All Sprawl 

The Nashville area earns some dubious distinctions

The Nashville area earns some dubious distinctions

It’s no secret to any Nashvillian with a working eyeball that Middle Tennessee is booming. A drive to the burbs in almost any direction gives the clear impression that new houses, office buildings, and retail centers are popping up all over.

Statistics bear out the windshield survey. The population of the region grew by 25.5 percent between 1990 and 2000, the highest growth rate for any metropolitan area in the state. Between 1991 and 2001, jobs increased by 31 percent, making the Nashville area the state’s leading economy. Per capita income rose from $8,387 in 1980 to $23,150 in 1997. Unemployment was holding low this past February at 3.1 percent. Nashville’s transportation infrastructure—three interstates and an expanding network of arterials—gets much of the credit for fueling the region’s robust economy.

But there is evidence that all this boom is turning out to be a bust for the Nashville area’ quality of life. According to a new study commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), Nashville-area residents drive an average of 37.7 miles per day, the highest rate in the country. And the latest figures from the Texas Transportation Institute show that the average Nashville-area driver spends 42 hours a year stuck in traffic, up from 18 hours in 1990, which leaves the region tied for 10th worst in travel delays in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Nashville area is projected to add another 400,000 or more people by 2020, leaving the region’s leaders with some decisions to make.

“Of the six states we focus on at SELC, Middle Tennessee faces some of the greatest opportunities as well as the most serious threats,” says Trip Pollard, a co-author of the “Where Are We Growing?” study commissioned by the SELC, a Charlottesville, Va.-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the South’s natural resources. “Some problems are starting to pop up in Nashville that are like Atlanta—in particular the amount of traffic congestion, despite extensive road building, and the high numbers of miles citizens must travel to live their daily lives.”

Pollard says that while transit services are significantly lessening the burden of rush-hour congestion nationwide, “the Nashville area offers one of the lowest rates of transportation choice in the entire country. As long as the bulk of transportation money is spent on new highways and fails to provide efficient mass transit or walking and biking opportunities, traffic congestion in the region will keep getting worse.”

The 26-page report focuses on the 10-county region surrounding Nashville and summarizes a variety of wonky stats on Middle Tennessee’s current land-use and transportation patterns. The study was funded by private donations and the Frist Foundation. Bruce Appleyard, a land-use and transportation planner, wrote the study with Pollard, an attorney who specializes in land-use and transportation law, and the two discovered some disturbing trends in the way Nashville and surrounding counties are growing.

For starters, Davidson County’s population increased by the smallest percentage of all the 10 counties—11.6 percent—while such counties as Williamson and Rutherford increased by over 50 percent. One can attribute a variety of causes to explain why people are moving out—including cheaper home prices and the perception of better public schools in the burbs—but the effect is sprawl.

For those who think that sprawl is just the result of all the new people, think again. The development of previously open space, such as farmland and forests, greatly outpaced the population growth of Middle Tennessee—almost three times as fast between 1982 and 1997, the SELC report says. And we are gobbling up land at an increasing rate. Between 1982 and 1992, land development averaged 37 acres a day; between 1992 and 1997, that rate increased to 60 acres a day.

As with the rate of land development, the number of miles traveled in the area far exceeds the increase in population. When development spreads farther and farther out, we must drive farther and farther to get to work, run errands, and take the kids to school. Between 1982 and 1997, the amount of vehicle travel increased by 115 percent, while the population grew by 26 percent. The SELC study suggests that this may be due in part to the amount of new road capacity spurring development in the burbs. While the regional population was growing by 26 percent, the number of miles of freeway lanes more than doubled. So much for the idea—beloved by the Tennessee Road Builders’ Association—that adding more lanes eases congestion.

The SELC report points out that all this sprawling and driving threatens the ability to get the workforce to jobs and to attract new business development. More paving increases water pollution. More drive time increases congestion, air pollution, and the potential for the loss of federal funds for road building, which places such as Atlanta have suffered firsthand. Also at risk are the rural landscapes and the historic character of towns and neighborhoods that make Middle Tennessee a tourist destination and a desirable place to live. The study also notes that sprawling development patterns typically do not generate enough tax revenues to pay for the new schools and roads, water lines, and other infrastructure and services that residents of the new burbs demand. At the same time, existing infrastructure in which taxpayers have already invested may become underused as development spreads outward.

Appleyard and Pollard say that they did not compile the report for the SELC to be the bearer of bad tidings, but because Middle Tennessee is faced with a real fork-in-the-road scenario. “Middle Tennessee is poised to make some meaningful changes, adopt more sensible strategies in the way it grows,” Pollard says.

Many studies focus on only one or two aspects of growth, Appleyard says. The SELC study was an opportunity to “synthesize this information into a single publication, to provide the community with some background on the different directions in which the region could grow.”

Both Appleyard and Pollard point to the development of the Nashville Civic Design Center to consider planning and urban design at the micro or neighborhood scale, and to the advent of Cumberland Region Tomorrow (CRT) to focus on land use and transportation from a regional perspective. They hope that both organizations can use the report to advance smart planning.

CRT is ready to make the leap. In three public forums, including one scheduled for this Thursday, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in Wilson Hall on the Vanderbilt campus, CRT will present the results of its initial study on Middle Tennessee at 2020. Consultant John Fregonese will combine the projected population increase with current regional growth patterns and extend them 20 years into the future. These meetings are the first step in a public process to explore whether Nashville’s growth patterns, as described in the SELC study, will compromise the region’s values in the future, and if so, to look at alternative strategies.

Some of the region’s leadership is, however, still in denial. When the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce got the bad news last week about Nashville’s increasing congestion problems, it generated a press release explaining why Nashville isn’t Atlanta. In a two-page history of Nashville’s development, the Chamber points to the new manufacturing base and strong service economy in the region, facts not in dispute. But in stating that “there exist few similarities between Nashville and Atlanta,” the Chamber fudges on the sprawling land-use patterns and ignores Nashville’s auto addiction. To claim that low-density outward development goes back to patterns established in the 1960s is hardly recognition that sprawl is a problem. And to suggest that state legislation requiring cities and counties to establish urban growth boundaries will cure our ills fails to acknowledge that many governments have ignored the opportunity to preserve open space in favor of massive land grabs.

The head-in-the-sand approach of the Nashville Chamber seems to be an attempt to head off the kind of negative publicity that gave Atlanta of the 1990s the unboosterish moniker “poster child of sprawl.” Apparently desirous to be all things to all interest groups, the Chamber has refused to reevaluate its early support for state Route 840—the ultimate sprawl generator—at the same time it is supporting a light rail system for Nashville. These are contradictory transportation impulses.

It’s true that Nashville isn’t Atlanta. But the signs in “Where Are We Growing?” all point to Nashlanta in the not-too-distant future if the region doesn’t change course.

For copies of the SELC report, go to


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