An Introduction to The Suburban City

The modern American city is amazing and enormous, like no other form of civilization in human history. They are feats of engineering and culture combined, they have become manifestations of not just our needs, but our desires. Their skylines reach for the stars and stretch across the horizon, their streets are arteries, supporting millions of people every day. They are on such a scale to make cities from yesteryear pale in comparison; 81 percent of Americans, nearly 260 million people, now live in cities or suburbs and that number is only rising. Between the fringes of suburbia and urban cores, cities are becoming something totally new: welcome to The Suburban City.

A suburban city is a metropolitan area in which the suburbs of a central city overwhelm the core of the metro area, not only in number of people, but in actually competing with the central city in terms of commerce, governance, and cultural significance. These aren’t cities like New York or Chicago, or other large cities with dense central populations and immaculate skylines. In the suburban city, ex- and suburban communities, satellite cities, and strips of civilization make up a much larger percent of the metro region and contain much more of the population than areas that can actually be considered urban. They are more suburban than urban, less city than conglomerate of neighboring counties with clusters of skyscrapers occasionally interspersed throughout.

“These aren’t cities like New York or Chicago, or other large cities with dense central populations and immaculate skylines.”

However, suburban majorities are still reliant on their central cities for their greater identities and purposes; seldom does a suburb become more than a complement to, much less surpass, its corresponding city.

Atlanta is the poster-child of such cities; with a population of fewer than 500,000 people (within the official boundaries of the City), the Atlanta Combined Statistical Area (CSA) is home to over six million, spanning 39 counties and nearly 10,500 square miles. For comparison, that is larger than the land areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maryland, Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware, or Rhode Island. The suburban sprawl has literally overwhelmed the city, occasionally causing major issues for the city, as was made abundantly clear during the “Snowpocalypse” last January or in Atlanta’s economic growth disparity, or by the fact that the average Atlantan commuter spends over 50 hours every year in traffic (according to a 2012 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute).

And Atlanta's traffic isn't even the worst, we're only average! Texas A&M Transportation Institute via The Atlantic
And Atlanta’s traffic isn’t even the worst, we’re only average! Texas A&M Transportation Institute via The Atlantic

From the official boundaries of the City to the seemingly endless expanse of the CSA, “Atlanta” means something different depending on who you ask. For some, “Atlanta” means the collection of proud neighborhoods inside the Perimeter, for others, it means the ex-urban cul-de-sacs and satellite cities, and for others still Atlanta means the narrow strip of skyscrapers and the companies that inhabit them.

Atlanta Neighborhood Maps Print by Bekah O'Connor.
Were it so simple, or so good looking. Atlanta Neighborhoods Map Print by Bekah O’Connor.

In the coming decades, cities like Atlanta will change in ways that are unprecedented in human history as urban populations continue to grow and shape the urban environment; the problems that currently exist in cities will intensify if left unchecked. Now is a time of opportunity to address and plan for those problems, as well as to build upon the already great aspects of our cities. Built on the premise of access to automobiles, Atlanta’s suburbs will transform with changing cultural values and new technology that makes owning or driving a car unnecessary. The transit-oriented, the denser development, the “in-town,” will bloom into something not yet seen anywhere else.

As many writers and urbanists have pointed out, the suburbs aren’t dying, but they are changing. Some are falling into decay, others are becoming more urban-like and walkable, and others still are just continuing with business as usual. In Atlanta, these scenarios are occurring everywhere you look.

“In the coming decades, cities like Atlanta will change in ways that are unprecedented in human history”

At times, we may seem overly critical of Atlanta, but I am critical only because we care so much. That’s one of the things that makes Atlanta special; even with so much not to like about it, be it the traffic or the suburban sprawl, or the legacy of inequality, Atlanta still holds the hearts and minds of almost everyone who visits. You have but to search for “Jackson Street Bridge” or #weloveatl to see that we are not alone in this adoration of Atlanta. Nearly all of the people we’ve talked to share that sentiment.

Despite Atlanta’s issues and everything else, we’re still here. Maybe we’ll even find out why.

This site aims to explore the issues of our suburban cities, their solutions, and the creative minds behind them. It is an effort to better understand the state of Atlanta and other cities like it, their pros and cons, their challenges and accomplishments, and their pasts and bright futures. We will examine the social, environmental, economic, and urban issues in Atlanta, as well as more general thoughts on the built environment. We aim to report on relevant news and gather viewpoints from people on the ground who are most affected by these issues and those combatting them. We hope you enjoy the stories that we tell.

Let’s begin then, shall we?

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