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“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.