Commentary: Take Off Rose-Colored Glasses and See Suburbia

By Benita M. Dodd

About every six months, veteran journalist Elliott Brack co-hosts a bus tour of his home of Gwinnett County that highlights the history and changing face of one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties.

Gwinnett is frequently attacked by activists as a prime example of the out-of-control growth that they demand be reined in across metro Atlanta, the so-called poster child for sprawl. It was no surprise that when Commission Chairman Wayne Hill lost his seat recently after 12 years, slow-growth advocates hailed it as a victory over the pro-growth policies “destroying” the county.

So it was refreshing when, from the environment to transportation to the economy, Brack’s 69th semi-annual tour of Gwinnett this month reflected an honest attempt to set aside the rose-colored glasses that often romanticize “the good old days” and demonize progress as a plague of “sprawl” and traffic.

Perhaps the most compelling lesson was encapsulated in an exchange with the commission chairman, who took some time to address the tour group of journalists, businesspeople, politicians and community activists.

When Hill asked, “How many of y’all live in Gwinnett?” many of the 30 or so tour participants raised a hand.

All the participants raised a hand when he asked, “How many of y’all hate the traffic?”

Hill’s tongue-in-cheek comeback was, “Well, then, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”

“I can say that now,” joked the outgoing politician, who activists nicknamed “sultan of sprawl” during his tenure. Hill shepherded the county through a massive population increase – 400,000 to 700,000 – and a budget that has more than doubled, from $606 million in 1993 to $1.4 billion in 2004.

In spite of the criticism directed at the suburban lifestyle, the tour unveiled a largely positive evolution of Gwinnett from rural to urban county, which in turn has drawn more residents to its quality of life. In the “good old days,” by comparison, rural life was harsh and unsanitary for the county’s residents, who were largely ignorant of the environmental devastation they wreaked. When cotton was king in Georgia –  and most of Gwinnett was cropland – land was clearcut with no regard for the environment. Huge swaths of wetlands were drained; streams were diverted, muddied and clogged.

University of Georgia Professor emeritus Harold Brown describes the impact of agriculture-based erosion in his book, “The Greening of Georgia.” “The sand and silt in the channel of the Yellow River in Gwinnett County was so deep in the 1930s that a 15 foot sampling auger would not reach the bottom of the deposit,” he writes.

As for the sprawl designation, tour co-host Jim Steele, chief operating officer of Gwinnett County Schools, dismisses it admirably. He described how “nodal townships” developed at depots along railroad tracks in Gwinnett. According to the Gwinnett Historical Society, the cities of Buford, Duluth, Norcross and Suwanee grew along the Southern Railroad track (completed in 1871); Dacula, Gloster, Grayson, Lilburn and Luxomni (which no longer exists) grew along the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, completed in 1891.

“We haven’t been sprawling,” Steele pointed out, “We’ve been in-filling.”

The population has increased more than 2,000 percent in Gwinnett since 1930, and 181 percent in Georgia, according to census data. Yet there are more trees today, both in Gwinnett and in Georgia, than there were 75 years ago. And more are being planted.

Nowadays, it’s a trip to the confessional when one admits to choosing a suburban lifestyle. Poor health, air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity and massacred trees are piled in the cul-de-sacs of conscience-stricken suburbanites.

There is a place in the market for people who choose other lifestyles, be it a high-density or mixed-use community. The successes of Gwinnett and so many other metro Atlanta counties depend on visionary leadership that acknowledges that that the good old days weren’t exactly that good, then focuses on accommodating the future instead of acquiescing to thwart the quality of life of the vast majority who choose the suburbs.

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 (October 15, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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