For most people, the word "sprawl" conjures up images of boomtowns in the rapidly growing West and South, like Las Vegas, or Nashville, or Atlanta. But metropolitan areas with stagnant-or even declining-populations can also suffer from sprawl.
It may sound paradoxical, but in a "thinning metropolis" like Rochester, New York, land development is outpacing population growth as residents flee urban centers in search of better housing-and take their tax money with them. The cash-strapped downtown areas and inner-ring suburbs can't compete with outlying areas for developers' dollars, creating a hard-to-break cycle.
The ground for Rochester's dilemma was laid in the 1960s, when the population was booming. Growth slowed in the early 1970s, but investment in suburban sewage, water, and highways continued. Instead of creating a new regional plan, rapidly emptying Rochester let development accrete slowly but steadily along existing roads.
"A thinning metropolis has a different suburban character: It's a house here and a house there," says Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. "The growth is so incremental, you don't even notice it, but it ends up even more spread out."
Competition for scarce resources also prevents local governments from working together on "smart growth." Reformers point to Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have embarked on an innovative tax-sharing scheme that allows the entire region to benefit from development-and channel it to the most appropriate location. (See "How to Heal Our Cities," May/June 2000.)
The private sector can also help, as General Motors recently did when it began developing its global headquarters in the heart of downtown Detroit, rather than in an outlying office park. Even in the region around Rochester, some individual towns are ahead of
the curve. The 25,000-resident suburb of Pittsford has sold $10 million in bonds to buy up 1,200 acres on seven farms, and protected 800 more acres by changing zoning laws.
Regions at Risk
If current trends continue over the next decade, these metropolitan areas are the most likely to shrink and sprawl:
1. Anniston, Alabama
2. Johnstown, Pennsylvania
4. (tie) Sharon, Pennsylvania;
Utica-Rome, New York; Steubenville, Ohio-Weirton,
7. Charleston, West Virginia
8. Lewiston-Auburn, Maine
9. Alexandria, Louisiana
10. Muncie, Indiana
11. Wheeling, West Virginia/Ohio
12. Lima, Ohio
13. (tie) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
Syracuse, New York; Pittsfield,
Massachusetts; Decatur, Illinois;
18. (tie) Binghamton, New York;
Jacksonville, North Carolina;
22. Pine Bluff, Arkansas
23. (tie) Elmira, New York;
25. Youngstown-Warren, Ohio