News & Resources

Measuring Sprawl but Not in Massachusetts

On Wednesday, our friends at Smart Growth America released a report called Measuring Sprawl 2014 that ranks the most sprawling and most compact areas of the country. The report found that people in compact, connected areas are healthier and wealthier.

But as I mentioned yesterday, you’ll notice some strange things if you look at the data.

Why is walkable Washington, DC ranked 91st while Miami is 8th—and Detroit 12th?

The main reason is that metropolitan areas vary widely in geographic size. Washington’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) stretches all the way to West Virginia, while Detroit’s is much smaller in size. But the correlations between relative compactness and health and wealth still hold. That is why some of the most walkable cities are not at the top of the charts. This is also an issue for Boston because our MSA stretches all the way into New Hampshire.

But don’t go looking for Boston’s ranking, because…

Massachusetts isn’t included at all.

If you look at the charts in the Appendix, you’ll see that the Massachusetts data is curiously blank. Here’s what researcher and report author Reid Ewing has to say about it:

“Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t participate in the LED (Local Employment Dynamics) Partnership, and hence we cannot estimate many of our sprawl variables for MA. LED is part of the Longitudinal Employment-Household Dynamics program of the U.S. Census Bureau. Employment density is part of our Density Factor, Jobs-Population balance is part of our Land Use Mix Factor. You see the problem.”

It’s hard to believe that Massachusetts is the only state that can’t produce this data. Here’s some insight from Holly St. Clair, Director of Data Services of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC):

“This is true but should be resolved shortly. Our department of Labor and Workforce Development has an antiquated database and could not until recently assemble the necessary data. MA signed the agreement in January of last year and provided the data to the Census in the fall. Before the sequester they anticipated that the data would be available in the Spring. So in light of the sequester, I would guess it would be pushed back till the fall.”

MAPC purchased establishment data from InfoUSA in 2011 as a stand-in for their own analyses and are willing to make it available to the report researchers. Will the Measuring Sprawl team be able to run our numbers later this year? That remains to be seen.

So where does Massachusetts stand?

For an initial indication of how we relate to the rest of the country, if we stack up the partial data for Massachusetts counties against the full index for other counties in the US, Suffolk County (Boston) clocks in 7th, behind four NYC counties, San Francisco County, and Hudson County in New Jersey, (which is also part of the NYC metro area); and just ahead of Philadelphia County and the District of Columbia.

Further down the list, Middlesex County, Essex County, Norfolk County and Bristol County would all rank in the top 100 counties nationwide, with the important caveat that our data reflects only housing density rather than housing and jobs together.

Andre Leroux
Executive Director, MA Smart Growth Alliance