Using the Land in Atlanta (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the upcoming vote on a regional transportation tax. This is the first post of a three-part series on my thoughts about land use and transportation in Atlanta.

The project list of the Atlanta regional transportation tax includes many things I want to see, such as new transit lines and additional funding for MARTA. But it lacks something important: the impetus for correcting our sprawling development pattern — the very thing that has caused so much transportation pain.

Tying land use and transportation together

An excellent 2009 post from the Saporta Report, Time to Focus on Transportation and Land Use, shows the connection between our sprawl and the transportation problems that have resulted from it.

The bottom line is that metro Atlanta will not improve its congestion problem unless transportation investments are done in tandem with land-use decisions.

David Allman, chairman of the Regent Partners development company and chairman of the Livable Community Coalition has this to say in the post:

“The biggest bang for the buck is land use,” Allman said. “If we don’t change the way we develop and the way we grow, we can’t solve our transportation problems. We have to drive the link between land-use and transportation funding.”

For me, the big issue that is looming behind all the transportation-funding talk is land use. Engaging in good urban placemaking and increasing the efficiency of our land use will help us move in a direction that creates fewer transportation problems.

Transit for some, but not for all

The transit lines that are planned will provide mobility alternatives for those who live nearby, and I welcome that improvement. Nonetheless, the project list will still result in most of the region being served by no transit type other than cars due to low transit access, especially for the seniors who are aging in place in the sprawl.

The harm done to seniors and low-income people in the sprawl-burbs will continue. This is particularly of note given the well-documented movement of people with low incomes to the suburbs.

With or without the new tax, we need a way of encouraging a sea change that provides a real, long-term solution: retrofitting the sprawl to build walkable neighborhoods that can be served efficiently by alternative transportation.

Sprawl harms people and the environment

In addition to the social-justice issue of providing transportation alternatives to those most in need, there’s an equally important environmental-justice issue to be addressed by land use.

From the New Georgia Encyclopedia, a look at the harmful effects of our sprawl on the environment:

Metropolitan Atlanta is the least densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, with only 1,370 persons per square mile…

Since 1987 the Atlanta region has lost an average of fifty acres of tree cover per day. Much of this loss is a direct result of encroachment by low-density sprawl development into forested and agricultural areas. This deforestation and loss of vegetation, coupled with increased pavement and rooftops, creates a “heat island” effect (temperatures can be up to twelve degrees higher in heavily paved areas of Atlanta) and contributes to the region’s air pollution problems as well.

Just this week, the EPA designated 15 Georgia counties as having sub-standard air quality. All of them are in metro Atlanta.

Anderson Farms

Below is a 1915 photo of Anderson Farms in Cobb County, near Marietta (found at Georgia’s Virtual Vault). The farm was one of the largest in the county and, according to the photo’s description, practiced “extensive experimentation with crop diversification.”

Farms that looked like this occupied much of the landscape of our metro for a long time and I count myself lucky that, in my youth, I was able to see some beautiful ones that still existed — that hadn’t been turned into subdivisions and parking lots yet.

Anderson Farm

Here’s the Google Maps satellite view of what exists in the land just east of where this farm stood. It’s a mess of car-centric development, covering the ground in asphalt for parking lots and arterial roads.

At the bottom, right of the image you get a peak of the subdivision homes that continue endlessly throughout the metro and dominate most satellite views of it.

Anderson Farm

Moving just west of this, we can see the land where the actual farm once stood, now occupied by enormous, white containers. These belong to the Colonial Pipeline Company and hold petroleum fuel. Fuel that is used by the cars that currently play too dominant a role in the use of our land.

Next week: Plans that make sense