Written by Shona Lovie
A few weeks ago, I left my house as dawn was breaking to embark on a road trip from Atlanta to Chicago. I pulled into the city 11 hours later, the monstrous Willis Tower signaling to me that I had arrived. I was relieved to be there, but also surprised that the trip itself had been full of glimpses into quaint, attractive, and altogether pleasant small cities. Louisville contained a charming mix of architectural styles that reflected it’s positioning on the confluence of the South, Northeast, and Midwest regions, a few beautiful bridges, and the most gigantic torta I’ve ever consumed. Indianapolis was clean, relaxed and full of pedestrians and cyclists enjoying a perfect sunny Sunday on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Chattanooga was perfectly positioned in a lush bowl, the green Appalachians rising directly to the west, and visible rock faces reminding me of why the city is the only city win Outside Magazine’s Best Towns competition twice.
Chicago certainly had its share of charms, great food, and skyline views, but the familiar big city pitfalls were there as well. Traffic, crime, crowded trains and high cost of living…the unfortunate facts of life for most major urban centers. Then there was the fact that I was wearing a sweater in May…
The re-urbanization movement is a well-known recent phenomenon, with cities all over the country experiencing increases in their populations – Atlanta, for example, grew 28% between 2001 and 2009, adding one million new residents – more than any other metro area in the country. Business and technology startups are moving their offices into midtown locations and young professionals are eagerly following suit – transforming previously neglected urban cores into flourishing centers of business, arts, and culture. This has led to housing shortages and affordability crises in popular cities like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Portland, and Seattle.
Smaller cities everywhere are an attractive compromise, drawing new residents who are looking to escape high rents and crowds of mega metropolises, yet still desire the conveniences and excitement of urban life. This surge of interest is bringing skills and talents to areas that, due to less competition and a not-yet-oversaturated economy, may offer a friendlier environment for entrepreneurs.
So, where does Atlanta fall amongst the city spectrum? With a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) of five and a half million residents, and a smaller urban core of under half a million residents, Atlanta is a mid-sized city – with a super-sized MSA. The city has been the established economic center of the Southeast since the end of the Civil War, and never experienced much in the way of competition from other nearby Southern cities until recently. There was no questioning of Atlanta’s model of economic growth as the city moved from a railroad city (RIP Terminal Station), to a city full of six lane interstates, sprawling suburbs, and a giant airport. The city’s growth was partially fueled by a region first strategy – instead of prioritizing livability within the city core, regionalism emerged as the dominating mindset, undeniably shaping the character and demographics of the area. Atlanta’s metro area boasts half the population of Georgia and spans a geographical area larger than the state of New Hampshire. As other southeastern cities emerge as competition – drawing new residents, businesses, and the arts – Atlanta has been forced to look inward for the first time and focus on livability instead of metropolitan regionalism.
So far, the flagship projects have been wildly successful – everyone who has attempted to walk down the Beltline on a sunny Saturday can attest to this – and new programs seem to have promise as well. I have already seen eager families and couples lazily riding around town on the bikes provided by the brand new bike share program, and the practically mythical MARTA expansion has finally been approved to go on the ballot in November, eschewing the metro region (the infamous roadblock to expansion) and focusing on building out transit in the city of Atlanta only. Perhaps the joke I often make about Atlanta’s attitude towards pedestrian friendliness – “Get a car, loser” – has numbered days.
People and policy makers alike give a damn about in-town quality of life, and part of Atlanta’s growing pains will undoubtedly include retro-fitting a car-based infrastructure to accommodate the needs of residents who choose in-town life for the combination of amenities and community, who loathe long commutes and the Office Space-esque landscape of the suburban office parks.
I recently went to an event at the Atlanta Central Library. A former Fulton County commissioner insisted several times that Atlanta is not a second or third tier city, but a world-class one. As he discussed a bonds package to build a new and cutting edge central library – catering to the city’s business travelers and conventioneers – I wondered if attempting a true world class city is the best use of Atlanta’s resources. It’s hard to tell if people are moving to this city in order to be a part of the Capitol of the South, a burgeoning world class super city, or as a pleasant and livable respite from the established and expensive megatropolises of the Northeast and West Coast. Taking steps to identify the needs and desires of the established community as well as recent transplants and allocating resources accordingly could be a step in healing Atlanta’s growing pains and helping figure out what its future identity will look like.