You rise from your slumber each morning to the melodious ping of car keys in the palm of your hand and you descend the stairs, sliding into the driver’s side of your four wheeled American Dream. Pistons and gears work in habitual harmony, burning ancient hydrocarbons and whispering sweet noxious nothings, as you endeavor on your grand odyssey to work, school, and the grocery store. Traversing suburban streets and haphazard highways, past hallowed strip malls and housing developments, you roam in your vehicle through a sprawling city where the automobile is an essential facet of modern life. This is the taxing, amorphous landscape and experience that thousands of the inhabitants of Atlanta, Georgia bear witness to each day; the same fate as countless suburban and urban populations across our nation.
Atlanta has become a victim of urban sprawl as decades of unchecked urban growth have resulted in the creation of a space where one can no longer walk to work or school, or drive a mere mile to the grocery store, and instead must rely on an automobile to function. A consequence of uncontrolled expansion of populations outwardly from city centers into rural areas, urban sprawl culminates in heavy dependence on cars, traffic congestion, and a loss of community. The aftermath of extensive land development, growth in infrastructure, and suburbanization, sprawl transforms both the physical and social environments of an area.
But despite the fact that this same cycle plagues cities throughout America, the walking city has not died and sprawled cities are not lost causes. In order to preserve efficient cities and prevent further sprawl in places such as Atlanta, we must urgently and earnestly rebuild cities for the purpose of the human being and not for the automobile. By reinventing the city landscape through sustainable infrastructure and conscious zoning laws to produce spaces that run on train tracks, sidewalks, and bus routes, rather than freeways and interstates, we can foster connectivity, promote sustainability, and create a more walkable and efficient city.
In the absence of strict zoning laws, government supervision, and environmental barriers, intense sprawl soon became an overwhelming affliction within Atlanta in the late 1980s. The proliferation of suburban communities, spatially separate from the urban center yet reliant on the resources available in the city, resulted in increased usage of cars and road development as periphery populations required access to the city centers (Sprawl Overview). Atlanta has been shaped into a city where daily life relies on the automobile, creating a precarious environmental and social climate. Atlantans commute longer than any other American population with an average of 35 miles every day to their place of work. In addition, time spent in traffic by those who commute from outer Atlanta to the city center has more than doubled in the last ten years. This exists as more than simply an annoyance to the population, as it leads to “lower quality of life” amongst commuters, while also contributing to severe local and global environmental consequences (Atlanta’s Urban Sprawl).
The environmental effects of sprawl can be witnessed in Atlanta through the presence of the “urban heat island effect” which causes the city to be as much as, “10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than outlying areas during the summer,” because, “without the cooling effects of trees, heat stored by asphalt and rooftops keeps urban areas hot for hours after sunset” (Atlanta’s Urban Sprawl). Along with increased air temperatures as a result of sprawl, there are also increased levels of air pollution in the city as a result of the frequent and abundant burning of fossil fuels and oil for automobiles, leading to acid rain, smog, and the development of respiratory issues amongst populations. High levels of nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide entering the air as a result of sprawl increase the population’s risk for asthma, emphysema, and premature death as a result of smog (Chauhan). In addition, intense levels of carbon dioxide emissions contribute to the worldwide issue of greenhouse gas buildup in the Earth’s atmosphere, in turn affecting plant growth, global temperatures, and sea levels. Atlanta particularly contributes to levels of carbon dioxide emissions as there are little to no open spaces of trees and plants in or around the city anymore to recycle carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and absorb air pollutants (Sprawl Overview).
In addition to the laundry list of negative environmental effects of unchecked urban growth in Atlanta, sprawl adversely affects the curation of sense of place and community in cities, resulting in the persistence of socially disconnected communities. The neighborhoods and communities that endure in cities such as New York and Portland have survived despite urban growth as a result of smart transportation methods through the implementation of expansive rail systems and strict zoning laws that foster community building (Alternatives to Sprawl). But some sprawling cities in America, such as Atlanta, boast lifeless spaces and disconnected communities as a result of a lack of smart public transportation methods and an absence of strict zoning laws for many years. The 1940s marked a stark change in the composition of downtown Atlanta as the construction of three major freeways fractured the core of the city and destroyed historical landmarks, businesses, and residences in its wake. After World War II, this period of demolition and development continued as community character was replaced by parking lots and garages. Throughout the 1960s this city-wide demolition continued, altering the function and form of Atlanta, fostering an environment where the car was king, allowing sprawl to flourish in the late 20th century (Jones).
Atlanta’s urban growth as a result of a population boom in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in an extensive expansion of the city’s area, but this expansion was not governed by zoning laws or hindered by natural or imposed boundaries. Instead, the city was allowed to grow furiously and rapidly into the outer periphery, producing suburban communities that live on highways and off of exits, not in spaces where social opportunities and common ground are accessible. This sprawling of Atlanta additionally resulted in further socioeconomic and racial segregation as poorer populations could not escape the hectic city for the slightly more peaceful outer suburbs and instead must settle closer to the city center where working class jobs present themselves (Jaret). The sum total of the aforementioned negative and debilitating effects of urban sprawl in Atlanta paints the unfortunate yet realistic image of a city bound to the automobile and barred from social and cultural growth and community connectivity across space.
If these patterns of urban growth, expansion, pollution, and social disconnect continue to dictate life in Atlanta, then we run the dire risk of completely losing the traditional, functional, community driven city that Atlanta once was. Furthermore, if this cycle of population growth, urban sprawl, and automobile usage continues to proliferate, then we are faced with the even more dangerous prospect of losing the American city along with any hope for the endurance of sustainable, healthy urban spaces into the future. Thus action must be taken immediately in struggling American cities such as Atlanta to reinvent the city landscape in order to create a space where community, efficiency, and opportunity can exist in a walkable spatial sphere through smart urban planning.
We see careful and informed actions being taken in cities such as Portland where pro-active measures have effectively curbed the causes and treated the symptoms of urban sprawl. Upon acknowledging the warning signs of sprawl in their city in the 1970s, just as Las Vegas and Dallas began to sprawl into kingdoms of the automobile, the population and government of Portland sought to take action immediately to preserve their city. Together, the city government and the community united to pursue a more sustainable and efficient future for the city through a strategy of strict zoning, the development of a city-wide light rail system, limiting retail and residential development, and by restricting parking spaces in order to cap automobile use downtown. In the late 1970s under a new state law, Portland essentially drew a line around the metropolitan area and decreed the space within the line the buildable city and the space outside of the line untouchable land. The goal of this controversial zoning law was to contain the city’s homes and businesses within a boundary in order to prevent the sprawling of the city outside of its means (Egan).
In the early 80s, as the newly zoned Portland was successfully drawing in businesses, jobs, and more residents, construction began for a light-rail system that would provide transport throughout the city and for commuters. For $2.50, you can ride the rail system for two hours with free transfers to buses. This service is free to public school students and offers reduced rates for seniors and children. By incentivizing the population to take the train rather than drive, automobile reliance has decreased significantly and the negative environmental effects of traffic congestion and air pollution have been curbed (Tri-Met). Through government implemented zoning, development limitations, and the introduction of an expansive rail system, Portland has successfully prevented urban sprawl by consciously shaping their city into a thriving functional space where walking is welcomed and growth is contained.
Clearly, lessons can be learned from Portland’s success where smart-growth urban planning through zoning and sustainable public transit have created an interconnected and working city. In order to save Atlanta and other sprawling American cities for future generations, city governments and populations must wake up to the effects of urban sprawl and actively pursue change and reform. If a city such as Atlanta has sprawled, we need to restructure the urban landscape to create a city that supports community and connectivity through sustainable transit and strict zoning laws in order to reinvent the American city before we lose functionality and culture. By returning to the roots of the American walking city, exhibited historically by New York City, Boston, and now Portland, we can create urban spaces where the car is no longer key to life as we reclaim the city for the people and not for the automobile.
In order to begin to grow Atlanta culturally and socially, not spatially, changes in zoning laws will be required to permit the government to regulate the development of space to no longer support unchecked outward growth. In hand with zoning changes must come the implementation of efficient and affordable public transit. Trains tracks must connect the outer suburbs to the city center, subway and bus systems must work within the city to move the population efficiently, and streets and open spaces must be reinvented to promote walking within the inner city to create a sense of community as well as a healthier population. If zoning can create boundaries outside of the city, then public transport can create social zones within the city as major transit points can become the homes of restaurants, stores, and businesses to create neighborhoods. Similar to the way that Grand Central Station fostered the creation of the 42nd Street and Park Avenue community, neighborhoods and communities can be encouraged and reformed through the building of transit stations in company with parks, small businesses, and social spaces. This will rebuild the lost sense of connectedness and unity within the city while also literally improving unity in Atlanta through public transit that legitimately connects all spheres of the city (Alternatives to Urban Sprawl).
As public transportation and neighborhoods develop, reliance on cars will decrease as the population can begin to function in the periphery and center of the city by solely relying on trains, buses, and rail systems that run on electricity and sustainable fuels rather than oil. Furthermore, as the car becomes less integral to the function of the city, the city of Atlanta can be reclaimed for the purpose of the individual as it becomes easier and safer to walk to work or to run errands and as neighborhoods become spaces where walking and social interaction amongst community populations is fostered. Urban sprawl and all of its negative baggage that exists in the modern day will continue to spread and affect more places across the globe if action is not taken in the present to prevent future damage. Through the implementation of sustainable and thorough public transit, mindful zoning, and the curation of walkable communities within cities, the fate of Atlanta and cities across the world can be saved through the creation of cities for the individual, not the automobile.
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“Alternatives to Urban Sprawl.” Museumofthecity.org. Portland State University, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
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Egan, Timothy. “Drawing a Hard Line Against Urban Sprawl.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Dec. 1996. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
“History.” Atlantaga.gov. City of Atlanta, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
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Jones, Tommy. “Growth and Preservation: Atlanta.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
“Sprawl Overview – Sierra Club.” Sierra Club. The Sierra Club, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.