Expert: Atlanta can hit the 1.3 million people mark and keep its beautiful, glorious trees

But it’s gonna take density in some areas

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If Atlanta is going to call 1.3 million people home — and be open to people of all incomes — by 2050 it’s going to have to push for density in certain areas. But that doesn’t mean the city needs to become a treeless Seoul in the heart of the Southeast.

That’s according to a planning professor and expert on urban growth who spoke last week to a packed crowd at Downtown’s Central Atlanta Library to kickoff a yearlong effort to decide how we want Atlanta to look when it doubles its population.

The project is the first of its kind for Atlanta, says Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, who’s leading the effort with Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who dreamed up the Atlanta Beltline as a graduate student. The city and planners are asking residents how a city with double its current population or more should look and feel. 

“What do we want city to be in 25 to 35 years?” Keane asked the crowd. “We have to get busy on that. Because we’re growing. We need to start shaping things. It’s one of those thing that a city, and residents of that city, needs to have.”

It’s hard to imagine Atlanta, which still hasn’t reached its population high of 495,000 residents in the 1970, growing to more than 1 million people. But Arthur C. Nelson, a professor or planning and real estate development who once taught at Georgia Tech and is now at the University of Arizona, told the crowd that it was possible.

The metro region is projected to grow to 9 million people by 2050. Nelson says, based on growth projections and surveys that say people want to live near the amenities that only the city can offer, the city could capture a sizable amount of that growth.  

“Right now, 900,000 people want to live in the city,” Nelson says, referring to present market demand. “By 2050, 1.3 million would want to live in city if given the opportunity. That’s market demand.”

Now Atlanta just needs to find a way to accommodate 800,000 new residents. Nelson said many could flock to Atlanta’s existing pockets of skyscrapers and people living in close yet comfortable quarters — Midtown, Downtown, and around the Beltline. Of the three areas, Nelson said, Downtown, a transit-rich and walkable community that’s ripe for growth and also has a high occupancy rate, could see the most growth. (One resident wondered after the talk why, if people are so pining to live in a neighborhood like Downtown, developers aren’t building more towers to accommodate them.) But the city will also have to grow denser along corridors other than just Peachtree Street. 

Nelson, using a photo of the South Moreland Avenue shopping center with plentiful parking, says Atlanta has a glut of asphalt wastelands along busy streets and roads that could be redeveloped. It could redevelop aging and outdated retail and commercial developments and remediate brownfields. He also said it was important — and possible — to build infill density below the tree line to preserve one of Atlanta’s hallmarks. Finally, Nelson suggested the city help preserve the single-family neighborhoods, which it’s done before. Nelson pointed to the plan the city and Buckhead leaders crafted more than 20 years ago to allow density and the residential neighborhoods nearby to co-exist.

Getting big has its downsides — construction and congestion, for one — but comes with benefits, Nelson said. A larger Atlanta could be more economically resilient. Atlantans living in a larger and more compact, well-designed city could have higher personal well-being scores. Residents would be easier on the environment.

Making it possible for people of all incomes — and different-size families — to live in the city is also doable. Speaking before the meeting, Nelson discussed the various ways that developers can build high-rises to be more flexible for families, rather than offering the standard studio or 1- or 2-bedroom layout you find in Midtown, Downtown, or Buckhead. And he said ensuring affordability will require the city to become more comfortable with density, in addition to having the correct policies in place.

“Home values will increase as the city becomes more attractive, but if the city does a good job in providing housing for all the segments of demand then you’ll have affordable housing where you need and for the population that demands it,” Nelson said. “That takes planning, openness to accept more development perhaps.”

The next step is getting involved and telling leaders how to shape the vision for what that city will look like. The Atlanta City Studio can be found at Ponce City Market. Leaders plan to hold a follow-up on Oct. 4 about the visioning process.