Any research claiming that Stockton is more walkable and compact than Portland, Washington, DC or Denver is seriously flawed. But that’s exactly what a smart growth advocacy organization determined last week when it published a report ranking US metro areas by sprawl.
Last Wednesday, Smart Growth America released a report measuring the “sprawl” of over 200 metro areas around the country, including Stockton, which ranked as the 41st least sprawling region, and 4th of regions with populations between one million and 500,000. The results are pretty surprising, and may lead some to falsely conclude that Stockton doesn’t have a sprawl problem.
John Beckman of the Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley was quick to pounce on the report, proclaiming that there is no sprawl in the Central Valley. But could the city that was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis and was sued by the state and the Sierra Club for its ravenous consumption of farmland actually be a poster child for good development? Absolutely not. No one should mistake any Stockton subdivision built in the last 40 years for anything close to smart growth.
If the Central Valley really didn’t sprawl, then Smart Growth America’s research would have shown that our cities either improved in their rankings or held steady, but that’s not the case. This 2014 report is Smart Growth America’s second on measuring sprawl, with the first report coming in 2002. That report examined about 100 metro areas and did not include Stockton. However, Sacramento and Fresno were examined in both and can serve as a proxy for Stockton’s development trajectory. In 2002, Fresno ranked 24th and Sacramento 37th for least sprawly. In this years’ report, Sacramento tumbled to 120th and Fresno to 139th. In 12 years, the cities dropped nearly 100 spots. It’s pretty safe to say that Stockton’s development patterns mirrored these two cities, meaning Stockton has definitely become less walkable and more sprawling in the last 12 years.
So why did Stockton rank so well? It’s important to remember that the report assesses metro areas, not cities themselves. So while Stockton is not nearly as walkable as Washington DC (ranked 91st), we score higher since we really don’t have suburbs like big cities do. As a city, Washington DC is a walker’s paradise with strong public transportation options, but the metro area as a whole includes hundreds of cookie cutter, auto-dependent suburban communities in Virginia and Maryland, dragging down the region’s sprawl score.
Despite the ridiculous ranking itself, there are some encouraging findings in the report indicating that the layout of our historic core is on par with the most walkable cities in the country in terms of connectivity and land use mix.
The report gave high marks to areas where the cores had high Walkscores—an algorithm used to determine the walkability of any given address, neighborhood or city. In this respect, Downtown Stockton and the surrounding neighborhoods score quite high thanks to short, compact blocks in nearly all neighborhoods from the Calaveras River south to around MLK Boulevard. This ranking is even more encouraging given that downtown has yet to reach its full potential. On the other hand, neighborhoods in north Stockton are consistently below 50, meaning that they are completely car dependent. (Sidenote: while we have a good core grid system, these rankings don’t account for the blocks that had their stops signs removed and converted to one way streets to accommodate cars, which is frowned upon by smart growth advocates).
Contrary to the results of this report, it is absolutely false to claim that Stockton is not sprawling. While our urban core benefits from connected, walkable streets, development in recent decades has been the antithesis of smart growth. Residents in north Stockton neighborhoods emit about twice as much pollution from transportation than those who live in the core. Walkscores for areas like Weston Ranch (11), Brookside (22) and Spanos East (11) are all abysmal. And most glaring of all, the rush to shove as many homes on farmland as quickly as possible directly led to the most severe economic downturn since the great depression, and Stockton just so happened to be the epicenter. Real walkable cities were insulated from the effects of the recession while Stockton was obliterated. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at Smart Growth America’s rankings. An important reminder that city rankings can be quite deceiving, even when conducted by a respected organization.