Suburbanization in Atlanta

Over the last five decades, one of the dominant geographical trends in the United States has been suburbanization. It is almost a truism in the United States to observe that the overriding residential pattern is suburban. The largest communities have been losing out not only relatively but, also absolutely. Of the country’s 25 largest cities in the 1950s, 18 cities lost population over the period 1960s-1980s (Jackson 4). In the 1950s, the share of metropolitan area residents who lived in central cities was about 57%; however, by the 1990s it had fallen to 37%. The 1960s witnessed the suburbanization of America well under way. In the 1980 census it was revealed that over 40% of the national population, or about 100 million people, lived in the suburbs, a higher proportion than resided either in urban cities or in rural areas.

During this period, Atlanta was growing and was becoming an important center of government, commerce, transportation, and education. The Second World Ward generation moved out of the city and off the farms. It looked like as if everyone was seeking a few acres in the suburbs of Atlanta to raise their baby boom kids. Since then, Atlanta has become witness to urban renewal, sprawl, the rise of exurbia, the response of New Urbanism, and rampant suburbanization. In the period 1960 to 1970, the population of Atlanta itself showed only a 2% increase and a decline from 1970 to 1975; on the other hand, the suburban ring doubled over the same 15 years (Abbott 186). Today, Atlanta’s suburbanization is at a very high level, with an overwhelming 90% of its population living outside the city proper.

In the meantime, suburbia has become the archetypal physical achievement of the United States; perhaps it is more representative of its culture than tall buildings, professional football, or big cars. It symbolizes the fullest and most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture; suburbia is a manifestation of such basic characteristics of American society as dependence on the private automobile, conspicuous consumption, the separation of the family into nuclear units, upward mobility, a tendency toward economic and racial exclusiveness, and the widening division between leisure and work. Demographers on the see suburbanization in terms of commuting patterns or residential density; economists see it in terms functional relationships between the core and the surrounding region; architects based on building type; and sociologists look at suburbanization in terms of behavior or “way of life” (Jackson 5).

Of course, the term “suburb” is blurred. A mention of this word alone is enough to generate myths, and only a few people have tried to give it concrete expression. According to columnist Erma Bombeck: “Suburbs are small, controlled communities where for the most part everyone has the same living standards, the same weeds, the same number of garbage cans, the same house plans, and the same level in the septic tanks.” (quoted in Jackson 4) In addition, Russell Baker has said, only partially joking, that either the United States is a shopping center or the one shopping center in existence is moving around the country at the speed of light (Jackson 4)

The stereotype of suburbia is real – bicycles, embodying uniformity, bicycles, patios, gardens, loving parents and children, good relations with the neighbors (or maybe not, as represented in the hit TV series Desperate Housewives). The image of the suburbia is maintained because it conforms to the wishes of people on both ends of the political spectrum. For those on the right, it confirms the “American way of life” to which all citizens can aspire. On the other hand, to the left, the suburbia myth is a convenient way to attack a wide variety of national problems, from environmental degradation to excessive conformity (Jackson 4).

The rapid population growth in Atlanta over the past few decades initiated suburbanization. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), in the period 1990-1999 alone, the Atlanta Metropolitan Region (AMR) grew by about 647 thousand new residents, an increase of 2.5% in the annual rate of population (Stewart 132).

Atlanta’s wide suburban zone is differentiated into inner suburbs and outer suburbs. The former, created in the 1950s-1970s, prompted by the construction of the Interstate 285 belt highway; the outer suburbs, clustering along the major arterial highways, are more recent. Outer suburbs in Atlanta are growing at a rapid pace to accommodate not only the bulk of people moving out from the cities but also the mass of migrants moving out from the inner suburbs searching for larger, newer, and more amenity-laden housing. This is illustrated in the case of Gwinnett County, one of AMR’s fastest-growing counties, where a population increase of over 300% between 1999 and 2020 is expected in its outer portions; on the other hand, it is expected that the inner portions will have an increase of about 100% or less (Stewart 133). Job opportunities are fueling the suburbanization in Atlanta, as such firms as Holiday Inn, Eastman Kodak, and United Parcel Service relocate their regional offices or headquarters to Atlanta. Employment opportunities are also fueled by the expansion of hometown companies such as Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, Turner Corporation, and Home Depot expand. As a result, the AMR gained 348 thousand jobs, an increase of 24.4%, during the period 1990-1997, according to ARC (Stewart 132).

One of the major impacts of suburbanization is that cities continue to lose their market share of the employment created in metropolitan areas, including Atlanta. For example, despite an increase of 200 thousand employments in professional and business services in the AMR in the period 1982-1997, the central city saw jobs as a percentage of these services drop by approximately 20% (Gong 341). Most growth market share of the employment happened in the northern suburbs. In the period 1992-1997, the employment growth rate in Atlanta’s central city was about 14.5%; however, the rate was much higher in the suburbs, where it grew more than double by 30.6% (Schwab 250)

It also argued that the suburbanization of Atlanta shrinks racial gaps. In general, Atlanta is challenging the black-white dichotomy that characteristically frames how people view the south as it is becoming one of the most diverse metropolitans in the southeast. In other words, black suburbanization in Atlanta has increased dramatically. In the 1970s, African-Americans only composed 8% of Atlanta’s suburban population. However, by 2000, African-American population in the suburbs had grown to more than 25%. This makes Atlanta as the metropolitan area in the United States with the largest concentration of blacks in its suburbs, surpassing Washington, DC. Indeed, suburbanization in Atlanta is viewed as a slow step forward for a city that was known for racial intolerance.

As is often the case in many suburbanization processes, Atlanta pays a heavy price for popularity. Most of the metropolitan area’s new residents have settled in the city’s ever-expanding zone of suburbs that cover the twenty-county metropolitan statistical area. Extensive residential expansion, well outside the Interstate 285 circumferential highway and focused on the northern-tier counties, has left Atlanta with the longest average commute, at 34.7 miles a day, of any city in the world. Commutes of more than 120 miles a day are common. The expansion of this outer suburban zone triggered a spatial reorganization of population and a subsequent transformation of key cultural landscapes (Stewart 133).

One can identify three characteristics that define the suburbanization in Atlanta. First, there is an avoidance of city-center living. This suburban aspiration has been referred to as anti-urbanism. The second characteristic is the desire for a larger, newer, and more amenity-laden house, preferably with a garden. The image of the traditional home is appealing to migrants. Finally, a major characteristic of the suburbanization in Atlanta is the suburb itself, and the appeal of a high-quality residential environment. Overall, the aspiration to suburban living is at the very heart of suburbanization in Atlanta.

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