is variation among areas in that Conclusion
proportion. As Table 3 indicates, both of these
conditions are true. The average percentage of Public policy efforts to cope with sprawl have
land unavailable for development in the EUAs is been hampered by the lack of an empirical re-

Table 3 Undevelopable, Developable, and Total Land Use for Extended Urban Areas (EUA)
City Un- Developable, Developed Total Total Land Undevelopable
developable Undeveloped Developable as Percent of
Total Land (%)

Atlanta EUA 167,368 4,743,964 1,792,444 6,536,408 6,703,776 2.50

Baltimore EUA 378,172 2,711,914 998,146 3,710,060 4,088,232 9.25
Balt-Wash EUA 744,302 6,426,058 2,644,896 9,070,954 9,815,256 7.58
Boston EUA 1,375,289 2,911,590 2,160,397 5,071,987 6,447,276 21.33
Los Angeles EUA 817,921 6,645,492 5,002,508 11,648,000 12,465,921 6.56
Washington EUA 289,090 3,703,433 1,641,189 5,344,622 5,633,712 5.13
Average EUA 8.73
102 Volume 57, Number 1, February 2005

Table 4 Comparison of Adjusted and Unadjusted Density Measures (Unadjusted Measure Is Based on
Total Land; Adjusted Is Based on Developable Land Only)
Unadjusted Adjusted Percent Change

Atlanta 466.02 477.96 2.56

Baltimore 631.92 696.33 10.19
Boston 708.52 900.64 27.12
Los Angeles 1207.54 1292.33 7.02
Washington-Baltimore 724.13 783.55 8.21
Washington 801.85 845.22 5.41
Average 10.08

search base on its causes and consequences. In multaneously evince urbanized or urbanizing
large measure, this has been due to the lack of density (above sixty dwelling units per one mile
agreement on exactly what sprawl is, how it grid). Use of the EUA produces results that are
should be measured, and what territory and type both considerably different and, we think, con-
of land should be included in the measurements. ceptually more valid than previous efforts based
Several recent efforts have been undertaken on other geographic units.
to address the former two areas of disagreement. With respect to land that is unavailable for
We have focused on the last: the appropriate development, we operationalized a measure
geographic area for sprawl analysis and how based on the USGS’s National Land Cover Da-
land unavailable for development should be ac- ta Base. We found that there was considerable
counted for in sprawl indices. Previous work has variation in the percentage of land not available
uncritically employed either metropolitan areas for development among the several EUAs in-
or urbanized areas for analysis and has not at- vestigated, and we tested the effect of eliminat-
tempted to adjust sprawl measures for land un- ing such land from the sprawl analysis. We
available for development, thereby producing found that density values increased substantially
flawed measures. Measurements based on an across our study sites, with Boston experiencing
underbounded area tend to decrease the appar- a particularly large increase that markedly
ent degree of sprawl, providing support for changed its ranking in the density hierarchy.
those opposing conservation or alternative land Nonetheless, the correlation of the alternative
use and transportation policies. Measurements density measures that included or excluded land
based on overbounding of an area increase the unavailable for development was very high, sug-
apparent degree of sprawl, thereby lending sup- gesting that biases associated with the former
port for regulations that are more stringent may not be intolerable.
and higher public investments than a better- As a guide to future research in the field of
calibrated measurement might justify. sprawl measurement, we thus recommend that a
With respect to the appropriate geographic more theoretically grounded study area be spec-
area for study, we have argued for constructing ified, such as our EUA. If the results from this
an Extended Urban Area (EUA). Our EUA adds pilot study can be generalized, the resulting
to the urbanized area census tracts connected to estimates and cross-area rankings of sprawl,
it through substantial commuting links that si- particularly centrality and nuclearity, will be

Table 5 Z-Scores for the Five Study Areas on Each Dimension Using Census Housing Data, by Extended
Urban Area
City Adjusted Density Concentration Centrality Nuclearity Proximity Total Z-score Rank by Z-score

Atlanta 1.281 1.700 1.961 1.643 0.524 7.109 6

Baltimore 0.550 0.760 0.987 0.999 1.082 3.278 1
Boston 0.212 0.300 0.539 0.180 0.129 0.935 4
Los Angeles 1.988 0.760 0.587 1.055 0.838 1.252 5
Washington 0.199 0.040 0.404 0.707 1.460 2.730 2
Balt-Wash 0.143 1.380 0.617 0.811 1.305 1.360 3
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 103
sensitive to the specification of the geographic Specifically, Fulton et al. (2001) used the Depart-
study area. We also recommend that, for certain ment of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Inventory
dimensions of sprawl-like density and continu- (NRI) to identify the portion of a metropolitan area
ity, an attempt be made to distill from the index in urban and related uses rather than relying strictly
calculation any land that cannot be developed on a density measure.
In an exceptional operationalization, Kahn (2001)
(either for topographical or policy reasons). Our measures sprawl as the percentage of a metropolitan
experiments with NLCDB information offer area’s jobs within ten miles and within thirty-five
considerable advances in this realm. Additional miles of the central business district.
information (on parks and protected lands, 4
Unfortunately, they provide no empirical proto-
slopes, and unstable soils) needs to be acquired, types measured across a set of metropolitan areas.
however, before one can operationalize a truly The shortcomings of using county data for research
meaningful notion of land unavailable for de- on suburban development were recently articulated
velopment. Until a superior measure can be by Lang (2003).
operationalized, we are loath to make any strong The Census Bureau defines an urbanized area as
consisting of a central place (or places) and the
recommendations about the role of such land in
densely settled surrounding territory that together
sprawl measurement. have a population of at least 50,000.
The significance of this research for policy 7
Each EUA in this study comprised census tracts
makers is that efforts to deal effectively with assigned the following Rural-Urban Commuting
sprawl, its causes, and its consequences depend Area codes:
on understanding its nature and extent. That 1 metropolitan core, primary commuting flow
understanding depends, in turn, on the ability to within an urbanized area;
measure it in a sound and consistent manner 2 metropolitan high commuting, primary flow of
across places and time. Providing a theoretically 30 percent or more to an urbanized area;
4.1 large town core, secondary commuting flow
justified and practical way of bounding what is
of 30 percent to 50 percent to an urbanized area;
measured and excluding land that is unavailable
7.1 small town core, secondary commuting flow
for development are useful steps toward that end. of 30 percent to 50 percent to an urbanized area;
Indeed, our own research agenda is directed and
toward testing the effect of sprawl, measured, as 10.1 rural area, secondary commuting flow of 30
we have set forth in this article, on important percent to 50 percent to an urbanized area.
metropolitan area conditions. We intend to For detailed discussion of operationalization and
measure our various dimensions of sprawl for measurement, see Galster et al. (2001).
fifty major metropolitan areas, conduct a factor The nuclearity measure first identifies the densest 2
analysis of the dimensions to calculate a fac- percent of the grids in the study area, then computes
the proportion of these that are contiguous at the
tor score for sprawl in each of these areas, and
core. With the expansion of the study area, more of
then utilize this sprawl score as a variable in the most dense grids are apparently contiguous to
multivariate models designed to explain such existing highly dense grids in the central core, thus
important metropolitan conditions as traffic extending the number of grids and housing units in
congestion, housing prices, pollution, and in- the top 2 percent of the densest grids located in the
come and racial inequalities. Research of this central core. The Pearsonian correlation was 0.73,
sort will, we believe, have major implications for and there was very little change in the rankings
the policy debates now swirling around the issue (rho ¼ 0.83). See Galster et al. (2001) for further
of sprawl. Such research, however, is possible description.
only after sprawl has been carefully conceptu- The proximity calculation consists of dividing the
average distance between centroids of the grids (G)
alized and operationalized, a task to which this
comprising the study area by the weighted average
article has contributed. ’ distance among housing units across grids (R). As a
result of adding new territory, the average distance
among grids (G) will increase, but the weighted av-
erage among housing units (R) may not, since there
Notes are likely to be considerably fewer units on the land
1 added at the fringe. While this may seem mislead-
We acknowledge the support of the Fannie Mae
ing, the alternative procedure has even greater
Foundation for a number of these endeavors, in-
problems. Not standardizing for size will, by def-
cluding Galster et al. (2001), Fulton et al. (2001),
inition, make larger UAs and EUAs ipso facto more
and Nasser and Overberg (2001).
104 Volume 57, Number 1, February 2005

sprawl-like on the proximity measure, thus reducing script, Center for Urban Land Economics Re-
cross-sectional comparability. search, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
A few authors (Fulton et al. 2001; Ewing, Pendall, Morrill, Richard, John Cromartie, and Gary Hart.
and Chen 2002; Lang 2003) have focused on land 1999. Metropolitan, urban, and rural commuting
that is actually in urbanized uses by using the De- areas: Toward a better depiction of the United
partment of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Inven- States settlement system. Urban Geography 20 (8):
tory (NRI). While use of the NRI begins to get at 727–48.
the issue of on-the-ground land use, it still does not Nasser, Haya El, and Paul Overberg. 2001. What you
distinguish developable land in a metropolitan area don’t know about sprawl. USA Today, 22 February,
from land that is unavailable for development. 1A, 6A–9A.
For details on the specific mapping and character- Pendall, Rolf, and John Carruthers. 2003. Does
ization procedures used in the NLCDB, see http:// density exacerbate income segregation? Evidence
landcover.usgs.gov/mapping-proc.asp. For another from U.S. metropolitan areas, 1980 to 2000.
example of how satellite imagery can be used to Housing Policy Debate 14 (4): 541–89.
track metropolitan development patterns over time, Ryznar, Rhonda, and Thomas Wagner. 2001. Using
see Ryznar and Wagner (2001). remotely sensed imagery to detect urban change.
Most of the area unavailable for development Journal of the American Planning Association 67 (3):
around Boston is actually water, given the superim- 327–36.
position of our grids over jagged coastline and many Squires, Gregory, ed. 2002. Urban sprawl: Causes, con-
harbor islands. sequences and policy responses. Washington, DC: Ur-
We think it conceptually meaningless to compute ban Institute Press.
continuity without excluding land that is unavaila- Torrens, Paul, and Marina Alberti. 2000. Measuring
ble for development, so we made no ‘‘before and sprawl. Unpublished paper No. 27, Center for
after’’ comparisons on that dimension. Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College,
Wievel, Wim, and Joseph Persky, eds. 2002. Suburban
sprawl: Private decisions and public policy. Armonk,
Literature Cited NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Ewing, Reid, Rolf Pendall, and Don Chen. 2002.
Measuring sprawl and its impact. Washington, DC:
Smart Growth America. HAROLD WOLMAN is the director of the George
Fulton, William, Rolf Pendall, Mai Nguyen, and Ali- Washington Institute of Public Policy and is professor
cia Harrison. 2001. Who sprawls most: How growth of political science and public policy at George
patterns differ across the United States. Washington, Washington University, Washington, DC 20052.
DC: Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, E-mail: hwolman@gwu.edu. His research interests
The Brookings Institution. are urban policy and politics, comparative public
Galster, George, Royce Hanson, Michael Ratcliffe, policy, and land use and economic development
Harold Wolman, Stephen Coleman, and Jason policy.
Freihage. 2001. Wrestling sprawl to the ground:
Defining and measuring an elusive concept. Housing GEORGE GALSTER is Clarence Hilberry Profes-
Policy Debate 12 (4): 681–718. sor of Urban Affairs in the College of Urban, Labor,
Johnson, Michael. 2001. Environmental impacts of and Metropolitan Affairs, Wayne State University,
urban sprawl: A survey of the literature and pro-
Detroit, MI 48202. Email: George_Galster @Wayne.
posed research agenda. Environment and Planning A
edu. His research interests include neighborhood dy-
namics, segregation by race and class, and metropol-
Kahn, Matthew. 2001. Does sprawl reduce the black/
itan opportunity structures.
white housing consumption gap? Housing Policy
Debate 12 (1): 77–86.
ROYCE HANSON is a research professor in the
Lang, Robert. 2003. Open spaces, bounded places:
Institute of Public Policy, George Washington
Does the American West’s arid landscape yield
University, Washington, DC 20052. E-mail: rhanson
dense metropolitan growth? Housing Policy Debate
@gwu.edu. His research interests include urban and
13 (4): 755–78.
regional policy, politics, and development.
Lopez, Russ, and H. Patricia Hynes. 2003. Sprawl in
the 1990s: Measurement, distribution and trends.
Urban Affairs Review 38 (3): 325–55. MICHAEL RATCLIFFE is chief of the Geographic
Malpezzi, Stephen, and Wen-Kai Guo. 2001. Meas- Standards and Criteria Branch, Geography Division,
uring ‘‘sprawl’’: Alternative measures of urban form U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC 20233. E-mail:
in U.S. metropolitan areas. Unpublished manu- michael.r.ratcliffe@census.gov. His research interests
The Fundamental Challenge in Measuring Sprawl: Which Land Should Be Considered? 105
include census and statistical geography concepts and ANDREA SARZYNSKI is an urban policy Ph.D.
criteria. student in the School of Public Policy and Public Ad-
ministration at George Washington University,
KIMBERLY FURDELL is a doctoral student at the Washington, DC 20052. Email: apsarzyn@gwu.edu.
School of Public Policy and Public Administration Her research interests include comparative urban/re-
at George Washington University, Washington, DC gional policy and the processes of sprawl and regional
20052. E-mail: kfurdell@gwu.edu. Her research in- development.
terests include urban education and school finance.

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