— Money Hall | Charles Marohn, Strong Towns Blog, 2/24/2014
Thanks very much to a reader named Joe for sending me a link to this fascinating piece he wrote about Atlanta’s sprawl, posted on the GSU library blog.
In the wake of Snow Jam 2014, which saw millions of Metro Atlanta car commuters stranded on icy interstates, he takes a look at the origins of the region’s car-dependent sprawl — a situation that led directly to a reliance on interstates and personal cars for commuting.
According to the post, a 1952 Atlanta regional plan titled Up Ahead “clearly supported the development of a low-density, car-oriented region.” The image above comes from that plan and shows a single-use neighborhood design that keeps uses detached (single-family homes all in one place, stores detached elsewhere) and channels car traffic all onto one to the major artery road.
Does it look familiar? This resembles what most the metro looks like now, though, due to population growth, it’s on a much larger scale that puts most homes even further from destinations than pictured here.
Here’s a good quote:
Although a complex myriad of factors influenced Atlanta’s urban form, such as FHA lending policies that encouraged newly constructed single-family home purchases, an interstate highway system that allowed people to easily move to the suburbs, and weak local land use policies that contributed to the loss of an urban fringe, sprawl across the region was, in part, achieved by choosing to live in the many low-density, limited through traffic, suburban neighborhoods that dot the region.
The one point on which I’ll quibble with this is the phrase “choosing to live” — for new residents, there was not much of a housing choice to be made in a region that offered little alternative to detached-use sprawl in its zoning practices.
I’m very glad to see the metro trending away from this development type in current construction, but we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to repairing the sprawl damage of the past.
Your must-read article for the week is Politico’s The Day We Lost Atlanta How 2 lousy inches of snow paralyzed a metro area of 6 million. Local writer Rebecca Burns takes a look at the dysfunctions of Metro Atlanta that led to people being stranded on highways, in schools and in stores by the snow and ice over the last two days.
The highlight of the piece, for me, is her exploration of the regional peculiarities that laid ground for a situation wherein one million motorists were on the interstates at the same time, headed home to the suburbs in the snow.
Here’s a quote that answers the question of why the suburbs are so much more populated with residents than the center city:
In the 1970s…the city of Atlanta witnessed an exodus of 160,000 people. The white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, triggered by integration of schools and housing, was followed by reverse migration as blacks from the Northeast and Midwest returned to the Atlanta region but opted to move into the suburbs of DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties[*]. Atlanta the city, became—and despite a slow uptick in population, remains—the commercial district to which people commute from Atlanta, the suburbs.
[* For the reasons why so many new residents “opted” for the suburbs in the last couple of decades, look to the drive-until-you-qualify affordability of housing built along interstates, and the mortgage assistance offered in the 90s that enabled ownership of suburban homes. Add in the City of Atlanta’s inability to encourage transit-connected, affordable housing in it’s limits — as well as the corruption of public schools driving away families — and you’ve got a perfect storm of car-centric sprawl for the metro area.]
She also looks at the lack of transit connectivity in the metro and the failed attempt to correct that situation with the recent TSPLOST vote. It’s a great article.
Incidentally, I spotted Rebecca walking down Broad Street on Tuesday after the snow had fallen and I was coming back inside with my son after playing in the snow in the park. I almost introduced myself but she was walking with a sense of purpose that made me suspicious. It wasn’t until I got inside and saw the news that I realized the horrible things that were taking place on the roads, forcing her and others to abandon their cars.
My urbanist’s prayer: please let the silver lining of this experience be a strengthened resolve to, 1.) put affordable housing near MARTA rail stations; 2.) improve city schools so they families aren’t tempted away from the city when kids reach school age; 3.) build infill housing and mixed-use developments in the suburbs that reduce the number of car commuters in our region.
In my highly-biased opinion, the source of the problem is our sprawling, car-focused environment. It will continue to cause problems for us with or without icy roads. The best thing we can do for future generations in our region is to build (and re-build) in a way that lets alternative-transportation options thrive.
Photo by Flickr user James Bursa
Atlantic Cities reports on a newly-released, large academic study on economic mobility in “The U.S. Has a Social Mobility Problem, But Not the One You Think.”
The data surprisingly contradicts other recent information that points to a general nationwide reduction in upward mobility in the US. Instead, this study reports that the country is doing well, overall, in allowing children who grow up at the bottom end of the economic ladder to move up over time.
But there’s an important caveat: there are specific US cities where upward mobility is troublingly low compared to the nation as a whole. Atlanta is one of them.
I took a look at the full text of the study (available as a PDF here) and found out the following things:
- Children who grow up in low-income families in Atlanta and Raleigh fare poorly…perhaps especially striking because these cities are generally considered to be booming cities in the South with relatively high rates of job growth.
- Atlanta one of the most segregated cities and one of the lowest-mobility cities in [the study’s] data.
- Areas with less sprawl (shorter commutes) have significantly higher rates of upward mobility
That claim that Atlanta is highly segregated along both racial and class lines is supported by recent data published elsewhere. An article from last year, by urban-issues writer Richard Florida, looked at the class divisions in Atlanta. See the chart below that divides people into three job groups, high-salary “creative” professionals, and lower-paying “service” and “working” employees, locating them geographically in the City of Atlanta:
Now take a look at the Racial Dot Map to see how racial divisions in Atlanta’s neighborhoods closely line up with class divisions.
But how does sprawl contribute? By putting workers and their families geographically far away from opportunities. (For a close look at the subject of poverty’s growth in Atlanta’s sprawling suburban fringe, where transit service is low while need is high, see last year’s Economist article “Broke in the ‘burbs.”)
Obviously, people who live near jobs centers have a commuting advantage over those who have to travel long distances across sprawling areas full of detached homes to get to work via either public transit or car.
But even if we accept that less-expensive housing will inevitably be located further from business districts (and, long term, I don’t think we have to accept that), consider this: the more land space taken up by housing, the further the distance is from the inexpensive housing on the periphery to business-district jobs.
In a metro where the outer regions are the ones least served by transit, this is a big problem.
It’s important to understand that when we talk about spacial and economic mobility problems, we’re discussing issues that affect the most vulnerable in our city the most: kids. Building a city that’s more compact and walkable, with a greater mix of uses, could help undo the damage that prevents new generations of Atlantans from excelling where there peers in other US cities can.