Correcting Atlanta’s Growth Mythology – Why It Matters

By Mike Dobbins

March 9 – As a member of AIA Atlanta’s Architect Principals Roundtable back in 2015, I looked forward to our meeting welcoming Tim Keane as Mayor Kasim Reed’s newly appointed commissioner of planning. His emphasis on elevating design quality as a core value was music to our ears. Leaving the meeting, though, one of his goals was unsettling: growing the city to a population of 1.5 million people by 2050.

At the time, the City’s Olympic era growth spurt had lifted the population from below 400,000 in 1990 to about 450,000. The Atlanta Regional Commission was estimating that the city would grow to about 800,000 by 2040. Leaving aside the question of whether growth per se is a good thing, I was concerned that broadcasting the 1.5 million number might mislead all those planning for their futures.

Chris Nelson (left) produced a population forecast that comported with the request from Atlanta’s then planning commissioner, Tim Keane.

To gain credence for his aspiration, Tim asked Chris Nelson, a professor of urban planning formerly at Georgia Tech, then at the University of Utah, to study what it would take to get closer to his city population goal. To do so, Nelson used data that identified trends in residential market desirability that are occurring nationally. These market studies identified population shifts toward growing demand for living in walkable, mixed-use, town center-type environments. He then postulated that if ALL of the people in that market niche who moved to metro Atlanta bought or rented inside the city limits, a higher population would result. His population estimate then reached to 1.2 million, short of 1.5 million, but okay. So, for the last six years the City has been using that result to underlay all of its planning and policy work.

Why are there problems with that? There are at least two, one on the methodology and the other on the consequences of its use.

Read the Nelson report: “How Big Can Atlanta Get?”

On the methodology of Nelson’s work:  

Even new walkable urban places, such as this one evolving along Howell Mill Road at I-75, aren’t expected to push Atlanta’s population above the ARC’s estimate. Credit David Pendered

Remember that Keane tasked Nelson with finding what it would take to get the city to the numbers he wanted. In short, find me the numbers, which Nelson did. As it happens, though, that walkable, mixed-use market niche has dozens of choices outside of the city limits. These are all beneficiaries of major regional policy shifts beginning in 1999. At that time, the federal EPA declared the region to be an air quality non-attainment area, blocking the region from receiving federal transportation dollars. Informed by its major jurisdictional planning directors, the ARC instituted its Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) program, aimed at concentrating more growth in existing towns and corridors and less growth in greenfields. The move satisfied the EPA, and the transportation funding spigot reopened.

Over the years, dozens of cities and towns have taken advantage of ARC/federal funding to plan what? Walkable, livable, mixed-use, denser centers. Commitment to change local policies to implement the plans has enabled many of these to actually build their plans. As a result, many of the smaller regional cities and towns are tapping the same market niche that Nelson ascribed in its entirety to the city of Atlanta. Their growth rates are comparable to Atlanta’s, some a little higher, some a little lower. So, this reality exposes a fatal flaw in the 1.2 million projection.

On why it matters:

Misinforming, misrepresenting, and misleading people who are imagining and planning their futures by incessantly repeating the 1.2 million number is irresponsible and potentially harmful. For public agencies that plan for infrastructure, such as roads, transit, water, sewer, energy, parks, and the like, having a sense of where, when, and how much, is vital. Likewise, schools, health facilities, and other service agencies must know or at least have a good idea of growth patterns to plan their futures. And private investors, companies, and developers rely on jurisdictions’ planning information to calculate the merits of their site selection processes and choices.

Of immediate concern, the city is in the midst of an overhaul of its zoning ordinance. Billed as Zoning 2.0, it is vital to get this right. The zoning ordinance interacts with the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), and together they provide the policy, priority, and public investment base for the city’s future. In general, they seek to project the size, shape, priorities, and timeframes for the city’s evolution. From citywide, neighborhood, and even block scales, resulting policies and ordinances aim to accommodate and stimulate the growth, the patterns, and the character of our futures.

To assure that the zoning and associated CDP efforts are properly grounded, the city must dispense with the 1.2 million number. As it happens, harking back to the ARC’s 800,000 number, that change should be fairly simple to do: simply amend the CDP and other city policy documents to align with ARC’s estimates.

At this point, it’s not too late to reshape the trajectory of the zoning process to reflect the change. Likewise, doing so will bring the clarity and confidence needed for all of those aforementioned agencies and development forces to better plan their futures