By Tom Baxter
Recently a group called Smart Growth America issued a report on sprawl in the nation’s metropolitan areas, and to the surprise of no Atlantans, we were No. 1: the most sprawling large metro area in the country, again.
Actually, we were ranked No. 220, but that’s because Smart Growth America considers it a bad thing when people have to live a long way from work or a grocery store, and metro areas gobble up huge chunks of the countryside.
Many Atlantans have a different view. They don’t like their long commutes, but look upon sprawl as an emblem of booming economic health. For years, as the sprawl reached record proportions, a widening circle of metro counties made it on the list of the nation’s fastest growing.
But while the sprawl remains, those days of rocketing growth have gone, as another recent report, the U.S. Census Bureau’s snapshot of growth so far in this decade, makes clear.
In the period between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2013, the fastest-growing Georgia counties were those adjacent to military bases in South Georgia, not Atlanta exurbs. Forsyth, the fastest-growing metro county, ranked 18th on the list of the 100 fastest growing counties in the nation, far behind the pace counties the area used to set. Fulton County ranked 80th on this year’s list; Gwinnett, 92nd.
Compared to much of the rest of Georgia, growth rates in Metro Atlanta are still reasonably robust, but the patterns of sprawl and growth are changing. The growth rate now falls as you get farther out: 6.9 percent in Fulton, 3.1 percent in DeKalb, 2 percent in Rockdale. Or, looking outward in another direction, 4.2 percent in Cobb, 3.3 percent in Paulding, -1 percent in Haralson.
This suggests that whatever anyone thinks of Metro Atlanta’s massive sprawl, it is reaching some kind of physical limit. The center is again getting more dense and the pace of growth on the edges is slowing. It may not seem that way when the traffic backs up at the Eagle’s Landing exit on I-75, but the numbers suggest that the long tide represented by those cars has begun to ebb. As it does, planners face the huge challenge of knitting together the huge area left in the wake of a sprawl that at one time was growing faster in area, according to at least one expert, than any metro area in history.
It’s a different and unsettling story beyond the exurban edge. More than half of Georgia’s counties — by my count, 81 of the 159 — have lost population in this decade, and many others have seen growth of 1 percent or less.
Some of these are rural counties which have been losing population for a long time. Turner County in south Georgia, which began the decade with only 8,930 residents, fell by 8.9 percent to 8,134. But other, more prosperous counties have declined as well. Peach County, which grew steadily over several decades to more than 27,000, lost 2.5 percent of its residents since 2010.
Most of the counties with midsize cities and their bedroom counties — the Columbus, Savannah, Augusta, and Gainesville metros — are still growing, but Bibb County (Macon) and Dougherty County (Albany) have lost population. Middle Georgia just beyond the southern Metro counties should be an area of particular concern, but North Georgia, outside a few growth areas, looks surprisingly anemic as well.
The Census Bureau’s map of growth in the nation’s metropolitan areas knits the stories of sprawl and shrinkage together. Atlanta’s the light-green blob, indicating more modest growth than the darker green metros elsewhere in the country, surrounded by patches of pink and purple, showing metros losing population.
These are the numbers behind the stories of hospital closings and economic decline in rural Georgia. They insure that the 20th Century concept of “two Georgias” remains pertinent in the 21st. They should be a prime subject for the governor’s race.
On a more upbeat note, the Associated Press reports that Georgia’s bald eagle population, which almost vanished in the 1970s, has rebounded strongly and is expected to reach a count of more than 180 nests this year. Maybe the eagles have landed where the people aren’t anymore.