“Spatial Mismatch” and Why Density Alone Isn’t Enough

Density, density, density. It’s something of a mantra in sustainable transportation circles. But in today’s featured post from the Streetsblog Network, UrbanCincy points to the cautionary example of Atlanta — a place that could perhaps best be described as dense sprawl.

ATL_Skylines.jpgThe skylines of Atlanta. Photo by mattsal88 via ImageShack.

What has happened in Atlanta is something that should be learned from. Atlanta is arguably the king of sprawl in modern day America, but some might say, well Fulton County has a higher population density than does Hamilton County. Similar arguments can be applied to other less urban regions than Cincinnati. The fact is that Fulton County is just about built out with the exception of some land in the far southern reaches of the county. Furthermore, this built-out county has extraordinarily dense suburban areas including the central Perimeter area which includes 30-story office towers, residential towers and 12-lane highway systems to boot. The traffic is abysmal like much of the rest of Atlanta and the problem is only going to get worse.

The reason is a combination of densities and form. The suburban areas of Atlanta, and even much of the urban areas, are almost entirely
car-dependent. So a low-density suburban area that is car-dependent is one thing, but a high-density area of the same makeup is nightmarish. The "spatial mismatch" is exacerbated to a degree seen nowhere else in America than Atlanta and Los Angeles (Los Angeles County is the most populated county in the country at 9+ million). The people living in one area are working in another creating a spatial mismatch that is exacerbated by the high densities. They are not walking, biking or taking transit to a level enough that would offset its densities.

When you hear of the next "new urbanist" neighborhood on the fringes of a metropolitan area, or the next lifestyle center that pitches itself as being the next best thing to an authentic urban shopping experience, be wary. These are not real communities where store owners live in addition to running their business. The residents are most likely hopping in their car that is parked nicely within one of their two (or more) dedicated parking spaces and driving into the center city for work.

Higher densities in our suburban areas are not the answers to our sprawl issues. A correction of the spatial mismatch is what’s needed to truly create a sustainable metropolitan area. Natural systems need to be preserved in their truest form and our most fertile food-producing regions need to be maintained for their highest and best use. Higher densities in the core with high-density satellite neighborhoods connected by high-quality transit options are the best possible solutions.

Other news from around the network: Kansas Cyclist reports on efforts in Iowa and Colorado to ban bikes — that’s right, ban bikes — from some roads. Meanwhile, CommuteOrlandoBlog is back from a bike trip through Amish country and has a very thought-provoking post on the culture of speed vs. the culture of trust. And Trains for America links to a debate over the relative merits of high-speed and maglev trains.

  • gonna let my bad mood shine brightly today!

    i’m not crazy about the term ‘spatial mismatch’ — it reminds me of the legalese used by lawyers to conduct lawyering — the whole idea seems to be to keep regular people from participating in any meaningful way. that’s not to say the term was designed to by overly cryptic — just that we let a professor coin and continue to use a term with no marketability.

    also, the term just seems…meaningless. a spatial mismatch, to me, is trying to stick square peg into a round hole — that’s a spatial mismatch. but otherwise it just seems like ‘motorization’ or ‘auto-centric policies’ or ‘urban sprawl’ or ‘bad zoning codes’ or whatever other term or terms you prefer.

    that’s not to say that the term/phrase ‘spatial mismatch’ doesn’t actually have a unique/valid/meaningful place in the urban planning lexicon — it’s just that i like terms to make sense intuitively, if possible.

    on high speed rail, the more i think about it, the more i think it’s a mistake — here and abroad. really, it probably shouldn’t even be possible to go from here to there, over several hundred miles, in a few minutes or hours. it’s not natural. it’s not human. it’s not important (enough). it’s not right. it’s important that it takes time to get from one place to another. i don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to be able to teleport from one place to another — presuming that is our transportation end goal. nor do i want a Jetsons future, with hyper-clean flying cars and robots and the rest. blah. i want real connectedness and community and localism and manual labor and all the good things that come with all of that — and even all the bad things that come with all of that.

    flying — in particular commercial flying — seems kind of evil, too. there’s no need for it. take a boat. if you want to go to europe, then your trip there will actually be meaningful because it took effort to get there. it shouldn’t be possible to just fly different places for vacation. we shouldn’t be subsidizing the airline industry so massively. people shouldn’t move away from their families and still expect to be able to see them whenever they want — moving should have consequences — and it should be meaningful. will connecting all these places via high speed rail make them all into one homogeneous muck, so that to taste any real authenticity, any true local flavor, we have to find some sleepy town without access to motorized transport of any type?

    and that is all i have to say about that. 🙂

  • First, to the original story, interesting stuff.

    Second, to the comment by Peter Smith: improving transit, bicycling access and pedestrian infrastructure (etc) are about making sure that people have options… not taking them away from people. Similarly, for long distance transit, we need more options not fewer. If you want to go live without access to high speed transport, by all means, go do so and feel free to recruit those like-minded folks you can find… but forcing that on the rest of us would not get the community you want – it’ll just force up barriers between people.

  • Chris

    As an urban economist, former DC resident and current Atlantian I wish to take issue with your post with regards to Fulton County. While Fulton and Dekalb Counties are fully built out,they are not dense and metro Atlanta is one of the least dense cities in the country. This is a legacy of sprawl, pre-airconditioning building technology and Atlanta’s post WWII development boom. Multi-family housing without AC tends to be very hot in the south so before WWII there wasn’t much apartment or town house construction in the city and the rapid growth and sprawl in the subsequent boom created few pressures to redevelop the existing (and very nice) single-family housing stock. So you get this weird density gradient of newly built towers surround by single family houses or duplexes. I walk 8 blocks to work from my 7500 sqft lot single family house to one of the towers in the Midtown office cluster which is in the foreground of your picture. Incidentally, Midtown, Buckhead, Downtown and North Perimeter (the four major office markets) are all connected by heavy rail similar to DC’s which at 54 miles of track is one of the biggest post war systems and is maintained by a one cent sales taxes. The massive freeways that bisect the city built by the feds and the state and Fulton and Dekalb’s arterial roads are surprisingly narrow much to the chagrin of outer county commuters which spend there sales tax monies on roads. Only in the last 10 years has Atlanta begun in-fill construction and most of these condos and apartments were put up adjacent to the existing office clusters. While these podium buildings have too much parking they are exactly where you’d want them to be: near employment, transit, shopping and entertainment. Traffic in Atlanta is largely a product of its extraordinary low density sprawl and (relatively) monocentric commute patterns, which also generates a fairly steep bid function hence the market for 20 story towers in a metro area with really cheap housing at the edge. But that cheap housing on the edge is on 2 acre lots not townhouse in the middle of nowhere that you see in Northern Virginia. While Atlanta made a lot of mistakes it has, in the last 15 years done more than any other city to build (from scratch) dense, walkable multi-use clusters. Examples include Midtown, Atlantic Station, Buckhead (to some extent) Lindburgh center, MARTA’s current TOD policies and the Beltline project.

    -A yankee carpet bagger

  • Bill

    Hi Sarah, I live in Atlanta and stumbled on your article this evening. There are some good insights in this piece about urban density and I plan to forward the link to some folks I know at City Hall who are working on these issues. But, I think you go overboard in your characterization of quality of high density life in Atlanta as “nightmarish”. I was surprised to learn that I’m living in a hellhole. At one point you say: “The traffic is abysmal like much of the rest of Atlanta and the problem is only going to get worse.”

    Often to make a point hyperbole is a helpful tool. When you’re speaking about someone’s home it would be nice to take greater care. I live in Fulton County. My commute across town to Buckhead, when I choose to take the car, takes 15 minutes. Usually I take the subway. I do have to walk 20 minutes to the station but I walk through parks to get there and I’m door to door at work in 40 minutes. Much of the City of Atlanta, even the inner city where I live, is tree lined and beautiful year round. its a little hot and humid in July and August, but so is New York!

    After work tonight I walked 10 minutes from my apartment with my dog to Parish restaurant and had a nice dinner with a friend on the patio — Red Fish and a “Dixie” beer (formerly of New Orleans now brewed in Milwaukee) — here’s the link to Parish for a nice meal when you’re in town — http://www.parishatl.com/home.php

    Finally, I encourage you to visit the site that gauges cities and neighborhoods for walkability, an important metric it seems to me regarding the effectiveness of density for human enjoyment. What you’ll see is that Atlanta is in the middle of the pack for American cities, to my surprise ahead of Austin and Nashville. My neighborhood, Poncey-Highlands, in the heart of Fulton County, scores a 93 and thus ranks among the most walkable neighborhoods in the country — and we’re not the most walkable in Atlanta — we’re behind Five Points which scored 95! http://www.walkscore.com/rankings/most-walkable-cities.php

    My point here is not to claim that Atlanta doesn’t have a serious problem with sprawl and traffic, its just the simpler idea I’d like to convey that when using comments about a community to make a point please take care to present some context. If I read your article and had never been to Atlanta, I would never go. That would be a shame and I don’t think that’s an outcome you intended. Did you? If you come to Atlanta and you’d like to see what I’m talking about we’ll walk to Parish or any of dozens of restaurant, bars, or coffee shops, for dinner or drinks — but don’t take a boat unless its canoe and you come down the Chattahoochee River — and check first to make sure there’s some water in it.

    Thanks for the nice work on this blog. I’m glad I found it and look forward to reading more.

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