Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Atlanta has biggest "urban footprint" growth in the country. That's bad, right?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 at 3:59 PM

As pointed out today by the Atlantic's excellent Cities blog:

Atlanta saw the largest absolute increase in its urban area between 2000 and 2010, growing from 1,962 square miles to 2,645, an increase of nearly 683 square miles.

Okay, that makes sense, right? It's suburban (and exurban) sprawl. No news there, not in a city of only 420k but in a metro area with 5.5 million. But I also wondered, what does "urban" mean exactly? Can something like the development of the city's westside be considered new "urban" land, because it has more density now? Or is what they count as "new" urban land just formerly unincorporated areas that now have roads and such?

Someone who helped me get my head around this is Patrick Kennedy, a Dallas-based urban designer and planner currently doing work in Atlanta. (Dallas, you'll see from the chart on the linked post above, gained the second-most urban square miles, and there are many similarities between the two cities' growth patterns.) This got us into a discussion whether such sprawl can possibly be good for an area. On the jump is some of our exchange.

PK: First thing, right off the bat is to understand and parse the many definitions of "urban," particularly how the Census Bureau defines it, which basically means continuous job market. So according to the census urban is not agriculture and not nature. That's it. An area could be getting less dense (one definition of urban) while expanding its contiguous "urban" area or the percentage of people living in "urban" areas (according to the census). In other words, ir's a meaningless statistic until the US census creates sub-categories to better define "urban" into urban, suburban, etc. Perhaps this could be by density. But again, density can mean urban, but not necessarily. And urban doesnt necessarily mean density. There's a fundamental problem of language and definition clouding the metrics. All it's saying is that ATL and TX cities are big in terms of land area and have metasticized greatly over last ten years. With a little interpretation you can say theyre ridiculously sprawled out and potentially very fragile economies/ecosystems.

EC: Isn't one difference between Texas (especially Dallas, but Austin, too) and Atlanta that here, while there are pockets of urban densification in the city proper, it's been pretty well matched by suburban flight, to the point the city proper has lost population the past 10 years (only 420k now for a metro area of 5.5 mil), whereas Dallas has not only increased outward but also grown inside the 635 loop (equivalent of ITP).

PK: That is true. A few things to note, though: This is the first census where city of Dallas proper stagnated population wise even though the metro grew significantly. It very well could have lost people if it wasn't buoyed by NOLA transplants after Katrina & an ever-increasing Hispanic population. Neither of which ATL has to a similar degree. So the differences might not be that great.

EC: In North Texas, the growth is not just outward but between cities (as mentioned somewhat in the Atlantic Cities piece), therefore the becoming one huge north texas urban area (with varying pockets of urban coolness adjacent to and within each downtown). Here, it's one city, and suburban and exurban rings around it. I wonder if one is more manageable than the other, or more stable.

PK: Yes, two historic core city/railroad hubs like Dallas and Fort Worth make a difference. ATL is an older city with several cores that have blurred and blended, like Marietta, Decatur, etc. None as big as FW as a second city, but they too have grown together, blended, and blurred. Ultimately, the fundamental point is that the infrastructure we're building separates, scatters, and divides people. It is sociofugal rather than sociopetal. Rather than serving needs of the city, social and economic exchange, the only underlying/guiding purpose is moving cars fast.

UPDATE: The author of the blog piece A commenter put this up in the comments, which helps define (a bit, still confused) what is meant by "urban."

It's basically clusters of residential density, as measured by the 2010 Census, that meet the population totals mentioned here. An urbanized area must have core census tracts with 1,000 people per square mile, then contiguous (with some jumps allowed) areas of 500 people per square mile can be added. Impervious surfaces can qualify an area as urban when there isn't enough residential population, in some cases.

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