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Your town's sprawl could lead to sprawl somewhere else

Long commutes, snarled traffic and increased pollution are some of the well-known complaints about haphazard real estate growth. But the health and wealth of the people who live in sprawling communities are also at risk.

University of Utah researchers found that as a metro area gets more sprawling, so does the likelihood of obesity. They cite an example of a 5-foot-10 man living in the low sprawl San Francisco metro area is likely to weigh 10 pounds less than the same man living in sprawling Gadsen County, Fla.

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Significantly lower blood pressure and lower rates of diabetes were also found in denser cities. The leading explanation is that people who live in more urban areas walk more, but the study's primary researcher says there's more to it than that.

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"The amount of time one spends in a car in a sprawling region is such that it eliminates time for a whole range of other activities, including those that are more active," said Reid Ewing, professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. He said the development in those areas plays a role, too, "In sprawling areas strip-commercial development and fast food restaurants bias the food choices."

The study pegged the Hickory/Lenoir/ Morganton, N.C., metro area as the worst for sprawl. Atlanta, Clarksville, Tenn., Prescott, Ariz., and Nashville/Davidson, Tenn. rounded out the five worst areas for sprawl.

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Researchers looked at several factors to determine a city's ranking, including development density and population living near jobs. they also measured the walkability of the streets.

The researchers also connected lower sprawl with greater economic mobility. For every 10 percent increase in the index score, there is a 4.1 percent probability that a child born to a family in the bottom of the national income distribution reaches the top by age 30.

"A low income person living in a very compact area has a much better access to jobs," Ewing said, with shorter distance to where the jobs are and better transportation options.

New York topped the chart for the city with the least sprawl, followed by San Francisco, Atlantic City, N.J., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Champaign/Urbana, Ill.

The combined cost of housing and transportation is lower for more compact areas. Transportation costs decline faster than housing costs rise, with city dwellers having more transportation options, including mass transit, biking and walking that cost less than driving.

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In Tampa, Fla., the average household spends 56 percent of its budget on housing and transportation, while in Seattle those expenses account for 48 percent of the budget.

Development seems to be moving away from the sprawl that last boomed with the housing market in 2006. Home builders are more focused now on building out "A" markets, defined as close-in areas near a work center.

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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