New Urbanists Convene in "Sprawlanta" Seeking Solutions to "Bright Flight"

Musician David Byrne joins the HUD secretary and transportation specialists in an effort to reinvigorate city centers.

Avenue crossection

I'm in Atlanta this week for the annual Congress of the New Urbanism. Founded 30 years ago by the husband-and-wife architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the practice of New Urbanism stresses dense, walkable, diverse communities — created and enforced by strict master planning — over the familiar free-for-all of auto-driven sprawl.

We need more of it. Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution published "The State of Metropolitan America," a sweeping analysis of the last 10 years of American urbanism. To no one's surprise, suburban and exurban areas grew three times faster than metropolitan cores, driven by a growing population and the housing bubble. But those numbers hide a larger demographic shift — the suburbs are growing older, more diverse, and more poor.

"Cities gained population at suburbs’ expense in the wake of the housing crash," the report states; "a majority of members of all major racial/ethnic groups now live in suburbs; and the suburban poor population grew at roughly five times the rate of the city poor population over the decade." The result is what has been termed as "bright flight" — the shift among younger, highly educated, higher earning Americans from suburbs to cities, overturning the pattern of their parents' and grandparents' generation. Corporations are starting to do the same.

"We now stand on the precipice of a 'decade of reckoning,'" the report states ominously. "Questions around how to support communities with rapidly aging populations, how to meet family and labor market needs through immigration, and how to help lower-paid workers support themselves and their families simply cannot go unaddressed for another decade without risking our collective standard of living and the quality of our democracy. Tackling these and other challenges will require coherent, purposeful leadership in the coming years."

The New Urbanists are here in Atlanta this week to propose solutions. "Suburban sprawl is not coming back," Duany said today, "We must adjust our focus." Two-thirds of suburban households no longer have children living at home. Of first-time home buyers 80% are without children; 77% want to live in urban places, and of those, 85% want to keep living in urban places even after they have children. At a certain point, one has to ask whether we need all the suburbia we've built.

On first glance, the choice of Atlanta for the Congress seems willfully perverse. "Sprawlanta" famously (perhaps apocryphally) has the highest number of babies born in traffic of any U.S., owing to its apocalyptic freeway congestion.

But urban infill projects like Beltline — 22 miles of light transit, parks, and trails redeveloped from four former freight lines — and Atlantic Station (which replaced a former steelmill with a mixed-use city-within-a-city) reflect the trend Brookings captured in the numbers. Even as galactic Atlanta continues to expand (all the way to Tennessee border), the center is being reclaimed by young people hungry for urbanism.

The official theme of the Congress is "Rx for Healthy Spaces," co-sponsored by the locally based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How we build and maintain our communities' transportation systems, infrastructure, and public spaces can either exacerbate or reduce obesity, chronic diseases, injury rates, poor mental health, and the adverse effects of climate change," argues Dr. Howard Frumkin, special assistant to the director of the CDC for Climate and Health and one of the convention chairs. That theme was stressed Wednesday night by the one bona fide rock star attendee (and Bicycle Diaries author) David Byrne.

Check back later today for details from his keynote address, and keep checking in throughout the week for reports on Peter Calthorpe's audacious effort to create a state-wide transportation/carbon emission plan for California; the Obama administration's support of New Urbanism, as told by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan; retrofitting sprawl; "agricultural urbanism;" visits to the Beltline and Atlantic Station, and whether instant cities like Dubai can ever be sustainable. It's going to be a busy couple of days.

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