Champaign-Urbana ranked fifth most connected, compact communities in nation

By Angelica Lavito

Champaign-Urbana is one of the least sprawling communities in the nation, which can be beneficial to residents.

A sprawl measures how close homes and jobs are. The report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” ranked Champaign-Urbana fifth on the list of the most compact and connected metro areas.

“Urbana has always tried to limit sprawl,” Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said. “We benefit residents by having good transportation systems, not only for automobiles, but we have a good emphasis on buses, walking and bicycling.”

Smart Growth America, the organization that conducted the study, advocates the concept of “smart growth,” which encourages building communities with housing and residential options near jobs, shops and schools, according to its website. 

“I think the notion of Smart Growth is important because it emphasizes so many things that are important to us in the 21st century: sustainability, creating a community that has a walkable- and bike-rideable community,” said Champaign Mayor Don Gerard.

Gerard agrees with the idea of developing from within and wants to see downtown Champaign continue to grow as a micro-urban community.

“When you can create a dynamic of downtown … (and) when you start to see a lot of people living downtown, more workforce housing, (and) more students who choose to live downtown — it changes your city,” Gerard said.

Smart Growth America found that residents of communities with less sprawl have greater economic mobility, spend less on housing and transportation, have more transportation options and lead longer, healthier and safer lives. 

Gerard recognizes that not all residents want to develop downtown as a micro-urban center. 

“There are people who don’t want tall buildings in Champaign. Then there are people who want to build monster, sprawling tall buildings — taller than we allow. I think it’s been challenging, but historically … we’ve done a really fantastic job of finding that middle ground and enticing developers to invest in our downtown, and our midtown and our campustown,” Gerard said.

Champaign and Urbana practice infill development, in which the community further develops pre-existing spaces instead of creating new developments. 

“I think (sprawl) creates a lesser quality of life because you’re spending more time in a vehicle and you’re not as close to your neighbors, so you can lack that sense of community,” said Elizabeth Tyler, Urbana Community Development Director.

Development density, land use mix, activity centering and street accessibility are the four factors used to determine a community’s sprawl. Champaign-Urbana scored a 145.2 on the sprawl index, with the average being 100. 

New York, N.Y., is the most compact, connected area with a score of 203.4. Springfield, Ill., received a score of 142.2, making it the ninth least sprawling metropolitan area.

Angelica can be reached at [email protected]