Hickory, a small industrial city in western North Carolina, lies within the state's 10th congressional district, one that the Washington Post has called "one of the most Republican in the nation." Its representative, Congressman Patrick McHenry, proudly boasts that, on family values issues, he is tied for the "most conservative voting record in Congress."
Last week, Hickory topped another list. Researchers at Smart Growth America named the metro it anchors (Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, population 350,000) the most sprawling in the country (PDF). At the other extreme, the metros topping the list of "most compact" are also some of the country's true blue strongholds, with New York and San Francisco ranking as the two most "compact metros" in America.
These two sets of metros reflect a more pervasive pattern. In recent decades, America's politics have exhibited a new trend, where Red America finds its home base in some of the country's most sprawling places, while Blue America is centered in denser, more compact metros and cities.
With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I compared Smart Growth America's new rankings of sprawling and compact development to voting patterns, as well as other significant economic and demographic variables.Their Sprawl Index takes into account four key factors: density, mix of uses, presence of "activity centers," and accessibility of street network. A higher ranking on the Sprawl Index means a metro is more compact and less sprawling. Positive correlations identify a relationship to more compact development, while negative ones suggest a connection to greater sprawl. As usual, I note that our analysis points only to associations among variables and does not indicate causality.
The connection between sprawl and conservatism comes through loud and clear in our analysis of more than 200 of America's metro areas. Our correlations suggest that sprawled America is Red America, while Blue America takes on a much more compact geography. The Sprawl Index was negatively associated with the share of voters in a metro who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 (with a correlation of -.44); and it was positively associated with the percentage who voted for Barack Obama (.43). These were among the strongest correlations in our analysis.
This is in line with other research that connects sprawl or density and political affiliation. Researchers have identified a tipping point of roughly 800 people per square mile where counties shift from Red to Blue, as I noted in the weeks following Barack Obama's reelection. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse similarly explained this spatial link between a spread-out landscape and Republican political positions to the New Republic. “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.”
Causality can and does work in both directions. As urban economists have frequently pointed out, places with less strict zoning and building standards typically build more housing in more sprawling patterns. These places with more flexible land-use regulation tend to be more pro-market, anti-regulation to begin with. So conservative politics may help promote sprawl in the first place.
Beyond politics, our analysis looked at the relationship between the Sprawl Index and a number of other demographic and economic factors.
We found that compact metros tended to be more diverse. We found positive correlations between the Sprawl Index and both the share of residents that are foreign born (.32) and the share that identify as gay or lesbian (.27). This also likely affects voting patterns, as more diverse metros also lean more liberal.
On the whole, we found more compact metros were more affluent and productive, with a positive correlation between the Sprawl Index and economic output per capita (.24). We also found more compact metros to have more highly-educated residents, with a positive correlation of .33 between the share of adults who are college grads and the smart growth Index. Conversely, the Sprawl Index was negatively associated with share of blue collar, working class jobs (-.28).
Even more interesting is the connection between urban development and the specific kinds of work people do. We found a close positive association between the Sprawl Index and the share of artists, designers, and entertainment and cultural workers (.48). Despite how much has been made of the clustering of the tech industry and of tech workers, we found a much weaker association between the Sprawl Index and high tech industry, and no statistically significant one between the index and the number of science and technology workers.
And perhaps most importantly for those who argue that the benefits of sprawl – including large home sizes and big swathes of land for each family – outweigh the costs, we found a positive association (.21) between compactness and the happiness and well-being of residents. This reinforces the findings of the Smart Growth America report, which found that residents of compact metros tended to live longer, perform better on a number of health and obesity metrics, and have a better chance at true economic mobility. In contrast, those living in sprawling metros tended to spend more on transportation and housing, exercise less, and experience far less social capital in their communities.
Overall, the analysis of Smart Growth America’s new Sprawl Index helps demonstrate that there are, essentially, two Americas: one sprawling and more conservative, the other far more compact, more affluent, more diverse, and more liberal.