Monday, November 10, 2008

The End of Sprawl?

Atlanta has a sprawl problem. People just seem to love to move farther and farther away from the city. In fact, sprawl is so bad that Atlanta is renowned as having some of the worst highway traffic in the nation. (Father away=more driving).

However, according to author Christopher B. Leinberger, Atlanta is seeing a change in the suburban sprawl. He believes that walkable communities will continue to spring up and inevitably bring people back to the city.

We are witnessing the beginning of the end of sprawl. Like much of the rest of the country, the overproduction of automobile-driven suburban development at the fringe of the Atlanta metropolitan area has reached its limits. The combination of outrageous commutes, environmental degradation and the increasing number of consumers preferring a “walkable urban” way of life have combined to start the end of the geometric increase in land consumption of the past half century.

The subprime crisis and the energy price spike of the past 18 months have just accelerated an underlying market trend.

Evidence of this structural change comes from many sources:

> The city of Atlanta had been losing population since 1960 in spite of rapid metropolitan growth. That changed in the 1990s and has phenomenally accelerated this decade. The city is now among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.

> The city of Atlanta’s share of office market demand had been falling for at least a half century; it stabilized a couple of years ago. If you follow trends from other metro areas that are ahead of Atlanta, the office market share and the employment that comes with it should start gaining on the suburbs during the next upturn.

> While the national housing depression has not affected metro Atlanta quite as badly as many other regions, it has followed national trends in one important respect: Homes in the center of the region and close to job centers have not suffered much, if any, price declines. Prices on the fringe are down twice the regional average, losing on average at least 14 percent of value. The highest-price housing on a per-square-foot basis is now in the city and close-in suburban job centers, a fundamental change from 20 years ago.

Metro Atlanta is following a national trend in creating and growing high-density, walkable urban places. The two-week party that was the Olympics in 1996 first showed you how exciting a temporary walkable urban place could be, and you set out to make it permanent over the subsequent decade.

But it definitely is not confined to downtown.

Midtown, Atlantic Station, Virginia-Highland, Buckhead, Vinings and Decatur have also emerged as walkable urban places. There will be many more.

The metro area that has the most walkable urban places, per capita, is the region surrounding Washington. It has 20 such urban communities today and 10 more are emerging; 20 years ago there were just two. Given that metro Atlanta has exactly the same population as metro Washington, if you follow the Washington model, you will be growing 15 to 25 more walkable urban places in the next decade. This represents tens of billions of dollars in investment over the next decade and will be home to thousands of jobs and housing.

Props to the shout out to my hometown, Washington D.C.! I can say that Washington D.C. is entirely walkable, and most my friends who live in the city live car-free. While I grew up just outside of the city and had a car, if I ever moved back I'd most likely forgo owning a car. It's just not worth the hassle considering the efficiency of The Metro.

I hope he's right for Atlanta. I've been three times, and I was never in love with it--too spread out, inefficient transit, terrible traffic congestion and the downtown area was lacking. However, if in the next 10-20 years it becomes anything like Washington, it'd be a city that I'd easily fall in love with.