Atlanta’s growth story: sprawl, yes — but also density


Following their excellent series of animations of urban sprawl in US metros using satellite photos (not currently online, unfortunately), NextCity now posts a series of GIFs that show patterns of density — over almost a century — in several US metros, including Atlanta. 

Above is a GIF that shows the well-known sprawl here. The post calls us the “sprawliest US city” and notes that, unlike other sprawling metros such as L.A. and Houston, Atlanta’s growth of the years lacks any periods of “dense sprawl.” This means that our car-centric pattern of development is not only a land hog, it’s also extremely unwalkable and difficult to serve with transit.

But the news is not all bad. The animation also shows where some nice gains in density have been made in the center of the city, near the transit-served and pedestrian-friendly streets of Midtown and Downtown. A quote:

Atlanta does, however, follow the pattern of most big U.S. cities of finally turning inward in the first decade of the millennium, with growth in Downtown and Midtown. 

As Real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger has said: “it is altogether probable that in terms of land area Atlanta is the fastest-growing human settlement in history.”

The zoning-enforced development of car-dependent places during the last few decades was part of an experiment in social engineering and inefficient placemaking that has clearly failed. Fueled by cheap land and county governments that placed quick economic return over long-term sustainability, car-sprawl development was embraced by Metro Atlanta moreso than any other place in the US (if not worldwide).

The car-sprawl damage to the outlying areas is significant and will take much time to undo, but I’m confident that good urbansim will happen eventually all across the metro. 

Why the confidence? Because we have so much evidence of the economic, environmental and social harm of car-centric, sprawling places. This is no longer a fringe theory. And compact, walkable places are not a passing fad — we’re waking up from the decades of car-sprawl to see that this was a strange deviation in the healthy norm of human settlements. 

The thing Metro Atlanta has most in its favor, in regard to creating healthier urban places, is competition. Intown, we’re experiencing a major apartment boom that shows no sign of slowing down. This will bring thousands more residents into the city and near transit, walkable streets and bike infrastructure. Those dark-blue splotches at the end of the animation are the winning team in the competition and I doubt it will take long before other places throughout the metro (many in fact already have) get in the game. 

The case of the disappearing parking lots: MARTA’s TOD projects

MARTA’s new transit-oriented development director, Amanda Rhein,talks about Atlanta’s upcoming TOD projects with Atlanta Magazine. King Memorial Station’s development could start construction early 2015! I’ll be happy to see these parking lots disappear and become walkable, transit-connected communities.

Here are the three TODs that have been announced:

1. Avondale Station


"The developer will transform the 6.6 acre parking lot south of the station into a mixed-use, transit-oriented development. The plans call for 604 apartment units, 74 condos and 25,000 square feet of retail…"
Read more here…

2. King Memorial Station

"Walton Communities plans 386 apartments and 13,000-square feet of retail on about four acres next to King Memorial on Decatur Street, near Georgia State University, Oakland Cemetery and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic site."
Read more here…

3. Edgewood/Candler Park Station

"The transit agency recently announced it was seeking proposals to develop its parking lot on the southern side of the Edgewood/Candler Park station."
Read more here…

These projects, put together with the development along the Atlanta Beltline and the exciting things happening Downtown along the streetcar route, have the ability to help transform intown Atlanta into a place that grows primarily on alternative-transportation lines rather than in a car-centric way. Good urbanism.

The rise of walkable places & what it does (or doesn’t) mean for low-income neighborhoods


Writer Kaid Benfield has an excellent new post this week: Why urban demographers are right about the trend toward downtowns and walkable suburbs. It covers a lot of ground, primarily providing a data-based rebuttal to arguments, by some, that trends toward walkable urbanism are going to be short lived.

He references reliable data that supports the following promising trends:

  • In the coming decades, walkable cities and retrofitted suburbs will continue to gain favor over car-dependent sprawl for housing
  • After decades of fleeing downtowns for office parks and exurban campuses, corporations are moving back to walkable, transit-connected cities
  • The US has hit a peak in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), on both a per capita and absolute basis, implying less car dependency in the lives of Americans

As Benfield importantly points out about these trends: “this is not urbanist wishful thinking. These are facts.” The numbers don’t lie. The trend for the future in the US is toward walkable, compact places. Local governments that continue to embrace car-centric sprawl are investing in a form that is falling out of favor with Americans, and they will likely pay a price for it over time.

Benfield also addresses claims that growth in urbanism is not a positive trend because it provides no benefit to lower-income populations in cities. He points out that, though it’s true that urbanism itself is providing no clear solution to the bad schools, chronic unemployment, higher crime rates and poor health of low-income residents, neither is anything else. Tragically, “very little that has been tried over the past several decades has had a pronounced, lasting impact to lift people out of poverty.”

I’ll add this: moving Downtown has afforded my family and I the first clear look at widespread poverty that we’ve had. Our recent trip to Wesview Cemetery took us through neighborhoods west of Downtown that are filled with abandoned houses and other hallmarks of economic hardship; see Rebecca Burns’ recent video for a taste of the landscape.

Even though economic (and other) monocultures exist in Atlanta on neighborhood levels, living in the compact urban core inevitably puts you face-to-face with a wide spectrum of people, which forces you to think about the city’s divides.

I have no data to support this, but I can’t help but believe that it’s helpful in the long term for us to be more aware and informed about each other via this face-to-face contact. Political leadership will be key in addressing poverty in Atlanta, but the trend toward walkable urbanism, putting us in closer contact with the city’s diversity, will also help facilitate positive change.

Photo of Atlanta’s Broad Street by me

City of Atlanta parking requirements could stand to be reduced


A post on StreetsBlog today pointed me to a great graphic that shows the amount of office parking required by city governments across the US. From the post:

Architect Seth Goodman is on a mission to illustrate the absurdity of parking requirements…showing mandatory parking requirements for office buildings in different American cities

See the full graphic here

The cities with the best policies — by which I mean those that require the least amount of parking for offices — include: Seattle, Chicago, DC, Denver, Portland and Pittsburgh.

Atlanta falls in the not-so-cool end of the list, with about 330 spaces required for every 3250 sq ft of office. Things could be worse; we could be Austin or Albuquerque, which appear to be dead set on paving their entire cities.

But things could be much better, too. Atlanta appears to be the only city with heavy rail transit in that lower third of the list, and one of my biggest peeves is the way MARTA is put at a disadvantage by policies that give cars an edge over alternative transit.

Reducing parking requirements is an elemental part of making better urban spaces. According to the EPA (and common sense), high parking requirements:

…can deter compact, mixed-use development and redevelopment in older neighborhoods. Furthermore, large expanses of surface parking and stand-alone parking structures can discourage walking and make driving the only viable transportation between destinations.

"A village might be necessary to raise a child, but it seems a child is also necessary for a village (or neighbourhood) to truly become a community."

Placemaking and Getting Children Out to Play | Sustainable Cities Collective

A good mix of people helps neighborhoods and cities


As a downtowner with a kid, I liked reading this call for family-friendly urban places from writer Kaid Benfield in a post about building a smarter smart growth:

Make urbanism more family-friendly, too.  We are building better cities with smart growth, but for whom?  Do we really want to keep turning a blind eye to such a major segment of our population? …I believe we need to change that and, for planners, that means better schools, better parks and playgrounds, and at least some moderate- (rather than high-) density housing with a little yard space.

Walkable, compact urban places are not the exclusive domain of young creative people. They’re great for everyone; singles, couples, families with children, retirees — and all income levels. It’s important to have a good mix of residents from all these groups in a neighborhood because they each bring strengths that benefit not only individual neighborhoods, but overall cities.

Sometimes those strengths and benefits might not be obvious. For example: what strength do you lose when low- and medium-income residents are pushed out due to gentrification and rising home prices? You lose an important, opposing voice to NIMBYism.

As was recently reported by Reuters’ Felix Salmon in a piece titled “Why America’s population density is falling:”

As urban areas become increasingly affluent, filled with wealthy politicians and their wealthier donors, it becomes harder and harder for developers to procure the zoning changes and construction permits they need in order to keep on producing new residential inventory.

When new developments can’t be built, prices skyrocket and low-income people get priced out (and end up in car-centric suburbs, an issue for another post). The problem snowballs as both rising property values and the NIMBYism of affluent residents work together to prohibit anything but more affluence, depleting a neighborhood of diversity and the strengths that come with it.

And obviously, you see a converse and equally stifling effect when a neighborhood has only low-income people.

Good urbanism requires a good mix of residents: renters who allow new developments nearby without shouting “Not in My Back Yard”; owners who keep an eye on long-term livability; singles who are happy to see the new nightlife spots; and families with kids who push for a new park with a playground.

With that kind of diversity, you end up with a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city.

Photo of Streets Alive from Flickr user Atlanta BeltLine

Entertainment districts are dying, but better urban neighborhoods are growing

The Atlanta History Center blog offers another great entry in its Then & Now series, showing the 1890s activity around what is now Underground Atlanta.


Take a look at the number of people in this spot 120 years ago versus what we see regularly today. Despite the city pumping $8 million annually into Underground Atlanta, a development designated as a state Entertainment District, the area is relatively slow much of the week. On weeknights, as I saw recently, it’s downright serene.

Which proves a point made on the Strong Towns blog this week in a post titled Let’s End “Entertainment Districts.”  It explores the failures of the downtown entertainment zones, produced by 1970s urban-renewal efforts to bring suburbanites into cities that were emptied by White Flight and disinvestment.

With Underground Atlanta, we offered people in the metro a variation on a suburban mall, but more nightlife-focused. We accommodated suburbanites’ needs by providing behemoth parking decks nearby where grand downtown buildings once stood. It’s been a failure. One that has resulted in dead zones where there should be none.

Strong Towns director Charles Marohn writes this in the comments of the post:

…every area where there is people should be an “entertainment district”, or at least a district where one can go to a coffee shop, get a bite to eat and enjoy the trappings of urban life. Only in the Suburban Experiment do we take cities where this is happening along subsidized highway strips and then try to establish a competing, auto-oriented cluster in a target renewal area and call that great planning.

But a better scenario is occurring all over downtown and other intown neighborhoods. Instead of focusing heavily on the needs of car-bound suburbanites, we’re building new and better urban neighborhoods with an eye on livability.


My family lives downtown and we walk to restaurants, bars (<— not with the child), parks and stores. People in Midtown, Old Fourth Ward and elsewhere are increasingly doing the same — living near places where they have entertainment and other amenities nearby.

The old model of single-use districts — separating purely residential areas from purely commercial ones — still hangs on stubbornly in many intown areas. But in others, it’s visibly disappearing and being replaced with something more sustainable: places where people want to live, not just visit; where residents can get around to “entertainment” and more without getting in a car for every trip.