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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: There’s a difference between sprawl and smart growth

Does Spokane have a bad case of sprawl? Or is the condition in check?

As the City Council, mayor and County Commission have engaged in the contretemps over growth policy – and the problems of vesting projects for development even while they’re being challenged – there has been an underlying assumption that this area, and the county in particular, has a sprawl problem. I have taken this line myself.

But a new report concludes that Spokane is one of the least-sprawling communities in the country.

The pro-sprawl camp was spreading this report with glee this week, in answer to the criticism it’s received. Two of three county commissioners made sure I got a copy. It isn’t necessarily directly relevant to some of the immediate issues here, such as the county’s long-range pattern of conflict with growth management officials and costs to city taxpayers of borderline developments. It doesn’t suggest that we shouldn’t still strive for smarter, less sprawling growth. To the contrary, it is a persuasive argument for denser mixed-use developments and against far-flung subdivisions.

But the report tells us our problems in that area may be less than some of us thought, compared to other places. The analysis isn’t some self-serving cherry-picking financed by homebuilders or Realtors; it’s a national evaluation by Smart Growth America, which describes itself as “the only national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for and leading coalitions to bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide.” The report is based on research done at the University of Utah. The authors could not sound more anti-sprawl if they tried.

“How we choose to build and develop affects everyone’s day-to-day lives,” the report concludes. “How much we pay for housing and transportation, how long we spend commuting to and from work, economic opportunities in our communities and even personal health are all connected to how our neighborhoods and surrounding areas are built.

“This study shows that life expectancy, economic mobility, transportation choices and personal health and safety all improve in less sprawling areas. As individuals and their elected leaders recognize these benefits, many decision makers choose to encourage this type of growth through changes to public regulations and incentives.”

On the report’s Sprawl Index of the country’s 221 largest metro areas, Spokane ranks 22nd. That’s the 22nd-least-sprawling community of any size in the country, according to the report’s metrics. We’re almost as “compact” and “connected” by these measures as another surprising city toward the top of the rankings: Los Angeles.

Los Angeles? Isn’t L.A. the pinnacle of sprawl? The sprawliest sprawler of all?

The Smart Growth America report shows it is the second-most-dense city in the country, behind New York. It also credits the City of Angels with promoting development around light-rail stations and allowing higher-density projects in exchange for low-income housing.

Smart Growth America calculated its Sprawl Index based on four categories: density of development, land-use mix, street connectivity, and “activity centering,” which tallies whether business and residential uses are clustered closely together. Our index score is 129.40. At 22nd, Spokane was ahead of Yakima (31st), Bellingham (46th), Seattle (53rd), Olympia (62nd) and the Portland area (80th.)

The report doesn’t include it, but at my request Smart Growth America put together the scores for the six metro areas closest in size to Spokane’s 471,000 population: Pensacola, Fla.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Lansing, Mich.; Lexington, Ky; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Santa Rosa-Petaluma, Calif.

Spokane had the best index scores by far, followed by Lexington (116) and Santa Rosa (113).

The report was published Tuesday – the day after Mayor David Condon vetoed a City Council ordinance that would have put a hold on extending city services to developments that were being appealed or disputed. County commissioners and other supporters of the veto greeted it enthusiastically, but if it paints a picture of a community that sprawls less than some of us might have assumed, it also doesn’t endorse a laissez-faire planning approach.

It presumably is affected by the fact that we have simply not had to grapple with the kinds of explosive growth that dented the Sprawl Index rank of, say, Boise – 144th. It doesn’t distinguish between the effects of state, city and county policies on the overall picture. And it doesn’t do a thing to speak to the problems of coordination and cooperation among the city and the county in mapping future growth.

It argues strongly for the principles of smart growth: mixed-use neighborhoods, dense developments, growth that fills in rather than expands boundaries, walkability. The fact that we’re doing pretty well on that score – better than I would have guessed – doesn’t change the fact that as we move forward, we need more of those qualities, not less.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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