Urban Realities: Some Controversial Aspects of the Atlanta Region's Future

By Downs, Anthony | Brookings Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Urban Realities: Some Controversial Aspects of the Atlanta Region's Future


Downs, Anthony, Brookings Review


When the Atlanta District Council of the Urban Land Institute invited me to offer my views about the future of the Atlanta region, I decided to adopt an unorthodox approach. The Council undoubtedly expected me, as a real estate economist, to address traditional land-use planning and real estate issues. But instead I seized this opportunity to examine what I believe are far more important challenges facing all large U.S. metropolitan areas. This approach is especially appropriate in the Atlanta region, which enjoys unusually favorable conditions compared with most other U.S. metropolitan areas. It has higher incomes, a more attractive physical environment and climate, a better transportation network, more harmonious race relations, and prospects for much faster growth. If any big U.S. metropolitan area can surmount the key problems facing all of them--crime, children being raised in poverty, low-quality public education, lack of regional governance, and huge income disparities between different groups of citizens--Atlanta should be the place. Conversely, if Atlanta can't grapple successfully with its challenges, what U.S. region can?

The Dominant Vision of Future Growth

Like most other American regions, Atlanta has gotten where it is mainly by carrying out certain growth-related policies that have dominated development throughout the nation for the past 40 years. Continuing this nationally prevailing vision--I call it the unlimited low-density vision--of how growth ought to occur seems likely to be the Atlanta region's strategy for the next 20 years as well. This pattern of metropolitan growth is based on pursuit of five key goals or elements. One is widespread ownership of single-family housing extending indefinitely outward from the urban center. Another is almost universal use of private automobiles for movement. Workplaces too are widely scattered and low-density, and all have adjacent free parking. Low-income households are sheltered through the "trickle down" process in which they occupy units originally built for more affluent households. This tends to concentrate the poor in older neighborhoods near each region's center. Supporting the first four elements is a governmental structure that consists of many small and nearly autonomous local governments.

Problems Attendant on Success

Most Atlantans, like most Americans, have benefited from successfully achieving all five goals. Those who haven't--most of the region's poor--are systematically excluded from nonpoor neighborhoods and concentrated in deteriorating inner city areas. And all Atlantans face certain directly growth-related problems unexpectedly generated by their success at attaining those five goals. The problems are traffic congestion, difficulties in financing roads and sewage systems, shortages of affordable housing in growth areas, air pollution, difficulty locating airports and landfills, and shortages of recreational space.

Unlimited low-density metropolitan growth takes place through an uncoordinated, seemingly almost random set of local public policies and individual private actions carried out by separate governments and private parties. This process of "disjointed incrementalism" is cherished by many Americans, who reject the ideas of coordination and planning as almost forms of socialism. But none of the growth-related problems every region is now encountering can be solved by fragmented local governments, each acting to maximize the interests of its own citizens without regard for the rest of the region. All the problems are essentially areawide in nature, so coping with them will require much greater planning and coordination among the region's many governmental bodies. Failure to develop adequate mechanisms for regionwide decisionmaking is the first fundamental flaw in continuing the presently dominant vision of how growth should happen.

The second flaw is that Atlanta's growth strategy focuses far too much on physical and economic activities and far too little on critical social issues. …

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