Experts have singled out Atlanta as being emblematic of The New Donut concept that's sweeping America's metropolitan areas. The Old Donut, the theory goes, applied to U.S. cities of yesteryear where a ring of thriving suburbs surrounded an impoverished city center. Now things are little more complicated. With donuts like Atlanta's, an Urbanophile article suggests, downtown is becoming that delicious cherry center, encircled by a stale "inner suburbs + urban core" crust, with a freshly glazed ring of "Collar Counties" (i.e., exurbs) beyond that. Researchers at the University of Virginia have taken the concept and examined it with demographic data from a few of the country's largest and fastest-growing metro areas, including Atlanta, Denver and Houston. The New Donut model, researchers found, is flawed in that it's far too simplified, of course, but it manages to say "something important about the trend in most major U.S. metro areas today."
The numbers, compiled by UVA's Demographics Research Group for their Stat Chat blog, show the percentage of metro Atlanta residents with college degrees has dramatically increased since 1990 — with the exception of an area about 15 miles from the city's core. But nowhere are the changes so dramatic as in the very heart of Atlanta and within a few miles of it.
Two decades ago, between 10 and 20 percent of residents within a mile radius of downtown held at least bachelors degrees. Today that number is over 50 percent. Granted, with the advent of the Internet and abundant government funding, it's easier to attain a college education these days. But the numbers could lend credence to the university's assertion that "Urban revitalization is in full swing — downtowns are doing better than they have been in decades." Looking beyond the inner city, researchers found that newer outer suburbs are generally booming and sprawling outward, still accounting for the most population growth in metros like Atlanta.
What's left in between is becoming "a belt of stagnant urban areas and inner-ring suburbs." Why? Researchers offer several reasons, and many of them probably ring true in metro Atlanta:
"The upper-middle class residents who drove development in these areas have since retired or moved on to bigger and better homes farther away. The homes they've left are smaller than those preferred by upper-middle class buyers today and lack the amenities (or panache) of historic urban areas. Infrastructure is on its second or third life cycle and its age is starting to show. The original residents are increasingly being replaced by lower-income residents moving out of the inner city. Some are probably driven by rising rents in the newly revitalized core. Others may be taking advantage of the shift from public housing to Section 8 vouchers. Some are simply moving to the suburbs for the same reason the original residents did years ago as the bottom income bracket in the U.S. is now high enough to make car ownership a possibility and give inner-city families a way out of failing school systems."
The result of all of this, UVA researchers believe, is a demographical double-edge sword. On one hand, central cities are being revived, but at what expense to those who were there first? "The shift of upper-middle class residents into poorer urban areas has the potential to make those neighborhoods healthier and more diverse," researchers wrote. "But it can also displace existing communities."