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Working Papers

Measuring Sprawl

Working paper #420
Witold Rybczynski

The simplest measure of how much a metropolitan area sprawls is its population density – that is, the number of inhabitants per square mile. However, this can be misleading since metropolitan areas include land that has not been developed and may, in fact, not be developable, such as steep slopes, nature preserves, or land banks. This paper discusses dif-ferent measures of density, including urbanized density, centralization of employment, and densification of metropolitan areas over time. It suggests that many popular preconcep-tions about sprawl are inaccurate – that is, Western and Southern metropolitan areas do not necessarily sprawl more than areas in the Northeast. Indeed, Los Angeles and Phoenix actually have higher population densities than older metro areas such as Chicago and Boston, and older metropolitan areas in the Northeast are not necessarily denser than newer areas. Philadelphia and Detroit rank as extreme examples of low-density develop-ment according to several measures.

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