A recent report by the nonprofit advocacy group Smart Growth America offers a mixed assessment of suburban sprawl in the Pittsburgh area.
Within a sample of 221 metropolitan areas across the U.S., Pittsburgh ranks 132nd for the compactness and connectivity of its suburban communities – well behind the largest cities, but better than many of its comparably sized peers.
Staff researcher Julia Fraser prepared an analysis for the regional public policy think tank Pittsburgh Today.
“It’s very similar to cities such as Baltimore,” Fraser said. “Of course, it’s not as dense and well connected as New York or San Francisco, for example. But it’s not as sprawling as Atlanta or Charlotte.”
Fraser's analysis lends some nuance to the common perception of suburban municipalities as wastelands of haphazard development, characterized by low building density, poor walkability, and spotty access to public transportation – or none at all.
Many of the suburbs that ring Pittsburgh’s urban core conform to that stereotype. But there are also notable exceptions.
“Cranberry [Township] is a really interesting example,” Fraser said. “They have had some really innovative smart growth policies starting in the early ‘90s before anyone else has done it.”
Fraser credits Cranberry leaders for adopting multi-use zoning codes, requiring sidewalks on all streets, and impact taxes requiring developers to pay into special funds for public assets like roads and recreational facilities.
Communities with looser restrictions on development, the report says, have paid a high price in social and public health impacts, infrastructure costs, and diminished economic opportunities.
“Sprawl is costly,” Fraser said. “People and communities are more spread out, and become more isolated. Inner-ring suburbs are losing population, and in these areas there’s a higher rate of social inequity and division. These are the areas where you see poverty growing.”
Ironically, a weak economy might actually have helped to slow the rate of sprawl in Pittsburgh in recent years, as the region’s population stagnated and cost constraints discouraged development outside of existing infrastructure.
Meanwhile, sprawl has been held in check by the region’s distinctive topography. Unlike some midwestern and southwestern cities, the report notes, development here is subject to physical limitations imposed by the city’s three rivers and mountainous terrain. As a result, Fraser said, Pittsburghers are culturally predisposed to more compact, urban living.
“We’re an older city, so we have this legacy structure of the downtown area as a starting point,” Fraser said. “We historically have been used to things like having a public transportation system, or working in a centrally located place.”