Sprawl is dead. It’s roadkill, you might say.
And unlike movie zombies, the growth phenomenon that once defined the metro region is not going to spring back to life. In Atlanta and most other places, the sprawl era that began with post-war Levittown, N.Y. and eventually redrew the American landscape and mindset has now passed into history.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the suburbs created by sprawl will disappear or even decline. To the contrary, for many they remain great places to live and raise a family, and that won’t change. Once the economy recovers, a lot of suburbs will resume growth through infill development and increased density, although they will become increasingly urban in the process.
However, the conversion of vast tracts of far-flung greenspace into suburban housing — that has ended. The larger postwar demographic trends, economics, lifestyle choices and government subsidies that drove that trend have all petered out, and without them, large-scale sprawl will end as well.
The evidence of that transition is stark. Today, if you fly over or drive around the outer suburbs of metro Atlanta, you’ll find tens of thousands of vacant lots, cleared and ready for houses. Many of those empty lots — some complete with paved roads, sewer, water and utilities — will never see development and are destined to be reclaimed by nature, reverting to pasture or forest.
The industry that generated those lots has vanished as well, never to reassemble in such numbers. The mortgage brokers who stood ready to close loans in those subdivisions are instead collecting unemployment or selling shoes. The developers who bet their futures on those home lots have gone bankrupt, and the Hispanic carpenters and laborers who would have built them have gone, disappearing as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared. Many of the commercial banks that financed those projects have also gone under.
Now, it’s tempting to dismiss all that change as the temporary result of a deep recession. If that were true, the sprawl industry would likely reassemble once the economy picks up. But it won’t.
Even before the recession hit, the sprawl model of growth was showing serious strains in metro Atlanta. Admittedly, it was hard to see at the time. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, reported that from July 2000 to July 2008, six of the 15 fastest growing counties in the country could be found here in the 28-county Atlanta metro region.
By the end of that eight-year stretch, however, the Atlanta boom had cooled considerably. By July 2007 to July 2008, none of the 15 fastest growing counties were in metro Atlanta. The only two metro counties to even make the top 50 were Forsyth at No. 16 and Paulding at No. 40.
The boom machine, however, was too busy making money to notice that slackening of demand. By July 2007, almost 240,000 lots were coming on line for development in north metro Atlanta alone, according to Metrostudy, a real-estate data and analysis company. This, in a market where annual new home sales barely averaged 30,000, even during the boom.
What accounts for that shift? A lot of it is the free market at work. Younger people forming households of their own are more interested in urban living than in recreating their suburban upbringing, and many older Americans are also looking to downsize their living arrangements. The rising cost of commuting and energy to heat and cool large homes are having an impact as well.
Government’s declining ability to subsidize farflung suburbia has also had an effect. In Atlanta and other areas, the transportation infrastructure needed to shorten commuting times and thus extend the suburban model still farther from the core is no longer practical or affordable; it has become a struggle just to service already developed areas.
For a while, the flood of easy mortgages, cheap immigrant labor and big profits disguised those profound changes taking place nationally. Here in metro Atlanta, it disguised something else as well.
Long before the recession began, the metro region’s job-creating capacity was already more myth than reality. A lot of people were moving here, but jobs weren’t. According to Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, by 2008 the 28-county area had produced an average of just 1,400 premium-paying jobs a year since 2002.
No doubt many of those jobs were generated by the sprawl industry, the result of a boom that we now know to have been based on a false foundation. Metro Atlanta’s economic challenges, in other words, aren’t likely to end when this terrible recession does.