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Metro Atlanta’s Sprawl Since the 1940s is Mind Blowing!

From a sleepy Southern town to nearly 3,000 square miles

Recent evidence suggests that metro Atlanta is beginning to grow into itself, so to speak, by focusing on infill as opposed to the unbridled outward expansion it’s famous for. The Harvard Political Review, to name one example, observed earlier this year how development patterns across the region are generally shifting from auto-centric to pedestrian-friendly.

Now, a thoughtful analysis by BuildZoom, an online marketplace for the construction industry, illustrates how Atlanta’s inglorious “poster child for urban sprawl” nickname was probably justified all along.

The study finds that, in general, American cities have been gobbling up surrounding rural territory since the 1950s, but in ways that segregate cities into two distinct groups. Beginning in the 1970s, the first group (San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, even Miami, and others) reduced the pace of their outward expansion.

Meanwhile, Atlanta and Sun Belt brethren such as Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte kicked the sprawl-o-matic machine into overdrive, resulting in a growth-by-decade disparity like this:

In comparing the metro regions of Atlanta and San Fran, BuildZoom’s analyst observes:

Atlanta’s developed footprint expanded considerably every decade since the 1950s — even in the 2000s, which lost several years’ of growth to the housing bust. San Francisco expanded much more than Atlanta in the ‘50s, but in contrast to Atlanta — and despite having an economy at least as strong as Atlanta’s throughout the years — San Francisco’s expansion began slowing down as early as the 1960s, and by the 2000s it had almost ground to a halt.

This lands Atlanta squarely in a classification of American cities that BuildZoom labels “elastic,” in that builders have erected large numbers of new homes in response to even the slightest uptick in property values.

Let’s slow that down and let it really sink in … (scroll slowly) …

Finally, this BuildZoom list all but anoints metro Atlanta the king of sprawl through the 2000s.

By 2010, metro Atlanta’s square mileage, per this data, was larger than Chicago’s and not much smaller than that of Los Angeles. Which is not to say that’s necessarily something to celebrate.


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