Atlanta may have its origins as a railroad terminus, but its explosion from a small town struggling to rebuild after the Civil War to one of the largest metro areas in the United States is owed not to the train but to the car. In November 1909, the upstart Southern city hosted the first car show staged outside of New York and Chicago. During Automobile Week, manufacturing executives touted their products in a city that, nearly a half-century after being destroyed by General Sherman, boasted only 63 miles of paved roads (compared to 495 in Boston and 200 in New Orleans at the time). But on Nov. 12, 1909, two-thirds of businesses closed and Atlantans turned out en masse at the speedway, beginning Atlanta’s love affair with the car.
Over the following century, the city grew exponentially, expanding from its original compact footprint linked by rail lines and streetcars. With no natural boundaries, metro Atlanta sprawled, fueled by a population that doubled from 2 million in 1980 to 4 million in 2000, and has continued to surge in this millennium. With 28 counties spread over 8,400 square miles, today’s Atlanta metro region occupies a larger land mass than the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
But this explosion comes with a flipside: sprawl and congestion over a fractured region has resulted in dozens of separate municipalities. This means more than just sitting in traffic: Metro Atlanta has one of the lowest rates of social mobility, meaning that it’s harder for low-income residents to get ahead here than almost anywhere else in the country. According to a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution, only 18 percent of jobs in metro Atlanta are accessible by transit. Frustrated with sitting in traffic, development patterns driven by subdivisions, and a car-centric culture, a growing number of metro Atlantans are going back to the future by seeking out the compact development patterns of the city’s early history.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the Atlanta BeltLine, the largest urban redevelopment project in the country, which aims to transform a 22-mile long ring of abandoned and underused rail lines into a network of paths and light-rail lines connecting 45 neighborhoods. It’s an ambitious project that won’t be completed until 2030 at the earliest, but there is cause for optimism: The Eastside Trail, the first two-mile stretch of the BeltLine, completed in late 2012, already has fueled $775 million in private investment, with condos, apartments, restaurants, and retail sprouting along the corridor. Work underway on a corresponding trail on the city’s west side has fueled resurgence in some long depressed areas. The Atlanta Streetcar began operation in December 2014 and is credited as one reason for the growth in millennial residents in the city proper.
But not all interest in walkable new urbanism is happening in areas traditionally labeled urban. One of the most interesting recent projects in the region is Avalon, a mixed-used development in a suburb 27 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Projects such as this have earned Atlanta a spot as one of the top centers for walkable development in a 2014 survey by LOCUS, an affiliate of Smart Growth America.
None of this means that Atlanta’s obsession with the automobile is going away any time soon; after all, this is the region that just lured the U.S. headquarters of both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. But it heralds a slowly changing shift in mindset, a focus on getting around faster and easier, rather than moving further out. This offers opportunities for creative architecture, design, and planning.
Asa Griggs Candler, the Coca-Cola president later elected Atlanta’s mayor in 1916, welcomed attendees to that 1909 automobile convention with words that still resonate as the city rethinks its attitude toward sprawl. “Distance divides,” he said, “and that which sets distance aside begets acquaintance, which in the end ripens into friendship.”
The 2015 AIA National Convention takes place in Atlanta, May 14–16. Learn more at www.convention.aia.org.