BR area ranks among nation’s worst for urban sprawl

Baton Rouge ranks as the worst mid-size metro area for vehicle-oriented, low-density developments in a new report that measured urban sprawl in more than 221 U.S. metro areas.

Looking at cities of all sizes, Baton Rouge ranked 216th out of the 221 in the Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, commissioned by Smart Growth America and released Wednesday.

The study looked at a number of factors, including residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network.

Baton Rouge was rated as the most sprawling midsize city, and its ranking of 216 overall was close to even bigger cities: Nashville, Tenn., which came in at No. 217, and Atlanta, which had the second-most sprawl in the country.

They were the only bigger cities to rank lower than Baton Rouge.

New Orleans was ranked 42nd, while Lafayette finished 74th. Houma-Thibodaux was 118th, and Shreveport-Bossier was 194th.

New York finished at the top of the list for density, while Hickory, N.C., was the most sprawling metro area.

Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president of the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, which promotes smart-growth principles across the state, said the results of the study show why the FutureBR master land use plan was recently commissioned and put in place.

“We’re already seeing the effects of this kind of sprawl,” Thomas said. “FutureBR absolutely addresses all of these issues, but the key is to find the backbone to enforce these things. It’s not just up to elected officials to enforce these things, but people in the community and agencies.”

The $1.9 million overhaul of the city-parish’s former Horizon Plan focuses on land use, urban design, neighborhood revitalization, transit and transportation goals, parks and recreation, environment and conservation, housing and infrastructure and economic development.

The sprawl study, conducted by researchers with the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center, found people in compact, connected metro areas have greater economic mobility and spend less on the combined cost of housing and transportation.

Obesity is more prevalent in sprawling areas and fatal car crashes are more common.

John Fregonese, the planner who is helping to implement FutureBR, said the sprawl report is based on “good quantitative measures,” but the numbers don’t quite show what is going on in metro Baton Rouge.

For one, Fregonese said East Baton Rouge Parish is doing far better in combating sprawl than some of the other parishes in the metro area, such as Ascension, Livingston and Pointe Coupee parishes.

“Those places have exactly the kinds of things that score high for sprawl: unconnected roads, divided land use, low density,” he said.

If East Baton Rouge Parish is compared with other U.S. metro areas, it would have ranked 82nd overall, two spots below Fregonese’s home base of Portland, Ore.

“The parish is doing much better,” Fregonese said. “Within the region, there are a lot of distinctions between a lot of different parishes. This report blends out the differences in a complex region.”

The other thing is geographic features, such as the Mississippi River, bayous and swamps can divide up a metro and naturally reduce connectivity and density.

“If you look at the counties around Puget Sound, they have low scores, too,” Fregonese said.

Steps are being taken to make the capital region less sprawling, Thomas said.

Along with the FutureBR plan, the Livingston Parish Council approved a master plan last year for a zoning corridor that includes Interstate 12 and U.S. 190.

“I think things are starting to change,” Thomas said. “There’s been an outpouring of support and people are really hungry for this kind of walkable, connected environment.”

But Thomas said it will take an effort to overcome years of poor decision making, like making exceptions to override planning efforts that led to unhealthy growth.

“Our roots are agricultural, and we love our land,” she said. “We do what we want to do with it. That’s what has led to Southern cities being so sprawling.”