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Summer 2011   


        Quantifying Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Rental Housing
        Measuring Sustainability
        Confronting the Future: Case Studies in Regional Planning and Consensus-Building

The Costs of Sprawl

Image of people walking by a bus on a sidewalk.

Envision Utah and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments have been driven partly by local concern about regional sprawl and its consequences. Although the precise definition of “sprawl” is contested, there is little question that many U.S. metropolitan areas have expanded rapidly in recent decades; between 1982 and 1997, for instance, the urbanized area in the United States grew more than twice as fast as its metropolitan population.1 This dynamic, repeated in many cities since the end of World War II, was facilitated by public policies that encouraged and enabled low-density growth in the postwar era, such as federal loan appraisal criteria that favored new single-family homes, heavy investment in the interstate highway system, and a move toward single-use zoning.

Sprawl can have significant environmental and economic costs. Low-density communities lead to greater energy consumption; residents of low-density counties drive more than three times as many miles per year (30,000) than those who live in urban centers (8,000).2 In addition, the costs of building and sustaining low-density infrastructure are significantly higher than the costs of these same services in denser communities.3 Overall, a more compact growth pattern would save the United States $126 billion in water, sewer, and road infrastructure costs over the next 25 years, an 11-percent decrease compared with the status quo.4

The heavy reliance on driving in sprawling regions also results in a lack of accessible job opportunities for those who cannot afford the costs of owning and maintaining a car. Only 26 to 27 percent of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries are accessible by transit within 90 minutes compared with 34 percent of jobs in high-skill industries.5

Sprawl is also linked to various health problems. Exposure to emissions has been shown to exacerbate asthma, raise the risk of lung cancer, and cause heart failure and other critical cardiac conditions — 9,200 premature deaths occur annually from exposure to fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) in California alone.6,7,8 There is also a significant link between sprawl and body weight; both adult and youth residents of counties with greater sprawl weigh more and have a higher prevalence of hypertension than residents of denser counties.9

  1. William Fulton, Rolf Pendall, Mai Nguyen, and Alicia Harrison. 2001. “Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S.,”1–4.
  2. Peter Calthorpe. 2011. Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  3. Robert W. Burchell, Anthony Downs, Barbara McCann, and Sahan Mukherji. 2005.Sprawl Costs: Economic Impacts of Unchecked Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  4. Matthew Kotchen and Stacey Schulte. 2003. “A Meta-Analysis of Cost of Community Service Studies.” International Regional Science Review 32:3, 63, as cited in
  5. Adie Tomer, Elizabeth Kneebone, Robert Puentes, and Alan Berube. 2011. “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” 1, 17–8.
  6. David M. Stieb, Mieczyslaw Szyszkowicz, Brian H. Rowe, and Judith A Leech. 2009. “Air Pollution and Emergency Department Visits for Cardiac and Respiratory Conditions: A Multi-City Time-Series Analysis.” Environmental Health 8:1, 8–25.
  7. Interview with Kalima Rose, June 2011; California Air Resources Board. 2010. “Estimate of Premature Deaths Associated With Fine Particle Pollution (PM2.5) in California Using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Methodology.”
  8. In addition to diminished quality of life, health conditions caused or exacerbated by pollution pose their own expenses. As Yale University’s Nicholas Z. Muller and Robert Mendelsohn have shown, the costs of climate change aside, 94 percent of the costs of air pollution are health related, including visits to the emergency room, decreased productivity, and absences from school.
  9. Reid Ewing, Tom Schmid, Richard Killingsworth, Amy Zlot, and Stephen Raudenbush. 2003. “Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity.” American Journal of Health Promotion 18:1, 47–57; Reid Ewing, Ross C. Brownson, and David Berrigan. 2006. “Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Weight of United States Youth.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 31:6, 464–74.


Sustainable Communities Research Grant Program

In early 2011 HUD initiated the Sustainable Communities Research Grant program (SCRGP) under the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The program, administered by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research and Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, offers $2.5 million in grants to help researchers expand existing empirical scholarship on issues relating to sustainability. Funding priorities are for research on:

  • expanding housing affordability and choice,
  • improving access to community assets through effective transportation systems,
  • reducing regulatory barriers to sustainable development by strengthening land use planning and urban design standards,
  • advancing economic opportunities that create jobs and promote diverse communities, and
  • improving environmental health by reducing carbon emissions and conserving energy.

HUD has just announced the six grant winners, whose grants range from $284,000 to $500,000. HUD believes that the resulting research will help it adopt a broader sustainability agenda beyond current programs and will inform future efforts and initiatives.


The Federal Role in Regional Planning

Image of  a transit hub and public plaza at the Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, Oregon
The Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, Oregon serves as a transit hub and public plaza. Andy Hamilton

In June 2009 HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency formed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC) to help communities become economically strong and environmentally sustainable. Interagency collaboration has been a key element of the partnership, says Shelley Poticha, director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. By pushing its member agencies to coordinate federal investments and align their policies, PSC allows them to use their federal funding more efficiently and maximize the benefits from each investment.

The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program is a key part of this initiative. These grants support regional, multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that incorporate housing, land use, economic development, transportation, and infrastructure. This multidisciplinary approach reflects PSC’s philosophy of “[trying] to help communities solve multiple problems at the same time,” says Poticha. In October 2010 the program awarded $98 million to 45 regions nationwide.

Performance measurement is also an important part in the program. Applicants are required to submit benchmarks for indicators of housing affordability, transportation mode share, racial segregation, poverty rates, and access to fresh food, among other factors. Grantees will report on these and other indicators throughout the grant period, with the goal of establishing an empirical basis for demonstrating the effects of regional planning.



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