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Don't Get Caught in the Middle; Plan Growth Where it Makes Sense

Georgia’s Cities
By Jim Durrett
Published April 5, 2007
When it comes to growth in our communities, it often seems that there are two big, loud constituencies - the no growth crowd and the growth-anywhere crowd. As anyone who's been caught between the two at a zoning hearing can tell you, it's no fun being in the middle.
In an increasing number of Georgia communities big and small, however, there's a growing realization that there's a third, wise choice between no growth and any growth.
That third way is mixed-use, higher density development, targeted in those areas where it makes sense. This is the kind of growth that combines places to live, work and play in compact developments.
It works best when it is close to employment and town centers, and it tends to make walking, biking and transit viable options to the automobile. This kind of development also has the advantage of concentrating growth near existing utilities and other services, easing the cost of serving that growth. That's important because there is no doubt that our state will grow. In the 20-county Atlanta region, it's expected that population will grow to nearly 7 million by the year 2030, a 46 percent increase. Statewide, Georgia's population is expected to reach 14.4 million by 2030.
So the question is, how will we grow? Will we create vibrant, livable, walkable centers, towns and cities with a range of housing choices and prices? Or will we offer mainly the unending sprawl of subdivisions?
If the latter, we raise the cost of serving growth, and we will serve some of our constituents poorly. Let me give you just one example, and that's the fastest growing part of our nation's population. By the year 2030, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older, a shift that will remake many of our communities. It certainly will change Atlanta, where the percentage of residents 60-and-over will double, from today's 11 percent to 22 percent.
Such changes will demand, among other things, changes in housing. In 1960, during the heyday of suburbia, half of all households had children. By 2040, only about a quarter will.
While there will be empty nesters that opt for a 4,500-square-foot house two miles from the nearest quart of milk, not everyone will make that choice. In fact, a story in The Wall Street journal last fall began this way: "Forget golf courses, beaches and mountains. When it comes to finding a new place to live, today's retirees are looking for something completely different."
The story went on to note that many people today want a sense of community, whether they find it in a big city or small town: "Moving to a mixed-use development, a small town, or seeking an urban experience are all elements of the same thing: it's a community where you getto know each other. You're walking around and you get to know your neighbors, you get to know the shopkeepers, because you meet them on the street." Of course, the sense of community fostered by mixed-use development appeals to people of all ages, and for a variety of reasons. Not long ago, researchers from Georgia Tech and the University of British Columbia studied travel habits, development patterns and housing demand in metro Atlanta. They found that people who live in more walkable neighborhoods - ones with a mix of housing types and streets that connect to shops, offices and other destinations drive 30 percent less than those in conventional auto-oriented settings.
Putting a dent in traffic congestion is a huge issue in places like metro Atlanta. But the bigger issue everywhere remains quality of life. Growing numbers of people define that as vibrant, livable and walkable towns and cities that have both an identity and a strong sense of community.
Georgia will grow. None of us has much control over that. But we can control how we grow. We can make our towns and cities the kinds of communities that offer choices to all our residents and, by the way, make living in our towns and cities easier and more enjoyable.