Atlanta’s Growing; It Should Become More of a ‘City’ in the Process

Posted on September 6, 2016 by Darin Givens [ATL Urbanist]

The City of Atlanta and its overall region will grow in population, no matter what we do in terms of urbanism. Our task is to make decisions now about what kind of city we’ll live in as that inevitable growth happens — plan it now and build it now. 


According to forecasts from the Atlanta Regional Commission, the entire 20-county Atlanta region is predicted to grow by 2.5 million people in the next 20-30 years. Here’s what those counties look like on a map.

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The size of the City of Atlanta compared to the entire 20-county Atlanta region. IMage

As you can see, the region takes up a good chunk of northern Georgia — that’s a result of the massive sprawl that defined the growth of our urbanized area during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Last week, Ryan Gravel (Atlanta BeltLine mastermind) and city planning chief Tim Keane hosted an event at the Central Library presented by Atlanta City Studio about the need to capture as much of that growth as we can intown, and to get a design plan together for the built environment so that those added people can benefit the city.

The guest speaker, Dr. Arthur C. Nelson (University of Arizona planning professor) presented a study of his that shows the City of Atlanta could become home to at least 1.3 million people in the next 20-30 years, more that doubling its current population of 448,000.

RECENT PAST: BOOMING ‘BURBS FOR THE  REGION, LITTLE GROWTH INTOWN

Why is it good for the population to rise? There are many benefits. We’ll end up economically capturing more value of disused properties like abandoned buildings and parking lots — and we can turn blighted spaces into performing spaces that bring value beyond tax returns to neighborhoods, reversing the harm of blight.

We’ll also have the ability of the urban infill to patch together disconnected neighborhoods, enabling great walkability and transit ridership. Homes and destination are broken apart by too much empty space and that’s hard to serve well with bus lines and trains.

It’s also important to note that the regional boom has outpaced city growth by a large degree. We should strike a better balance and prevent the center city from continuing to limp behind its surrounding counties and cities.

atlanta-population-1990s
The incredible growth of the 1990s happened on the outer edges of the region, while many spots in the City of Atlanta actually lost population.

While the sprawling growth was huge in the outer edges of the region in the past couple of decades, the center city only saw minor population bump during this period. The mini-boom of 8,000 people in the city from 2015-16 was the only significant rise we’ve seen. Why did the city wait so long to turn that imbalance around? It’s time to catch up and we can only do so by providing more homes, and building them in a from that’s right for a city.

THE 1.3 MILLION NUMBER: THERE’S REAL DEMAND BEHIND IT

Dr. Nelson’s presentation had a lot of data to supported his prediction of 1.3 million people in the city. It seemed like a college lecture at times, with numbers on slideshow screens.

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Dr. Nelson’s slide about Floor Area Ratios (FAR) in Atlanta. Looks wonky, but there’s an important story about our disused land space in the city behind those numbers.

Some of the most interesting data presented dealt with the demand for living in “city”  environments that are walkable. It reflects the data that’s come out in various media over the past several years that shows a large percentage of Americans want to live in a downtown-type place, and even in the Atlanta region a survey of 400 residents living in Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties showed that a whopping 26 percent them would consider moving downtown.

With demand already here, the issue is going to be in housing them.

WHAT WE NEED FOR HOUSING: AVAILABILITY & AFFORDABILITY

We have to make sure that housing is available for the people who want to live in the city. If we don’t build enough new residences, that demand for intown housing will outpace supply. When that happens, the prices for buying and renting homes will continue to rise in the city, which will not only leave us without needed growth — it’ll create a city that excludes people of lower incomes.

In addition to availability of housing at diverse prices, it’s also important for the city to have a diversity of structural forms for homes. Those new residences can take a varied for that appeals to a wide range of people in various stages of life and with differing household sizes. Townhomes, duplexes, low-rise apartments, high rises — all of those urban forms of housing can be in the mix so that we can have a city that’s inclusive.

PLANNING NOW, BUILDING NOW & SELLING PEOPLE ON THE IDEA

Missing from the City Studio presentation was information on what that change will look like on the ground and not just on a spreadsheet.

What does more-than-doubling the number of Atlantans do for our everyday lives? What does that good version of growth at that level look like from a sidewalk view and from a neighborhood view? What does the bad version look like so that we can avoid it?

There will be another event at the library on October 4th, so maybe we’ll get some specifics then. As for now, we can use our imaginations to fill in the blanks from that big picture. Here’s one of those “big pictures” to get you started with thinking about what a whole region of 8 million people can look like and what kind of space that can take up.

I’ve taken an at-scale image of  Greater London’s footprint and put it over the Atlanta regional footprint that’s at the top of this page. This is where 8.4 million people live in London and its outer region – a population count that’s a little more than the projection for the Atlanta Region in 2040. :

greater-london
The amount of space that Greater London uses to house 8.4 million people. The idea that the City of Atlanta is “already full” is wrong. The city shouldn’t maintain under-used space because people are afraid traffic will get worse if spaces are developed. Fill them with growth that better-enables transit use.

Can the design of the City of Atlanta’s built environment and its transportation options become a little more London-esque in time to capture a significant portion of the growing population of the region at large? Doing so will mean taking bold steps to use our space in a more urban way.

Are city leaders ready to move from talking in general terms (“I support transit!” “I support walkable places!” “Let’s reduce blight!”) and get to the specifics of making the city a better place at the development level? This is an important issue for the future: the City of Atlanta needs leaders who can *implement* these ideas by being able to say “NO!” to bad developments that push us in the wrong direction with our urbanism.

Is this an issue voters can get interested in? The library auditorium was completely packed for this presentation. We’ve got a lot of people here who want to see Atlanta grow and grow well. We’ve got planners and some developers who are on board as well. Will they all have the support they need from the mayor’s office and from city council? Will leaders have the guts to demand good urbanism at every step of the way? That’s a question we need to keep asking.

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The packed auditorium for the event at Central Library in Downtown Atlanta