Hot 'Lanta's Urban Expansion and Cultural Landscape Change [*]

By Stewart, Dona J. | The Geographical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Hot 'Lanta's Urban Expansion and Cultural Landscape Change [*]

Stewart, Dona J., The Geographical Review

Without doubt, Atlanta, Georgia, is hot--and not just in ambient temperature. Employment growth and urban sprawl are the most obvious impacts of the city's post--Civil War, Olympics-led, premillennial ascension. However, more subtle forces are redefining cultural landscapes in the South's most striving and visible wanna-be world city. Over the course of its life Atlanta has been through changes worthy of any metropolis, from piedmont town to Confederate city, to jolting fame in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, to a more recent but no less tumultuous image as a pivot of civil rights activism with a 1990s economic boom. All this and more faced me, an assistant professor raised in the northeastern United States and schooled in Florida, when I moved two years ago to the touted throbbing heart of the New South. For me, field research had been within the polyglot culture of Egypt; what greeted me in Atlanta was something else again.

In Atlanta's inner suburbs, the family home may be referred to as casa, nya, khana, gajung, bayt, [1] or, to the escalating dismay of the remaining Anglos, any one of a dozen other non-English words. Closer to the city center, early-twentieth-century neighborhoods, forsaken by Anglos after World War II, are being transformed by a new generation of urban pioneers. In the process of adapting the landscape to meet changing needs and preferences, the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of these core-city neighborhoods is actually decreasing. In both cases, the processes reorganizing the landscapes are ongoing, and the landscapes themselves are in transition, with elements of old and new sometimes juxtaposed in a most curious manner.


Rapid population growth in Atlanta over the past few decades initiated this cycle of landscape change. In the 1990-1999 period alone, the Atlanta Metropolitan Region grew by nearly 647,100 new residents, an annual rate of population increase of 2.5 percent (Atlanta Regional Commission 1999b). Employment opportunities are fueling the growth, as such firms as United Parcel Service, Holiday Inn, and Eastman Kodak relocate their headquarters or regional offices to Atlanta and as hometown companies, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, and Turner Corporation, expand. The Atlanta Metropolitan Region gained 348,000 jobs, an increase of 24.4 percent, during the 1990-1997 period (Atlanta Regional Commission 1999a).

As is often the case with fame and fortune, Atlanta pays a heavy price for popularity. Most of the metropolitan area's new residents have settled in the city's ever-expanding zone of suburbs that cover the twenty-county metropolitan statistical area (Figure 1). Extensive residential expansion, well outside the Interstate 285 circumferential highway and focused on the northern-tier counties, has left Atlanta with the longest average commute, at 34.7 miles a day, of any city in the world. Commutes of more than 120 miles a day are common (Wichman 1998). The expansion of this outer suburban zone triggered a spatial reorganization of population and a subsequent transformation of key cultural landscapes.

Atlanta's wide suburban zone must be differentiated into inner suburbs, created in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970S, spurred by construction of the Interstate 285 belt highway, and the more recent outer suburbs that cluster along the major arterial highways. These outer suburbs are growing rapidly to accommodate not only the bulk of in-migrants but also people moving out from the inner suburbs in search of newer, larger, and more amenity-laden housing. Gwinnett County is one of metropolitan Atlanta's fastest-growing counties; but the spatial distribution of that growth is uneven, illustrating the dominance of growth on the outer edges of the metropolitan area. The eastern (outer) edge of Gwinnett County, for example, is expected to experience a population increase of more than 300 percent between 1999 and 2020, whereas the inner portions have a projected growth of 100 percent or less (Ippolito and Shelton 1998). …

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