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Study: Atlanta sprawls while Hall County hangs tight

Metro Atlanta near top of list for urban sprawl

POSTED: April 12, 2014 12:12 a.m.

The Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta region — perhaps not surprisingly — is the most sprawling large metropolitan area in the country. 

While Hall County is more compact and connected, the big city’s spillover presents challenges for local developers and planners. 

Those are the findings in a new study measuring sprawl across the nation. It was prepared by Smart Growth America, a national coalition of organizations that advocate sustainable urban growth and development, and is based on research from the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. 

Smart Growth America defines its mission this way: “From providing more sidewalks to ensuring more homes are built near public transportation or that productive farms remain a part of our communities, smart growth helps make sure people across the nation can live in great neighborhoods.”

“Measuring Sprawl 2014” reviewed growth and development patterns in 221 metro areas and 994 counties. Four primary factors were used to calculate a “Sprawl Index:” residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. Communities with lower scores are more sprawling and have less connectivity. 

At the heart of the study was determining how sprawl impacts quality of life. Researchers found links between unchecked development and increased rates of obesity, traffic fatalities, poorer air quality, slower emergency response times and greater energy use. 

Moreover, the study reports residents of more connected metro areas have greater economic mobility, spend less of their earnings on housing and transportation, and live longer, healthier lives. 

Among metro areas with a population greater than 1 million, New York City is the most compact and connected, posting a score of 203.4. Atlanta fell at the other end of the spectrum with a score of just 41. Hall County, meanwhile, was given a score of 103.3, indicating while it is more sprawling than many counties, it also is more connected than its neighbors to the south. 

But the study isn’t without its critics. 

There are many ideas about how best to develop and grow urban communities, and sometimes factors that seem critical to some in measuring sprawl’s relationship with quality-of-life issues go unnoticed by others. 

Nancey Green Leigh, a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, said she believes smart growth strategies have ignored the need to maintain industrial land and manufacturing, a contributing factor in Atlanta’s mismanaged sprawl. 

“In fact, a lot of Atlanta’s smart growth type development occurred on land that was once industrial,” Leigh said in an email. “And a lot of this new development sat vacant because of the recession and is only now being absorbed.” 

In Hall County, home to 322 manufacturers, this point plays even stronger, Leigh said. 

“So a question not being considered in the smart growth measures is how suburbanization and exurbanization of manufacturing is contributing to sprawl,” she added. 

Hall County Planning Director Srikanth Yamala said he is constantly trying to balance the need for growth with concerns about how development negatively impacts quality of life for residents. 

Several recent rezoning applications approved by the Hall County Board of Commissioners include mixed-use developments, a prospect local officials said they believe can spur growth while mitigating impacts on traffic, schools and other quality-of-life issues. 

“Mixed-use projects like that are definitely one step toward a much more sustainable community,” Yamala said, adding that including residential and commercial aspects in close proximity helps anchor and centralize growth. 

Yamala said the county can learn a lot from how sprawl was managed in Atlanta and its suburbs, adding the county will soon update its comprehensive land use plan, which will lay out a road map for the next 15 to 20 years. 

“You often hear from our residents that they don’t want to become another Gwinnett County,” Yamala said. “We do have the opportunity to make sure that we are not only promoting new development, but that we are also promoting sustainable development."


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