Part 1: Overview of Sprawl in Rhode Island


Sprawl has become the hot land use topic in the past few decades as more and more land is being developed for residential and commercial purposes. Although RI is not experiencing the growth seen in hot spots such as Atlanta, GA there has been a large amount of public outcry at the building occurring throughout the state, especially in the southern region of the state. The primary goal of this research is not to determine the existence of or quantify sprawl in the state of Rhode Island but to inquire into the causes of suburban sprawl. However, knowing if sprawl exists is important to determining what elements of human behavior are part of the cause. Therefore, an overview on sprawl is included as background on the issue in RI. This leads into the methods and data used in elucidating the population dynamics behind sprawl with an analysis of the results following that. Finally a discussion regarding the implications of the study's findings are included at the end.

Definition of Sprawl

One of the most elusive aspects in a discourse regarding sprawl is a definition. Many papers and publications invoke the term without any attempt at defining what it is they are discussing (Harvey and Clark 1965). William Whyte's classic essay, "Urban Sprawl" (Whyte 1958), defines in a round about way suburban sprawl as leapfrog development. He then goes on to elucidate its negative effects on the economics and aesthetics of the surrounding area. From there the picture has only gotten worse with variations on the term "urban sprawl" with terms such as "rural fringe", "sprawl", "counter-urbanization" and "suburban sprawl" with expanded definitions encompassing everything from strip malls (Harvey and Clark 1965) to automobiles (Ewing 1994). Within this collection of variants a few common strains are visible upon closer inspection. Within the academic community they are limited but most notable is "the segregation of residential from other land uses, with the greater part of residences locating in peripheral suburbs" (Anderson, Kanaroglou et al. 1996). The definition by Marion Clawson that has served as the basis for much future iteration is simply stated as a "tendency to discontinuity-large closely settled areas intermingled haphazardly with unused areas" (Clawson 1962). Some later variants are "the scattering of new development on isolated tracts, separated from other areas by vacant land" (Ottensmann 1977) and "Sprawl … is composed of areas of essentially urban character located at the urban fringe but which are scattered or strung out, or surrounded by, or adjacent to undeveloped sites or agricultural uses" (Harvey and Clark 1965).

A good portion of definitions for "sprawl" come from the popular press and activist groups concerned with environmental issues. Some of note are from the Sierra Club, Grow Smart Rhode Island (GSRI) and the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. Below is a list of these definitions.

  • Grow Smart Rhode Island- Sprawl is "an inefficient development pattern." "Sprawl describes land development trends and patterns that are wasteful because they tend to consume an unnecessarily large amount of natural resources, require redundant capital investments (public facilities and infrastructures), and waste considerable human resources by making people commute unnecessarily long distances. Sprawl is also wasteful because it causes the under-utilization of the sizable investments already made in urban areas." (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000)
  • Vermont Forum on Sprawl- "Sprawl is dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside." (Sprawl 1999)
  • Sierra Club 1998- "Sprawl is low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate - thus requiring cars to move between zones." (Sierra Club 1998)
  • Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation- "[Sprawl is] low-density development on the edge of cities and towns - poorly planned, land-consumptive, auto-dependent and designed without respect to its surroundings" (Lockwood 1999)

The above definitions have some similarities and yet there are significant differences between them. Some of the similarities noted by Reid Ewing are, in order of frequency; scattered development, the similar leapfrog development, low-density development and finally the least discussed of the common identities of sprawl is the aesthetically challenged strip mall development (Ewing 1994). The generic definition of the English language term sprawl is "to spread out in a straggling or disordered fashion"[1] giving the term it's negative connotation[2] which is, by many involved, very intentional (Clawson 1962; Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000). While "undesirable" land use patterns generally sum up most definitions, some have equated sprawl to natural expansions of the city and others to "haphazard" or unplanned growth (Ewing 1994). Most other literature refers to sprawl without actually defining it. Tom Daniels starts "When City and Country Collide" (Daniels 1999) defining "rural fringe" but soon uses the term sprawl intermittently and in, what appears to be, a synonymous manner with "rural fringe". Because of the diverse nature of the literature, while also leaving the value judgments aside, "suburban sprawl" is far from universally definable. Reid Ewing makes the analogy in his literature review that sprawl could very easily be compared to the term "obscenity" which, as the courts have struggled with, has been popularly summed up as "you know it when you see it" (Ewing 1994). Leaving suburban sprawl undefined and something vague in this respect, which can be best described and discerned by measuring it's effects, is possibly one way of determining if sprawl exists in a particular area (Ewing 1994). However, this can lead to many difficulties as will be discussed below, as well as later on.

Since the course of this research is to understand what is causing sprawl, a working definition of sprawl and confirmation it is occurring in RI was needed. Using the definitions from above as a baseline from which to work from, a definition was created which encompassed the main points for which there was the greatest agreement.

Therefore sprawl is to be defined here after as low-density, large-lot residential and commercial development that is scattered across a large land area. This land area is separated into distinct zones requiring regular inter-zone travel. Sprawl changes the "rural" landscape of farmlands, parks and other "natural" areas into human-made environments. This seems to encompass the meaning and spirit of what it is these organizations and individuals are trying to express. Please note that this definition does not try to "fix" what is wrong with the current definitions of sprawl but merely try to determine a clear definition that most can agree reflects what it is they see sprawl to be.

Data on Sprawl

The present research will rely on a study published in the spring of 2000 when data is not readily available from the original source and/or when the data is not relevant to the completion of the original research goals. The report entitled "The Costs of Suburban Sprawl and Urban Decay in Rhode Island" was undertaken by Grow Smart Rhode Island and contracted out to H.C. Planning Consultants and Planimetrics, LLP. The cost of the study was approximately $250,000 and took over two years to complete. It was funded by philanthropic organizations and state and federal sources. The detailed study of suburban sprawl included appendices of all the relevant data used and the sources for the included data were well cited.

In order to avoid debate over the study's analysis, only the raw data presented in the appendices will be used. The mistakes in the data that have been found represent such a small fraction of the overall data that, for the purposes of this research, the probabilities of more error are small enough to qualify as an acceptable margin of error. Where issues arise with regards to the analysis of sprawl in the report, discrepancies will be noted in the text but not be thoroughly dealt with.

Another aspect of the report that will be paralleled here concerns the use of certain definitions and classifications. Unless otherwise noted, these will match GSRI's, classifications and definitions. For example the classification of a municipality as urban, suburban, etc… Please note that these are not related to, nor are compatible with, US Census Bureau definitions regarding urban and non-urban classifications. Under those classifications most of the state would be classified as urban. The implications of this distinction will be dealt with later on. A map of these classifications illustrating the location of these municipalities within the state is shown in Figure 1 (Large).


  • Urban Core: Contains Central Falls, Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Newport. These municipalities are also called "old urban municipalities".
  • Urban Ring: Contains N. Providence, E. Providence, W. Warwick, Cranston, Warwick. These municipalities are considered "new urban municipalities" and have only become urbanized after WWII.
  • Suburban: Contains Bristol, Warren, Barrington, Middletown, Narragansett, Johnston, Cumberland, Lincoln, Westerly, E. Greenwich, Portsmouth, Smithfield, N. Kingstown, Jamestown.
  • Rural/Emerging Suburban: Contains Tiverton, Coventry, S. Kingstown, N. Smithfield, Burrillville, Charlestown, Scituate, Little Compton, Glocester, Hopkington, Richmond, Exeter, Foster, New Shoreham (Block Island), West Greenwich
  • Urban: Contains both urban core and urban ring groups combined.
  • Non-urban: Contains both suburban and rural/emerging suburban groups combined.

Effects/Indicators of Sprawl

The pool of possible effects that could potentially be measured follows in Figure 2.

Taken from the list in Figure 2, the effects of sprawl that will be of concern to Rhode Island are listed in Figure 3. What will not be considered as a measurable effect in this research are the many subjective characteristics of sprawl such as loss of rural character and loss of community character. Some quantifiable aspects such as air pollution, water pollution and increased energy consumption, although measurable, will remain un-contested.
As most research on sprawl uses the effects of sprawl as indicators, the current work will do the same. In the following list, the effects relevant to RI are being employed as indicators. For some indicators the timeframe is outside the timeframe being employed for the demographic analysis (1970-1990). This is due to data availability and so this data should only be used as a trend indicator and not be used to draw exact comparisons.

Loss of open space

One indicator of sprawl is the level and location of land that is developed in an area. In Rhode Island, from 1960-1995 the amount of developed land increased from ~ 6,000 ft2/person to ~ 9,000 ft2/person for an increase of 50% (Crawley and Nelson 2000). As well, between 1961 and 1995 the urban core saw a 54% increase in developed land while the rural and suburban areas experienced a 205% increase in the amount of developed land. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000)

With regards to residential housing and its effect on land use and the environment, 71% of all housing in Rhode Island was located in urban areas in 1960 while in 1995 only 59% of all housing was located in these same urban areas. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) This shows that there is a decentralization of housing in the study time period of 1970-1990. That has also led to issues regarding the level of land dedicated per housing unit. Between 1961 and 1995 the acreage per housing unit in the urban core rose from .09 to .14 acres. In contrast the rural areas saw an increase from .64 to .85 acres per housing unit. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) An example of this growth can be seen in Figure 4 (Large) where the housing is being placed in the center of large lots.

Housing location trends in once rural areas

Currently there is a strong push in Rhode Island's rural communities to enact growth caps or other anti-growth measures to curb sprawl. Municipalities such as Hopkinton, Charlestown and others have enacted growth caps while Coventry had banned construction altogether for six months to study the effects of what construction had already taken place (Sabar 1999). For reference, a map of construction for 1988 through 1995 is shown in Figure 5 (Large) and illustrates where development has been concentrated. Only land that was re-classified is shown. On the left is the classification the land was in 1988 while the right shows what the land was reclassified as by 1995. Notice that most of the land that was re-classified was land in the non-urban portion of the state.

Increases in single family housing starts and building permits

One of the major marks of sprawl is the increase in the housing construction outside of the urban areas. Figure 6 shows peaks in construction during '86 and '87, which was the height of the building boom and the similar pattern over a longer period starting in 1954. Although the data is for the state as a whole, most of this construction took place in the non-urban areas. These peaks also correlate with known economic "boom" times in both Rhode Island and the US as a whole. In general, increases in single-family units are considered less desirable since multi-family units are economically more cost effective (Sussman 1977) and conceivably utilize less space per person for housing.

Figure 7 illustrates that the level of construction has far outpaced the population growth for the period from 1954 through 1998. Some of this phenomenon has been attributed to declining household size, which will be dealt with later on. Taking census numbers as well as data on housing stock/construction from the US Census Bureau and Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation Figure 7 was created. The sharp spikes in the Census numbers reflect known out migrations of people in the time periods shown. It is not known whether this was based on a complete count or on sampled data from surveys but the latter is assumed, as it is not a census year. It is likely that the negative spikes in the mid 70's are military base closings/cut backs along with a change in the handling, by the Census Bureau, of military in census enumerations. This will be detailed below in Part 2 in the section regarding data on page 19.

Loss of farms and forestland

A loss of farms and forestland is also considered an effect of sprawl. In Rhode Island, between 1970 and 1995 the acreage of forestland decreased from 410,640 to 300,861 acres and the acreage of farmland decreased from 62,120 to 49,091 acres. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) The change in these two indicators total about 123,000 acres. Total increase of developed land for the state over the same time period was 60,000 acres. This leaves a discrepancy of approximately 60,000 acres that went from farm/forestland but were not developed. No obvious answer to this mystery was readily available. However, one possible idea is that reclassifications in the GIS coverages that these values were calculated from had occurred. An example is where forestland was reclassified as something such as wetland, which is not considered developed or forested, even if it has tree cover. This is a limitation of the current GIS classification system that allows only one land use classification to any given parcel of land. It is also important to note that it does overestimate the damage sprawl has had on farming and forestland. All told however, there has been significant degradation and removal of those things that are characteristic of rural areas.

Increased time in traffic/increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT)

Every area has its particular quirks and oddities that separates and distinguishes it from the world around. For Rhode Island measuring an increase of commute times is rather futile due to the fact commute times have only increased an average of one minute per every ten years between 1970 and 1990 when it was calculated at around 20 minutes as per the US Bureau of the Census General Characteristics for 1990.
Rhode Island does not have the gripping traffic congestion characteristic of many other metropolitan areas. However, vehicle miles traveled has increased markedly. Between 1992 and 1998 the VMT/person went from 7,600 to approximately 8,000 in 1998 according to the RI DOT as cited in (Sabar 1999). There was also a large increase from 1987 and 1992 but the data used to determine that has been called into question (Mc.Enanly 1999). Additionally, motor vehicles per person increased 81% from 1960-1997 in Rhode Island (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) and between 1979 and 1988 the number of registered motor vehicles in urban areas increased 35% while in the non-urban areas the increase was 65%. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000)

Loss of Urban Population to Non-Urban Areas

Notice in Table 1 that growth in population, housing and motor vehicles has all increased over the last twenty years in the suburban and rural areas above the state average while the urban areas have increased below the state average with the Urban Core actually experiencing decreasing growth. At the very least this shows that the vast majority of people are not moving into the urban areas but instead moving into the non-urban areas. Despite being almost fully developed, the urban areas have land that is capable of housing more people than current numbers. For example, in 1998, within the urban areas, there were 8,723 vacant residential lots and 2,065 vacant commercial/industrial lots. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) At a rate of 4 people per home that would house over 34,000 more people in the cities and lessened demand for new construction in the outlying areas.

Urban Decay

Another effect of sprawl on the cities commonly cited, and a rather controversial one at that, is the concentration of low-income families in urban centers. In urban areas, 51.3% of school children qualify for free/reduced-price meals while only 13.9% of all Non-Urban school children qualify for the same. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) Figure 8 shows that the five urban core cities have more than half of the low-income families in Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, the percentage of the overall employment attributed to urban areas decreased from 85% in 1960 to 71% in 1997. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) Urban areas lost private sector employment between 1980 and 1997 at a rate of 273 jobs per year. In contrast Non-Urban areas gained jobs at a rate of more than 2,800 positions per year. (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000)

Figure 9 (Large)

Causes Cited for Sprawl

One of the first qualifiers used from the press (Sabar 1999) to GSRI (Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000) is that overall concurrent population growth in the state was not peaking (had peaked earlier) yet housing construction has reached all-time highs over the same period of time. In other words, the demographic profiles that are most commonly drawn reflect the low levels of population increase within the research period and the overwhelming growth of housing, automobile use and other effects/indicators of sprawl outpacing population growth during this same period. One example of this comes from Christopher B. Leinberger "In the 1970s and 1980s, for every one percent of population growth in a metropolitan area, there was a six percent to 12 percent increase in land consumption." (Lockwood 1999) Mr. Leinberger is the managing director of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a Los Angeles-based national real estate consulting firm. Another quote comes from the Federal Highway Administration; "From 1969 to 1989, the population of the United States increased by 22.5 percent -- and the number of miles driven by that population ('vehicles miles traveled' or 'VMT') increased by 98.4 percent." (Federal Highway Administration 1991) Academic articles also reflect these comparisons as both Ottensmann (Ottensmann 1977) and Boyce (Boyce 1963) compare growth of housing and developed land area to overall population growth. In a bulletin published by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) dealing with environmental concerns, the authors note "although population grew 34%, waste increased 80%"(Magder and Merrick 1990).

Using this qualifier many researchers and environmentalists assume population growth does not have a hand in causing sprawl. One of the exceptions to this rule is a paper out of Australia (Hugo 1988) which makes mention that the sprawl occurring in Australia is partially a result of demographic effects due to age structure but does not elucidate on what was meant. Some develop theories regarding urban form and that there has taken place a fundamental change in peoples settlement patterns (Anderson, Kanaroglou et al. 1996; Daniels 1999; Filion 1999). Others cite automobiles and other affluences located in the United States as a whole (Kirk 1973; Bowler 1977; Ewing 1994; Grow Smart Rhode Island 2000). Others (Bloom 1977) cite a lack of affluence as a reason for sprawl as fringe land tends to be cheaper then land inside urban centers.

Other less common causes cited are indirect social influence (Boschken 1998) and automobile dependence coupled with economic incentives and a lack of alternatives with urban decay accelerating the trend to suburbia in the later years (Ullmann 1977). One somewhat demographic theory cites smaller family size and multiple wage earners in a given household which gives rise to a demand for logistics planning in commuting issues (Bloom 1977). A list of generic causes can be found in Table 2.

Conclusions on Sprawl in Rhode Island

As has been demonstrated, suburban sprawl is occurring in Rhode Island and the indicators are responding much in the same way conventional literature suggests it would. Table 1 shows that the growth rates of the three main indicators of sprawl are higher the farther out from the urban core one looks. Rhode Island development is characterized by low-density, large-lot residential and commercial development that is scattered across a large land area. The indicators of sprawl in Rhode Island increase over a given time at a significant and proportionately higher rate than the overall population growth for the state. The population rate of increase of rural municipalities and areas is disproportionately higher than that found in the urban centers.
Sprawl is changing the "rural" landscape of farmlands, parks and other "natural" areas into human-made environments faster than in urban areas. This is evidenced by the measures being taken by each municipality in the South County area. Current minimum lot sizes for new construction are 2 or more acres per subdivision in many municipalities and growth caps are becoming the hot new topic among town boards, planners and residents.

Next: Research Design and Methods...

©Copyright 2001,
Thomas Bolioli

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