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The birth and future of sprawl

A different look at how metro Atlanta became the land of subdivisions - and where it's going



To every beginning there is an end. And recently, we were informed that sprawl in metro Atlanta is potentially on the wane.

According to a report by Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, a growing (and surprising) amount of the region's new residential and commercial development is taking place in walkable urban areas. (Think Midtown, Decatur, and other places where you don't necessarily need a car to get around.) The study offers important evidence of changing real estate investment patterns in metro Atlanta and suggests that the real estate market has shifted to meet an increasing demand for denser development.

Most surprisingly, it also suggests that Atlanta, "the poster child of sprawl, is now experiencing the end of sprawl."

For people who are even vaguely familiar with Atlanta's growth politics this is a bold statement. No doubt changes to Atlanta's real estate industry, and the impact of the 2009 recession particularly, played a role in the dramatic slowdown in metro Atlanta's pace of development and the increasing amount of development within walkable places. But it's also likely that the sprawl machine had begun to shift gears much earlier, before the recession.

One of the pervasive myths about metro Atlanta is that the region's massive sprawl was the product of a freewheeling development culture, one in which the regional political leadership was weak and uncoordinated and often in open conflict. With the regulatory state confused, the free market stepped in to the void and developed what the region's residents and businesses desired. The region's sprawl grew out of this combination of lax government oversight and agile local real estate market.

Though this is a compelling story, an equally strong argument can be made that Atlanta's sprawl was actually planned in a far more coordinated way than most people realize. This has to do with the influence of Atlanta's 40-year-old public regional planning agency, the Atlanta Regional Commission. By virtue of its long-term stability, a result of strong and consistent support from the state and the federal government, ARC quietly took control of the regional development process.

Beginning in the early 1970s, ARC started an ongoing planning program to reimagine metro Atlanta's urban form. Over the years, and through a series of extensive plans, this process outlined and advocated a low-density metropolis, and identified the policies and infrastructure investments necessary to realize that vision.

Several factors came together to make such long-range planning possible. The growth of Atlanta and its suburbs recentered the state's politics. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement brought new electoral power to the region's growing African-American population. Changes in federal transportation policy put new emphasis on coordinating decision making among neighboring jurisdictions.

In this alternate version of Atlanta's development story, sprawl is the outcome of a publicly visible but largely overlooked planning process. Aided by the consistency of ARC's regional plans, and the infrastructure systems they produced, the private real estate market started filling the region with single-family houses, strip malls, and office parks. This model of planning and development, in which ARC played the central role in the regional development process, held for more than two decades.

In other words, the public sector led the charge toward sprawl, and the real estate industry followed along. This can be difficult to see, especially up close. Working as a planner in Atlanta in the early 2000s, I had a hard time recognizing the role of the public sector. Development in the region seemed chaotic and unplanned.

The mid-1990s turned out to be a watershed. Several of the region's most powerful and long-serving politicians retired, declined to seek re-election, or were defeated. The tenor of Atlanta's regional politics changed. ARC's leadership turned over and the comfortable relationship that had grown up between the region's key political decision makers ended.

Perhaps the most visible result of this turnover was the transportation crisis in the late 1990s, punctuated by the battle of the Northern Arc. A chastening moment for virtually everyone involved with urban development and planning in Atlanta, the fight over the massive suburban freeway played a significant role in the end of Roy Barnes' political career. It was arguably the transportation crisis that finally tweaked Atlanta's approach toward regional planning.

ARC has made efforts to retrofit some of these areas and repair the damage caused by sprawl, including the 1999 program known as the Livable Centers Initiative, or LCI. Rather than trying to control the outward spread of the urban fringe, the program put significant money into planning around existing or emerging regional centers. The idea: promote density in places where it already had a foothold. The program seems to have worked. But more interesting is the fact that LCI emerged out of the transportation crisis. Thus well more than a decade before the recession, a change in regional planning was underway that appears to have had as much to do with slowing the sprawl machine as the market.

The history of Atlanta's sprawl suggests that public regional planning has been leading the way — first down the path to sprawl and now on the way back to a more walkable future. In spite of the failure of last year's transportation sales tax and the recent proposal for a second commercial airport in Paulding County, the region's political leaders and planners seem to understand the game has changed. The changing focus of the regional planning process and the recognition of the importance of walkability indicates that the region's future will likely be markedly different than the past.

The timing is right to ask — and ponder — several questions. Have the wheels of the sprawl machine fallen off? Are public agencies and boosters of business district officials, where much of the development will happen, doing what's needed to help fix the region? And, finally, what does the end of sprawl look like?

Like the end of most things, we won't be able see the exact moment when sprawl stopped until well after the fact. And we won't really know what this future looks like until it's become part of the past. But according to the report, metro Atlanta's attitudes about sprawl may finally have crossed a threshold.

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