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Knoxville 23rd Sprawliest City in the USA?

The latest city ranking that's unbecoming to Knoxville, Smart Growth America's "Measuring Sprawl" study, is at least interesting.

On the list of 221 cities ranked by relative sprawl, New York, San Francisco, and Miami are at the top of the list. The bottom three are all places much closer to home: Tennessee's fastest-growing city, Clarksville; Atlanta; and Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC. In fact, more than half of the bottom 20 are in our region, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia.

Knoxville shows at number 199, which makes it 23rd worst of all metro areas in the nation. In the category of medium-sized cities, Knoxville's listed as the seventh-most-sprawling.

It's a significant issue, certainly. The more sprawled a city is, the more money its citizens spend in transportation, on a daily basis, the more time they spend in their cars, the more smoke they pump into the air, the more expensive they are to their local governments, who have to pay to stretch their lines of infrastructure, from roads to sewers, to serve their far-flung patrons. The study also points to evidence that upward mobility is more common in compact cities, which also enjoy better health.

Smart Growth America's methodology is extremely complicated, but it should be noted, to begin with, that they're talking about metro areas, not cities, per se. The city of Knoxville accounts for just about one-fifth of Metro Knoxville, which includes a couple of mostly rural counties (including, in the latest rejiggering, rugged, beautiful, distant Morgan County, a place in which I'd bet half of all Knoxvillians have never even set foot).

This is a sprawly part of the country, no question, and people have been living far apart here for almost 250 years. It's hard to blame some area folks for living far away from hubs of activity, when they've been living on their rural property for seven or eight generations, and when their great-great grandparents are buried in the front yard. (That's seriously the case with one lively Knox County family I know.)

Also, how does the land factor into the density determination? Hundreds of square miles of our metro area are off limits to residents because they're state or national parks. And how do you factor lakes? I haven't studied that yet, and maybe they've figured that out, somehow.

More surprising than the fact that Knoxville is number 199 of 221 cities in terms of urban efficiency is that Chattanooga, which became nationally famous in the 1990s for its vigorous and well-funded public-private anti-sprawl initiatives, is slightly lower. Like Knoxville, it may be doomed by its mostly rural metro area. Famously progressive Portland is reportedly miffed that they appear at #80 on the list (they're blaming it on their rural metro area, too), but Chattanooga's miserable showing, down at 207, after 20 years of millions spent and hundreds of seminars with transit and new-urbanist consultants, is likely to convince some folks that there's no way to fix this through philanthropic or governmental intervention. It may require something more catastrophic. 

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