“The Poster Child of Sprawl”

In Sina's Posts, Transportation on October 8, 2011 by SN

Each city has its very own spatial challenges. Chemnitz fights against demographic change. The Ruhr Area faces the Strukturwandel (structural change). New York City’s main challenge is gentrification. Atlanta’s urban fate is Sprawl. The Environmental Justice Resource Center defines Sprawl as “random unplanned growth characterized by inadequate accessibility to essential land uses such as housing, jobs, and public services like schools, hospitals, and mass transit.”  The other day I eagerly discussed this issue with a colleague who is teaching an excellent course on Urban Ecology.

Atlanta’s Sprawl is a quite recent phenomenon. For most of the 19th century, the city was dominated by agriculture. Only in the 20th century, industrialization substantially transformed the landscape as the city’s expansion coincided with the victory of post-WWII car culture. New suburban neighborhoods were created far out, because now it was possible to drive downtown to work.

In the late 1940s, authorities also decided for Atlanta to be located on three major interstates. Since then, the interstates I-20, I-75, and I-85 all have met here. As a result, national traffic from the Great Lakes to Florida and from Texas to the Atlantic coast had to go through the city and established it as a major car transportation hub in the South.

Atlanta Land Use 1973-1997. Source: NASA

[For a larger video version, please visit the NASA website directly.]

As a decisive spatial issue, Sprawl has deeply influenced the local culture, the people’s way of thinking, and their lifestyles:

  • The people depend on gas prices. Currently the gas price varies between $ 3.80 (around Labor Day) and $ 3.34 (fuel a few days ago at Gulf in Decatur) per gallon.
  • Each day, rush hour traffic literally clogs the concrete arteries of the city. The traffic updates on morning TV are as pivotal as world news in Germany. You can imagine that car accidents happen frequently and cause major delays.
  • Driving as the main mode of mobility is deeply ingrained in the local culture. Oglethorpe University students even drive from their student dormitories to the faculty buildings – a distance of ca. 500 m!!!
  • The air quality is notoriously bad despite its increase over the past 30 years from the category “hazardous” to “moderate”.
  • People spend almost a life-time in their cars. The average commute time varies, but people commute up to 1,5 hours one way each day!  The professor, for instance, lives 18 miles away which is “only” about a 35-45 minute drive without traffic jams. As I showed previously, my commute takes about one hour each day. Btw, when I told my colleague that I take public transportation to university, he said smilingly “Oh, this is VERY European.”
  • Neighborhoods close to MARTA, such as Inman Park, Brookhaven, or Virginia Highlands, are ridiculously expensive. People with lower income are literally forced to live in the suburbs. The professor regularly conducts an experiment with his students in the Urban Ecology program. He gives his students fictional data (income, family size, mortgage, etc.) and asks them to find a place to live in Atlanta. The students almost always end up in the sprawling areas, because that is the only place they can afford.
  • And finally, what happens to people who are not able to drive anymore, because of their age or bodily dysfunctions?

There are increasingly efforts to end Sprawl. One strategy is building houses that unite all social functions in one place. Near Atlantic Station new loft-style buildings are being built where people have everything nearby: apartments upstairs, businesses downstairs, and groceries in walking distance.

The 2008 financial crisis also temporarily stopped Sprawl. You can see those suburban ruins very nicely from the plane: Razed forest that indicates future usage and new roads leading nowhere.

I think Sprawl will continue to be Atlanta’s most pressing issue. It all depends on how city officials, urban planners, and the public will manage to change the culture of mobility in the future.


One Response to ““The Poster Child of Sprawl””

  1. […] order to safely navigate us by bus to the cemetery which is about 20 minutes outside of downtown. Again, we are so European. Here are two quotes from the Bonaventure Tours Facebook page, on the day after […]

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