The Inland Empire, overwhelmed by unchecked growth and plagued by helter-skelter development, is by far the nation's worst example of urban sprawl, a team of researchers said Thursday.
For 20 years, the price of homes closer to the coast has skyrocketed, forcing hundreds of thousands of families to search inland for affordable housing. Many landed -- in Riverside or San Bernardino, Corona or Ontario -- with the hope that they had left behind the ills of urban life.
Instead, the study says, they have found themselves in a far-flung dystopia, a region whose schools and roads cannot keep up with the number of new residents, a sea of strip malls and chain restaurants, all surrounded by just as much traffic, pollution and congestion as they confronted in the city.
The three-year study was conducted by researchers from Rutgers and Cornell universities and released by a Washington coalition of organizations interested in growth, known as Smart Growth America.
The report faulted the Inland Empire for everything from its lack of economic and social cores -- two-thirds of the massive region lives at least 10 miles from a central business district -- to a haphazard, poorly connected road system that makes walking and bicycling perilous.
Even the region's high number of traffic fatalities -- 49 of every 100,000 people die each year in car crashes -- is due to endless hours spent negotiating highways and packed, high-speed arterials, the study concluded.
Barbara McCann, a spokeswoman for Smart Growth America, said the Inland Empire fits the dreaded metropolitan tag: "There is no 'there' there."
Home building and economic development organizations, which have defeated several recent attempts to limit growth in the Inland Empire, disputed the study's results.
"I would call it a blatant joke," said Borre Winckel, executive director of the Building Industry Assn.'s Riverside County chapter. "I am not impressed by it."
On Thursday afternoon in Chino Hills, on the western rim of San Bernardino County, scores of people were having lunch at tables assembled in front of what passes for a central gathering place -- a giant strip mall called Crossroads Marketplace. It features a Costco, a Sport Chalet, a mattress store and an enormous Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse emblazoned with a slogan: "More of Everything."
At one of the tables, Clysta Keller, 57, sat reading a book. Keller said she and her family moved from Orange County to nearby Mira Loma 20 years ago after her husband retired from the military, largely because they could afford a nice home there on a third of an acre. Back then, it was a quaint country home. Now it is in the midst of perpetual construction and giant warehouse operations.
The Inland Empire, weary of being a dormitory for the rest of Southern California, has tried to create more local jobs, and Keller has one of them, in Lowe's administration office. It still takes her at least 35 minutes to drive 17 miles to work.
Like many others, she said she found it difficult to reconcile how there can be so much stuff in the Inland Empire, yet so little to do. Even a highly anticipated soccer academy that was built near her home failed because of a lack of attendance, she said.
"I feel most sorry for the children growing up here," she said, recalling the difficulty she had finding things for her children to do when they were younger.
"The politicians like the idea of more people moving here. But they aren't taking care of the schools, or the traffic -- or even thinking of things for the children to do."
Using a 'Sprawlometer'
The Oxnard-Ventura region ranks ninth in urban sprawl, according to the study.
The Los Angeles-Long Beach, San Diego and Sacramento metropolitan regions all registered slightly better than 100, or average, on the "sprawlometer."
Such growth is difficult to measure, the researchers pointed out. It is akin, they said, to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous view on pornography -- it's hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Previous studies have typically used limited and subjective data to analyze it, often relying almost entirely on density as their primary yardstick.
In the new study, researchers spent three years developing a four-category measure of sprawl.
In 83 metropolitan regions representing half of the nation's population, the researchers used 22 demographic databases to calibrate density of development; the blend of homes, jobs and services; the accessibility of streets; and the strength of downtown areas and other "activity centers."
To the cynic, it might seem that each category was devised atop a bluff in Temecula, where the population doubled between 1990 and 2000, or along California 71, home to rows and rows of Spanish-tile-roofed homes built with stunning efficiency.
The Riverside-San Bernardino region scored poorly in every category except density of development, in which the region was below average -- a vestige of older developments that featured larger lots.
The result: Riverside-San Bernardino scored 14.2 on the sprawlometer. A score of 100 is average, researchers said, and the lower the score, the worse the attendant problems are.
The Inland Empire was the only metropolitan area that scored lower than 45. It far outpaced the second- and third-place finishers, both in North Carolina.
"It's a pretty bad commentary," said Philip Lohman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League, an environmental organization that helped with the study. Lohman spent his teenage years in Redlands, in San Bernardino County, then earned three degrees at UC Riverside before moving to Lakewood. "We can't undo the damage that's been done. All we can do is protect what remains," he said.
Looking for Solutions
Riverside County Supervisor Tom Mullen said such an effort is well underway. For three years, Mullen and other Inland Empire leaders have pieced together what they say is the nation's most ambitious metropolitan development plan. It includes, Mullen said, a $13-billion plan for four new highways, including a new connector to Orange County, and a proposal to set aside 550,000 acres of open space and animal habitat in western Riverside County.
"The important thing is that we recognized that there was a serious problem and that we needed to find an innovative way to deal with it," Mullen said. "We know it is out there. And we are trying to fix it."
Colleen Smethers, a retired nurse practitioner in Mira Loma, doesn't buy it. She said the Inland Empire is being built backward -- houses first, then stores, then infrastructure such as roads and schools.
"They call it the blueprint for the future," Smethers said. "They think we are so stupid that we believe it. That's the part that's so hard to swallow. We live here in this little country place, supposedly out of the city. And we have big rig traffic on my street.... We are choking out here."
In Oxnard, a primary section of the metropolitan area that ranked ninth in the study, several residents defended their lifestyle Thursday -- and the "small town" atmosphere they say exists in their community.
Standing in front of the home that he and his wife bought last year in Oxnard's Aldea del Mar tract, Jeff Starr, a critical-care nurse, cited the positive side of growth: People have some elbow room, some distance between themselves and other people, droning freeways and belching buses.
"You work in a high-stress job and you come home and you don't want to be bothered by noise and commotion outside," Starr said.
Starr's mother lives in Riverside County, and "every time we drive somewhere, we see stuff that wasn't there the time before," he said.
But, he asked, "What are you going to do? People gotta live somewhere."
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10 worst cases of urban sprawl
A report released Thursday rates the Riverside-San Bernardino area as the nation's worst example of urban sprawl. Each metropolitan region received an index score that reflects a combination of 22 measures, such as poorly connected streets and the lack of economic and social centers. A score of 100 is average. The lower the score, the worse the problems associated with urban sprawl.
Sprawl Metropolitan Index Region Score
Riverside-San Bernardino 14.2
Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point, N.C. 46.8
Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 54.2
Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. 58.6
West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach, Fla. 67.7
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk-Danbury, Conn. 68.4
Knoxville, Tenn. 68.7
Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas 77.2 * Sources: Smart Growth America, Rutgers University, Cornell University