By Benita M. Dodd
To see the opposing labels slapped on metro Atlanta is to wonder whether people are referring to the same place. The region is denounced across the globe as out of control, congested: the “poster child for sprawl.” Yet it earns accolades, not only as the country’s leading entrepreneurial location but as affordable and among the 50 best places in the nation to live.
As diverse as the views are the solutions proposed for the region’s real and imagined woes. Between the extreme views of halting growth or eliminating regulation exists a host of proposals that are forceful reminders that “quality growth” is a matter of perspective.
As a matter of perspective: While Georgia continues to be one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, two-thirds of the state is forestland. That’s twice the national average. Just 15.9 percent of Georgia’s land area is developed – covered by transportation infrastructure, urbanized or clearcut. According to Trees Atlanta, Atlanta’s tree cover averages 27 percent, compared with 11 percent in Chicago, 21 percent in Boston and 16.6 percent in New York City. And despite more people arriving every day, air and water quality have improved over the decades.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a signatory to the Lone Mountain Compact’s market-based principles for livable cities and suburbs, endorses the compact’s views that “absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like,” and that communities should allow a diversity in neighborhood design, as desired by the market.
A recent Quality Growth Initiative Task Force convened by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce largely supports that philosophy. The thoughtful – and thought-provoking – results of its eight-month focus on ways to accommodate growth in the region can be found at the Chamber’s Web site.
The task force, which comprised leaders in business, government, commerce and development, proposes expanding choices in the marketplace; seeking a better understanding of the cost of different development types and locations; saving more open space; a strategy to manage growth on septic systems, and improved linkage of infrastructure spending decisions with land use decisions.
“Those areas that accommodate higher-density growth must be assured that infrastructure improvements will be available to serve this growth,” the task force says. It also suggests identifying 10 “major corridors” to prioritize higher density and live-work-play communities that leverage the transportation investment. Importantly, it recommends using locally established land use performance measures as a weighting criterion when considering projects for the state’s Transportation Improvement Program.
A major concern is that “if current trends continue, about two-thirds of the land area that will be developed in the region over the next 25 years will be in greenfields,” the task force worries. “We have an opportunity to influence this growth in a positive way.”
“Modeling two different ‘visions’ for the Atlanta region circa 2030, we found that by allowing more housing closer to jobs, we can go from today’s level of 36 minutes per household stuck in traffic to 33 minutes in 2030 (compared to 44 minutes in 2030 if we do nothing). With a transportation network optimized to serve this land use, we can achieve even greater benefits.”
That’s promising. There is a danger, however, in the task force’s simplistic view of the region’s growth from an all-or-nothing perspective (current trend/status quo or task force vision of the future). Developers and governments are adapting over time to the needs and desires of the marketplace, even if in fits and starts and at a differing pace.
At the same time, congestion and water resources, which both have the potential to constrain growth and the economy in the region, are receiving more attention than ever. Congestion relief is being targeted through promising public-private transportation initiatives, cost-effective bus rapid transit and the governor’s $15.5 billion “Fast Forward” congestion-relief program announced in June. A comprehensive statewide water management plan is the focus of enabling legislation passed this year.
Even so, the strong thread woven throughout the task force recommendations bears reinforcement: Reduce the constraints on the marketplace. More can be done to reduce congestion and achieve targeted residential densities if jurisdictions are willing to regulate less instead of more, if the market is allowed to perform on a level playing field instead of strangling in bureaucratic tape and drowned by preferential subsidies.
The clearest example the task force cites of jurisdictional barriers is in the Chamber’s audit of zoning and development regulations. It found that about half of the governments in metro Atlanta restrict residential density to a maximum of eight housing units to the acre, effectively eliminating opportunities for higher-density apartment and condominium communities. Ridenour, a $350 million mixed-use development in Cobb County, was approved as a “village community,” but developers still had to seek more than 200 zoning variances. That’s no incentive to innovate.
The rising population of single adults, baby boomers, smaller families and aging seniors is increasing the demand for a variety of lifestyles, from urban to live-work-play, high-amenity and low-maintenance communities, all of which can be accommodated in a less restrictive environment. It’s an approach that also respects the desires of those who continue to seek low-density housing at the low prices that have won the region its reputation of affordability. The bold message to government is to let go, and let it happen.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 23, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.
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