Islands of density amid a sea of growing sprawl: we can do better
There are pro-development folks in Atlanta who want new density added only to former industrial sites and high-traffic roads while leaving sprawling footprints of detached homes untouched.
I am not one of them.
This region is largely composed of a growing sea of car-dependent sprawl that continually destroys our precious remaining forests (above: sprawl in Covington, GA). Adding barely-connected islands of density amid this sea isn’t good enough for sustainability in 2022.
Thirty years ago, yes, that style of development could be seen as moving the needle in the right direction. But not anymore. Our tendency to only allow compact growth in formerly industrial properties and on major roads is something that needs to be addressed.
Our expectations should be higher at this point, with bolder moves that support more aggressive goals for sustainability amid a climate crisis. We have to stop all sprawl, save all the forests we have left, and open up all urbanized places for at least the more gentle forms of walkable density (duplexes, small apartments, ADUs, with stores mixed in).
It’s a very difficult thing to accomplish in a region that has no natural geographic boundaries for expansion, but that hurdle also sets us up for a particularly powerful ‘win’ that we could all take pride in: Atlanta can be the metro that stopped sprawl against the odds.
Also, we have to stop confining density to major roads that are engineered specifically for heavy car flow (above: Atlanta Road in Smyrna, GA). This creates islands of compact, mixed-use places that are relatively OK to walk around inside once you’ve driven there, but treacherous to get to and from on bike or on foot, including being ‘on foot’ from bus stops.
Car-sewer roads are bad neighbors, and they are too often the default for new density since they’re often the only places where local zoning allows growth. That needs to end.
We use zoning laws to offer sprawling detached homes the privilege of quiet, small streets, while forcing residents and employs of more-dense places to deal with dangerous roads. It’s a pattern that can result in lower-income people, who can afford apartment rent but not the downpayment on a house, being overly burdened with the threat of car violence. It’s an inequitable situation.
This style of density also results in artificially inflating the so-called ‘demand’ for parking, creating what I call a drive-to urbanism, ensuring a continuance of car dependency.
Improving our urban development patterns is important for our climate and equity goals, and for protecting unbuilt forests. We can’t truly succeed at reaching those goals if we use zoning laws to protect the bulk of our urbanized space (meaning detached-home-only districts) from any level of densification, while forcing compact construction onto car sewers that are hostile to transportation alternatives. That’s shooting ourselves in the foot.
We have to legalize development that retrofits sensitive, gentle levels of density and mixed uses into those detached-home zones. Duplexes, corner stores with a home on top — all the things that we built for centuries before the car era warped our growth patterns.
Yes, it will require more than just the revision of zoning laws to get to the place where we need to be for better growth patterns. Better zoning in itself, for instance, won’t address the most dire needs for housing security, affordability, and prevention of displacement. There are other tools that will need to be in the mix.
But zoning is a major component, and revising it can help us get back on track with traditionally human-scaled development, and help us create a new pattern that’s even better than the one we broke away from, and evolve into a future form of walkable urbanism that suits our emerging needs.