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Atlanta counted among five global cities boldly fighting consequences of sprawl

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Like Los Angeles and Shanghai, Atlanta is trying to fix “fundamental error of the past,” National Geographic observes

An example of denser housing development in the shadow of downtown.
An example of denser development patterns near public transit in the shadow of downtown.
Curbed Atlanta

Atlanta was famously (and infamously) described in the 1990s as the poster child for urban sprawl, but the region’s unbridled outward expansion was hardly finished.

By 2010, metro Atlanta’s square mileage was larger than Chicago’s and not much smaller than that of Los Angeles—regions with millions of more residents than Atlanta’s, according to a BuildZoom analysis.

Counting well over 8,000 square miles today, per U.S. Census statistics, metro Atlanta’s land area is comparable to that of New Jersey.

While acknowledging that Atlanta remains “one of the most sprawling cities on Earth”—where a so-called “suburban renaissance” is afoot—National Geographic magazine nonetheless recognizes the ATL on a shortlist of global cities fighting to cure the ills of automobile-first infrastructure and development patterns.

It’s not the first time outside observers have lauded Atlanta’s modern-day development patterns—Harvard University did so in 2016—but it’s a high-profile acknowledgement of a city that’s trying, as the magazine puts it, “to walk back this fundamental error of the past.”

For a piece this week titled, “These five cities are taking bold steps to rein in sprawl,” National Geographic magazine’s senior environment editor Robert Kunzig focuses unsurprisingly on the Beltline’s recent impact, calling the generational project “a belt of connection.” The voter-approved TSPLOST funding for transit in 2016 and even next week’s MARTA vote in Gwinnett County could also be cited as evidence to support a localized sprawl-pushback argument.

Beside the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, this former postindustrial wasteland was transformed into the section of Historic Fourth Ward Park that hosts King of Pops’s free weekly yoga classes.
SteadyFlyProductions, via King of Pops Twitter

Among “five cities that are trying hard to do better,” Atlanta gains mention alongside just one other American metropolis—Los Angeles, where a revival of metro and light-rail transit is underway.

Also recognized: Hamburg, Germany’s efforts to remediate the impact of a six-lane highway carved through downtown following World War II reconstruction; explosive Shanghai, where a 14-mile riverside park has been created; and La Paz, Bolivia’s mountainous capital, where a system of aerial cable-cars (like ski resort gondolas) is providing the city’s first mass transit. Impressive company for Atlanta, in other words.

As part of his research, Kunzig took a stroll with Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel along the Eastside Trail, which is now credited with spurring the bulk of $4 billion in Beltline-influenced economic development across intown Atlanta.

Kunzig’s observation:

“Bikers and joggers and skaters of all description streamed by us on the trail. What was once a forbidding strip of derelict wasteland that separated neighborhoods from one another is becoming a means of joining people together.”

It’s basically the antithesis of the American sprawl-topia, described by Kunzig as a “sprawl of highways and parking lots, strip malls and cul-de-sacs, a landscape that is accessible only by car.”

And the Beltline seems to have inspired this closing observation:

“Good city planning doesn’t blind you to the problems; on the contrary, it opens your eyes to the possibilities.”