Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Benchmarks for population - and effects

Matt Yglesias has an interesting post about population growth for Washington, D.C.:
Something I think the city could use is some kind of explicit population growth target. That might help structure people’s thinking about specific development issues. The city’s peak population came around 1950 when about 800,000 people lived here. And the population of the United States as a whole was only 150 million back then. Given that the national population has doubled since then and continues to grow, it seems to me that a District with aspirations should be hoping to see a over a million people living here a few decades hence.
I wonder if this wouldn't be a good idea for the city of Atlanta. 
Atlanta's population peaked in the 70's at around 500,000, so we are about back to our peak population right now.  There are 5.5 million people in the MSA currently, and the ARC shows that increasing to 8.2 million by 2040.  What is a realistic portion of that number that should live in the city?

Presently it is about 9%.  ARC puts the city at 603,000 in 2030, which is a more like 8% of the regional population (which should be 7,378,000 in 2030).  Where are an addition 240,000 or so people going to live within the city limits?  When you start trying to find room for another 240,000 people, it makes arguing over eight stories at Monroe and 10th seem pretty silly. 

Should the city set a goal of 20% of the metro population living in the city proper?  That would be 1.6 million people in 2040.  What would we need to do to triple the city's population in thirty years, beyond getting our government in shape?  What level of infrastructure - road, sewers, transit - would we need to invest in to make this happen?

I think (hope?) that the city planning department and politicians consider this sort of stuff, but I don't think the population at large does.  Maybe it isn't realistic to expect an extra 240,000 people to move into the city, much less an extra 1.1 million.  Perhaps realistically, you could aim for 15% of the region's population.  That would still still mean an extra 740,000 people or so.  If we are serious about Atlanta regaining its position as the employment and cultural center of the region, doesn't that mean taking on a greater share of the population?  Personally, I want leaders who set ambitious goals like that, and then try and figure out exactly how we are going to get there.

I also think it is good for regular folks to consider these numbers and what it means for Atlanta's growth.  You can't advocate for a walkable Atlanta that competes with the rest of the region for employment and cultural amenities without considering what it actually will mean for the physical make-up of your own neighborhood.  Perhaps the population growth will occur in other areas (e.g. gentrifying south and west Atlanta), but I don't see how Midtown, Virginia-Highland, et al escape the next twenty or thirty years unchanged like many residents here seem to expect.


  1. Since the car doesn't appear to be going anywhere at the favored means of personal conveyance-- I'd expect to see satellite communities like those in Dekalb soak up a significant amount of the would-be in-town population growth. I'm typing this from south of Grant Park, bounded by the rolling, undeveloped hills of thomasville estates, that abandoned warehouse by the USP, and so on. Rest assured, before the Highlands are bulldozed for midrises, you'll see significant development here first, probably more of those tired neo-craftsman townhomes.

  2. RE: zedsmith's "before the Highlands are bulldozed for midrises,"...there's no need to bulldoze any existing residences to make room for significant population growth.

    Plenty of potential exists in central Midtown for the kind of compact, mixed-use developments that could both accommodate growth and help build a livable, urban zone with amenities and jobs in walking distance of housing. Particularly in the area between the interstate and Peachtree Street in Midtown, there are a lot of properties being used badly considering their location city center: surface parking lots, empty single-story commercial properties, and even brownfields.

    I suggest this area particularly because of its potential for being a place where a diverse mixture of transportation types do exist, and even more alternative transportation could be developed.

    I think the key to providing a sustainable framework for population growth in Atlanta lies in the development of compact, mixed-use built environments connected by diverse methods of transportation. Continuation of single-use zoning, single-minded car dependency and badly-connected clusters of development will surely prevent the city from growing in a sustainable way.

  3. I think the area of Midtown you are talking about will continue to be developed. I am more thinking of infill lots in Midtown and Virginia Highlands, like say the CVS on N. Highland or the lot next to it where "the Mix" has been proposed. Or the lot at 10th and Monroe. All the places where the neighborhood freaks out because, "OMG density!" These areas will have to develop like you say, in a sustainable framework. But empty lots and poorly utilized greenspace aren't sustainable options.

  4. We lived on Greenwood Avenue, two blocks away from that CVS on N. Highland, for three years. I remember the tempest caused by the proposal of "the Mix."

    While I'm eager to see more walkable, compact neighborhoods and mixed-use development in Midtown, I can certainly understand anyone opposing density in this spot. The traffic on N. Highland, Monroe and Briarcliff during the afternoon commute was really awful. That was one of the main reasons we moved to the Peachtree corridor -- to reduce our commute and be closer to a MARTA station.

    A significant increase in residential and commercial density in this ViHi area should only be made along with an increase in transit options.

    Problems: a light-rail line on the Beltline seems so far from happening. There's no MARTA train station nearby and the bus routes are winding and long (not to mention many people's bias against bus riding). Bike lanes? The roads seem too narrow, but this might be something to explore.

    Putting a Bus Rapid Transit line along the old Monroe Drive/Virginia Avenue streetcar route might be a good option.

    It's like a 'hearts and minds' battle on two fronts: you really need to warm people up to the idea of both increased residential density and increased alternative transit options concurrently to make significant gains in housing and commercial density viable in these established neighborhoods dominated by detached houses.

    Filling in the gaps in areas like central Midtown and Downtown, where increasing transportation capacity is easier to achieve, makes more sense to me in the short term. Nonetheless, as you point out, people who live in any intown neighborhood can't expect the density of their areas to remain stable over the decades.

  5. I agree there is a lot of traffic on N. Highland, and the Mix wouldn't help it in the short term. But I don't see transit as a viable option in Atlanta until you get more density; I'd love to revive an actual streetcar on Virginia/N. Highland, but I think you need more density along at least n. highland for that to work.

    The problem with focusing on filling in the gaps in Downtown and underdeveloped areas of Midtown is that the market for housing is Virginia Highlands and the more established parts of Midtown.

  6. Darin, I chose a condo on Peachtree (at the intersection with Ponce), rather than one on Myrtle for a very similar reason. I weighed a smaller condo against the hike up the hill to Peachtree Ridge (& then back down to the MARTA station on the opposite side).

    I'd love to see better coverage of the neighborhoods, but true city living is only going to happen right here along the Peachtree corridor--call it a 5-block wide strip.

    This corridor has improved so much since I moved here 5 years ago, and even this last year has continued to improve & provide even more the mix of services & shops that make life easier to live without a car.

    Keep it up Atlanta! Bring in the residents!

  7. I'm likely wrong but I think the Highland Ave traffic problem started when 400 completed and dumped commuters on Highland who are headed to the gentrifying neighborhoods south of Ponce. I doubt the Highland corridor north of Ponce has grown in population, I don't think Highland residents are clogging the streets. Traffic calming isn't boosting traffic flow or reducing cars numbers.

  8. Terry: I remember thinking pretty much the exact same thing. That mass of new housing along Highland Ave near Inman Park (south of Ponce, as you note) was built while we were living off of North Highland in ViHi. The heavy increase in road traffic in the area occurred as those developments filled up.

    GPBurdell93: so true about the improvements in the corridor. We live a block off Peachtree with our little boy and it's been great. He learned to ride his tricycle on the wide sidewalks. We can walk to many places including a MARTA station. My wife's office is less than a half mile away.

    I've lived in ATL all my life and the changes I've seen in this spot are astounding. 20 years ago I wouldn't have considered living/walking/playing in the Midtown Peachtree corridor with a child. I look forward to a continued increase in residential presence and the growth of a real neighborhood vibe. My dream: the surface parking lots all get replaced by human-scale, mixed-use buildings and pocket parks.

  9. I think the issue isn't 400 really - if you live south of Ponce on 400, you can take the highway to freedom or so, and it is probably easier than north highland.

    I think the problem is that those areas south of ponce have gotten nicer, and there isn't really a "good" way to get to Buckhead. Getting on the highway is quicker if there is no traffic, but otherwise your options are N. Highland/Lenox, Morningside/Piedmont.... and what else? As Buckhead has gotten to be a bigger office market and Poncey Highlands/Inman Park have taken off, N. Highland has suffered.

    It sucked a long time before the Inman Park Village stuff - I think it started sucking around the time the CVS replaced Superior Food. Incidentally, I think this is around the same time 400 got completed, which also probably opened up Buckhead for office development by improving access for northsiders. So I think Terry was in the ballpark (assuming I'm not wrong!).

    This topic brings me to another post I've been meaning to do - about 'residential' roads that are really feeder type roads, such as Morningside and Lenox Road. It drive me crazy that we can't just accept that these road will always have massive amounts of traffic because we didn't adequately plan for how we were going to connect different parts of Atlanta without going through Downtown.


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