Atlanta’s sprawl isn’t just ‘the market meeting demand’ — it’s a problem to take seriously

Graphic of neighborhood design from the 1952 Atlanta regional plan titled “Up Ahead”

Atlanta’s suburban sprawl was intentionally designed, and it was legally enforced by zoning. This is the reality of the past that has to shape a better direction for the future.

A 1952 Atlanta regional plan titled “Up Ahead” supported the development of a low-density, car-oriented region. The image here comes from that plan. It shows a neighborhood design that keeps uses detached (single-family homes all in one place, commercial properties located elsewhere).

The “Up Ahead” plan helped inform the growth of the Atlanta region, while zoning laws prevented any other type of format, prohibiting mixed-use buildings, quadruplexes, or even small stores from invading the sanctuary of residential districts.

Racism helped inform who was able to live in the new suburbia thanks to legal forms of mortgage discrimination that made it easier for whites to purchase new homes.

And to top it off, interstate highways became the arterial roads that connected these sprawling places to jobs. The whole multi-pronged set of urban design practices from the 20th century constituted basically a war on inclusiveness, a war on transit, and a war on urban density in itself.

The idea that this kind of urban environment is just “the market filling demand” is false. Everything about it was calculated for exclusion and self-preservation, ensuring that no pedestrians or poor people (who couldn’t afford cars) or transit lines (which couldn’t serve this urban fabric efficiently anyway) or urban density could invade the realm — at least not until the homes became devalued after a few decades.

Suburban sprawl of the 20th century undid centuries worth of practices for building walkable urban environments, and it ended up dominating the bulk of our urbanized spaces with a car-dependent form that will linger for many more generations. (Also: see Strong Towns’ excellent post on Atlanta’s “suburban experiment” for a break down of the economic problems of this design.)

Going Forward: understand the problem & the seriousness of solutions

Being intentional about putting all of our new growth in a better design is a cause that we all have to embrace, as a response to sprawl. The remedy has to be just as calculated and multifaceted as the sickness was — probably even more so, given that Atlanta’s level of sprawl above and beyond that of most urban regions.

As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times:

Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

And according to Chris Leinberger, Research Professor at George Washington University School of Business:

Atlanta was the poster child for sprawl…The metro area grew from 50 miles north to south in 1970 to over 120 miles today, sprawling farther and faster than any city in human history.

Please don’t dismiss these concerns by saying: “oh, every region has suburban sprawl — Atlanta isn’t special.” Atlanta is quite special, demonstrably so. This Curbed post does a great job of collecting some of the data that shows how the region has captured the trophy in urban sprawl compared to other U.S. metros.

I’m not pointing these things out to depress everyone. The intention here is to get people on the same page as the facts so that we can understand the situation. Good urbanism matters more in Atlanta, arguably, than it does in any other region in the U.S. Every effort towards walkable, transit-oriented development matters. Every effort to retrofit car-oriented places for added density and pedestrian/cycling infrastructure matters. Let’s take it seriously.