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Study ranks Triangle 3rd for sprawl, raises concern

A recent report that ranked the Research Triangle Park region the third "most sprawling" area in the country has prompted concern among community members, as more residents encounter long stretches of road between home and work.

Reid Ewing of Rutgers University and Rolf Pendall of Cornell University examined 83 metropolitan areas nationwide and ranked the Triangle behind the Greensboro/Winston-Salem area and the Riverside/San Bernardino region in California.

The researchers used four variables to measure urban sprawlâ_"residential density, connectivity of roads and streets, strength of downtown activity centers and mixture of homes with shopping and workplace areas. A low score on these variables indicated high urban sprawl.

The report, which is the first in a series that will focus on the different effects of sprawl, focused on transportation.

"This should be a big alarm for our region," said Cara Crisler, executive director of the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance. "The conclusion from this report is that regions getting low scores on these variables are experiencing negative impacts, like traffic fatalities, for example."

Crisler explained that there is a direct link between urban sprawl and a reduced quality of life.

"If these regions want to improve the quality of life, they need to look at how they are growing. We need to coordinate transportation patterns with land-use patterns and reinvest in existing communities that are using landspace," she said.

Crisler admitted, however, that it will take a concerted effort to attract businesses to the downtown Durham area.

"If people are living there, business owners will see that the market is there. But both have to happen at the same time," she added. "The government can help alleviate the tax burden on being able to use buildings downtown."

One reason for the Triangle's high rank, Crisler said, is the lack of a central authority to coordinate growth efforts. She added that the study isn't likely to change people's attitudes on sprawl.

"There is still a perception that the American dream means a half-acre lot with a large house on it. This requires suburban development and urban sprawl," she said.

Johanna Reese, a public information spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said she wasn't surprised by the study results.

"North Carolina's population has been growing quickly and people have been moving out of the city for a while now," she said.

She cited several environmental impacts of urban sprawl. Among these are negative effects on water and air quality and the depletion of natural open spaces and forests.

"The more sprawl you have, the more paved areas there are, and there will be a lot of runoff when it rains," Reese said. "This carries pollution into streams. The farther people live outside the city where most of their jobs are, the farther they have to drive into the city and the more cars that will be on the roads, releasing a lot of toxic emissions into the air."

Reese seemed optimistic, however, about the efforts being made by groups in the area to alleviate these problems.

"Ordinances, for example, have been passed to encourage developments downtown. There are state tax incentives for using downtown space," she said.

Richard Bell, project officer at Active Living by Design, an organization that encourages physical activity in community design and public policy, discussed the health impacts of urban sprawl.

"The report indicates that we are weakest in the category that measures the amount of space between homes and shopping centers or workplaces. This makes it difficult for people to just walk to those areas," he said.

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