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The suburbs are becoming more urban

Though older building, this type of denser development should be in Atlanta's future. -Photo by Kelly Jordan

By King Williams

At the end of this post there will be a survey on what do you think about the suburbs, I hope you fill it out, let me know how you feel and share it.

No one actually knows what a suburb is. No one.

But neither does the federal government, which classifies all spaces as urban or rural.

Though older building, this type of denser development should be in Atlanta’s future.
-Photo by Kelly Jordan

So before we go further let’s define a few terms:

Urban of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city…ex: downtown Decatur or Midtown Atlanta;

Rural of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture… ex: Butts County;

Suburb an outlying part of a city or town. b : a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city. ex: Sandy Springs or Serenbe;

Exurb a region or settlement that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs and that often is inhabited chiefly by well-to-do families ex: Eagles Landing or Cumming; 

Edge Citya relatively large urban area or suburb situated on the outskirts of a city’s limits, typically beside a major roadway, airport or transit node A suburb that has developed its own political, economic, and commercial base independent of the central cityex: Dunwoody/Perimeter or Fayetteville;

Atlanta is a city of suburbs

Over the past week, there have been internal debates on this with several prominent experts and my friends on social media on this topic.

In Atlanta, it feels like everyone lives in either the city or the suburbs, but it’s not just Atlanta, the majority of the US lives in a burb. But most of us live in areas that are a blend of cities and suburbs. Many of Atlanta’s historic towns began as rail hubs and have since become overtaken by sprawl.

An example is Decatur which has both the city limits and unincorporated sections. While it pre-dates Atlanta’s incorporation, it is an independent city, small town and suburb to Atlanta.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e68CoE70Mk8&w=560&h=315]


The development of the suburbs was fueled by the New Deal, Federal Highway Act and the GI Bill, and economies of suburbanization helped grow America’s middle class. All of these programs and policies all explicitly discriminated against people like who look like me.

Historically, suburbs were developed with varying degrees of quality – some cheaply made in racially-divided communities where developers could build at will. Suburbs also grew because of preferential treatment in home loans, redlining and relaxed housing codes. They often resisted the development of transit and public housing, and they grew partly because of white flight from the central city.

The highway development that cut through inner city neighborhoods and led to Atlanta’s suburban sprawl brought about a decline of the black middleclass, and it has never fully recovered.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odF4GSX1y3c&w=560&h=315]


Across most of the country from 1950’s to the 1990’s, cities declined in population and resources while the suburbs maintained a steady, albeit government-assisted climb.

It’s said that Atlanta is a city of suburbs, but that isn’t necessarily true. Suburbs don’t exist on their own. They feed off the core city and serve as a bridge to edge cities and small towns.

Suburbs need the city more than the city needs the suburbs.

Today’s reality is that suburbs HAVE to urbanize. When building today’s communities we need to make sure they are sustainable, efficient and a wise investment of our resources.

Every viable suburb of a decent size is trying to do just that – increase its tax base, keep families and attract millennials. They have to because that’s what millennials and Gen Z’s are demanding; the urbanized multi-modal, walkable and interconnected, third spaces of cities. This is resulting in the current town square movement’s we are seeing places like downtown Lawrenceville’s revitalization, The Battery Atlanta in Cobb County and Dunwoody’s upcoming High Street Atlanta project.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_uTsrxfYWQ&w=560&h=315]


Our dependence on cars really does have an expiration date – one that date back to the 1990s.

The continued growth of our suburbs leads to health disparities, excessive use of natural resources and a loss of tree canopy – all factors that contribute to climate change. Considering the region’s population growth and climate change, suburbs have to evolve as there will be a continual environmental impact related to sprawl.

A parking deck over a massive highways heading towards a former toll road is peak Atlanta.
-Photo by Kelly Jordan

The long-term effects of spending on roads, parking and maintenance costs maybe a bill we can’t continue to pay.

One way for suburbs to shift away from highways to transit is congestion pricing, which is a new revenue source for alternative modes of transportation.

It also makes sense to invest in simple amenities – sidewalks, greenways, bike paths and to reduce parking requirements.

By investing in alternative transportation modes, we also will reduce the cost of providing social services and health care.

Metro leaders should redevelop vacant suburban malls and strip shopping centers into new town centers that foster entrepreneurs. It will be the retrofitting of our suburbs, where the biggest growth opportunity the metro Atlanta area will be, we see this now in Alpharetta’s Avalon and Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Center’s current upgrade, as the tip of the iceberg.

The great urban revival will be going in reverse.

The ‘winner take all national hunger games between cities (see Amazon HQ2), has already started happening in the suburbs, (see cityhood; NCR relocation).

Metro Atlanta is modeling the national demographic trends – becoming more ethnically diverse with older populations wanting to live in more urban environments. We’re actually running out of viable spaces for residential growth. Any more sprawl and the metro Atlanta will start in Birmingham, I’m only half kidding. 

In the early 21st Century, we saw a rise in the creative class and a migration of younger people choosing to live in cities. But now we could see them moving out – but only to areas that offer the amenities found in core cities, such as transit and an urban lifestyle. A couple examples of smaller edge cities include Hapeville and the developing Aerotropolis project.

Crystal City, err National Landing?…an edge city located outside of DC and Long Island City, Queens, a city within a city which won Amazon’s HQ2 economic development beauty contest, are communities connected with transit – the antithesis of disconnected suburbs where residents live miles away from job centers and basic amenities.

Old strip centers, shopping malls, drive-through banks and big box retailers are now on life support. Retrofitting these venues should be at the top of every suburban agenda. They represent the greatest growth opportunity in metro Atlanta.

To survive, suburbs will need to become more urbanized for our future but more importantly so will we.

Below is a quick 10 question survey on the Atlanta suburbs, once you’re done feel free to email me at king@saportareport.com or tweet me @iamkingwilliams your thoughts on the article.


King Williams

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at king@saportareport.com or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.


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1 Comment

  1. Chris Johnston December 3, 2018 11:52 am

    King, the suburbs have been urban for a long time. If you define urban as a grouping of high rise buildings, then there are many: Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Perimeter Mall, and Galleria. Three of the five are suburban. If you define urban as a large concentration of office space, recognise that Perimeter Mall area has more Class A office space than Nashville.
    None of these suburban areas have sprung up overnight.Report


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