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  • Ellen Bassett

Way Off into the Horizon

I have to admit that in recent years I haven’t been as obsessed (tormented) with the prospect of urban sprawl as I have been in the past. Urban sprawl—the loss of farm fields and open space in metropolitan Detroit and their replacement with miles of sterile strip malls in the 1970s—was one key motivation for me to study planning.


But in recent years, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about climate change, both in the US context and that of the Global South. (I suffered through the heat dome in Portland, Oregon this past summer. Wish that could happen in certain key locations as there is nothing like living without air conditioning for a few days in 112-116 degrees Fahrenheit to make you a believer. But, of course, few people in Texas, North Dakota, or Missouri or other hotbeds of climate denialism live without air conditioning!)

Source: Washington Post, August 11, 2021.


But let’s not fool ourselves that sprawl isn’t continuing to happen, as it is. Back in August, the Washington Post provided a great summary of the state of sprawl based on their analysis of new data from the USGS. The map above provides a nice summary of some of the hottest spots for sprawl or where, as the article says, growth is taking place “way off into the horizon.” (Find the full article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/land-development-urban-growth-maps/?itid=hp-top-table-main ). The maps and graphic analysis is compelling – definitely shows the power of GIS and large data sets!


More recently Bloomberg’s City Lab wrote about how the pandemic is adding to the problem. There are both positive and negative motivations for decamping to the suburbs or even exurbs—the freedom to work remotely, the greater availability of lower cost housing, and the attraction of private yards being positive; the perceived potential of risk living in a denser city being the primary negative. But the growth is taking place in less than optimal locations: places with low water availability (Las Vegas), limited transit / high car dependency (Arizona), and exposure to climate risks like wildfire and flooding. One quote in the Bloomberg coverage stands out: “The housing crisis is real. That’s an Achilles’ heel of urbanism that smart growth advocates and urbanists are increasingly grappling with.” See: How the Pandemic Supercharged Sprawl.


This is all the more interesting to me as I’ve recently relocated to Atlanta, which has long been considered a poster child for urban sprawl. (Although in a long ago paper from 2001, Rolf Pendall showed that the most sprawling place – if you measure sprawl by the ratio of land added to population added – was Portland, Maine, which was adding a lot of land for very few people. We need an updated analysis, Rolf!)


Atlanta’s growth is certainly emblematic of all that is happening in American urban areas. Just how big “Atlanta” is depends on who you ask. According to the Atlanta Real Estate Forum the metro is 29 counties and more than 8,000 square miles. Big, car dependent, and pretty segregated. (People from Michigan glass houses, however, do not throw stones.) While exurban growth is continuing, there is an amazing amount of energy and investment in the city proper with projects like the Beltline and continued infill and new development in Midtown, Atlantic Station and other locations on the westside. I’ve got my work cut out for me to learn more about this city – and my bike and the Beltline will probably be the starting point! For more articles on it see: The Arch Daily from 2014 (https://www.archdaily.com/506563/the-atlanta-beltline-from-student-thesis-to-community-mobilizer ) and Curbed (https://atlanta.curbed.com/2017/10/30/16570990/atlanta-beltline-eastside-trail-extension-open ).

Source: Alexaneav.com. Specifically: https://152893-475333-raikfcquaxqncofqfm.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Atlanta-Beltline-Skyline-Spring-1-1024x680.jpg