Atlanta: Urban Sprawl

Residents don't mind all the driving, but area leaders want to minimize its environmental impact.

When many people think of Atlanta, they envision super-long commutes, heavy traffic and miles of urban sprawl — the one weak point for a strong city that’s experienced tremendous economic and population growth over the last two decades.

While the growth has been most remarkable in recent years, Atlanta has always positioned itself as a major gateway to the South; hence, becoming a boom town was inevitable. City leaders lobbied for Atlanta’s urban infrastructure, and it was established as a major hub located at the convergence of three major interstates: I-20, I-75 and I-85. It is also home to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, widely recognized as the world’s busiest.

The difference between Atlanta and other major cities (especially those that don’t suffer as much from urban sprawl) lies in its geography. Atlanta doesn’t have rigid geographic boundaries — steep mountains, wide rivers or a coastline — to keep residents limited to a small segment of land. As a result, when the demand for real estate sharply increased, developers simply expanded outward. They built new homes and businesses in nearby communities that were eager to attract residents, making Atlanta a very spread-out metropolitan area.

Around the Corner?

Dawn Bynoe has lived inside Atlanta’s city limits for 10 years, but she says she doesn’t mind hopping in the car to drive long distances around town. “When we picked our home, we didn’t have a specific preference as to whether it should be in the city or further out. We simply found a house in a subdivision that we loved,” she says. “We have friends who live farther out, so we’re going to be driving anyway.”

But Atlantans may have a different mindset compared to residents from other metropolitan areas, Bynoe admits. “My mother came to visit from New York, and one time when I was driving her around, she looked at me and said, ‘What is it with you people in Atlanta? Everything is far away, but you say it’s just around the corner!’ I hadn’t thought of it before,” recalls Bynoe, laughing. “Everything really does seem like it’s just around the corner to me, but I guess I’m just used to the drive.”

Staying Within the Lines

Though Bynoe doesn’t mind commuting, there are many residents who remain fiercely ITP (inside the Perimeter, or beltway), so they can avoid traffic as much as possible. Will Martin used to be one of them, when he lived in the trendy Buckhead community.

“I’ve always described Atlanta to others as a long city,” says Martin, a Chicago native who has lived in Atlanta for a decade. Though he enjoyed being near jobs and shopping, he and his family recently became OTP (outside the Perimeter) residents, relocating to the northwestern suburb of Marietta to be closer to extended family and friends. “The geographic landscape in Atlanta helps create a small-town feeling among residents,” he says.

Martin commutes to an office in Decatur, east of Atlanta, but says that the long drive is not an aggravation. “It takes me about an hour to get to work each day, but I’m used to it,” he says. “The key for me is to drive during off-peak hours like 10 a.m. or 7 p.m. If I can do that, I enjoy my drive.”

Keeping Up With Growth

But while many residents like Will Martin have become used to their commutes, the city's natural resources are not used to them. The traffic and population growth have taken a significant toll on Atlanta’s air quality and water supply. There are near-daily smog alerts during the humid summer months. And Lake Lanier, which provides water to most of the area, is at near-historic lows. Many municipalities have enacted stern water restrictions.

Many question whether or not the local government adequately prepared for the region’s explosive boom. Today, city leaders are looking for ways to implement smart growth, including the creation of more mixed-use developments, incentives to reduce smog-inducing traffic and water conservation.

The geographic sprawl has helped in one aspect: the housing market. Because there weren’t major land restrictions in building space, homeowners could always choose to buy a little farther out if home prices in their target communities rose too quickly. The market stayed competitive, and Atlanta didn’t experience a dramatic real estate bubble with hyper-escalating home prices. As a result, there wasn’t much of a bust here when housing markets collapsed across the country. Instead, many of Atlanta’s homes have maintained their value or experienced only slight price decreases.

By virtue of living in or near Atlanta, every resident, native or transplant, contributes to its reputation as a boom town. If neighbors participate in smart planning for the future, the entire metropolitan area can continue to welcome newcomers with numerous jobs, good infrastructure and excellent housing.

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