Will the Future of Atlanta Be Reached on Foot?

by Chip Bell

Suburban sprawl over the last 50 years has led to an expanse of drivable city space, but a recent study suggests walkable urbanization may be the direction of the future.

For the past half-century, suburban sprawl has helped define the trajectory of urban building. However, in recent years, construction has begun reflecting a growing desire to stay connected, which has resulted in drastic increases in walkable urban places, better known as WalkUPs, which essentially mean areas accessible by either public transportation, bike routes or by foot, according to a new report from The George Washington University School of Business.

In Atlanta, WalkUPs are becoming quite promiment, which is surprising considering the city represents the largest overall metro area in the country. Already Atlanta ranks eighth among walkable urban metros.

The majority of the city’s WalkUPs, two-thirds, are found within the central portion of Atlanta proper. In some circumstances that might not bode well for future development, but walkable areas in Atlanta, especially in regards to office and retail space, have gained considerable market share over the past four years.

Walkability By the Numbers

The study, authored by professors Christopher Leinberger and Patrick Lynch, rates Atlanta as a city with fairly high levels of walkability, behind Seattle, Chicago and only a handful of others. The actual scale that measures walkability is determined by a combination of population, the walkability of office and retail space, income and the overall number of WalkUPs in the metro. In Houston, data showed:

  • Metro GDP per capita came in at $47,000, which makes Atlanta sixteenth in the nation.
  • The city has 27 total WalkUPs with an average population of 159,000 per, which ranks Atlanta as fourth in the nation.
  • There is more than 577,000,000 square feet of office and retail space in the city, and 121,948,000 is located in WalkUPs.

A Bright Future

The study describes Atlanta as a city rife with development opportunities. However, in order to continue converting the metro’s massive, sprawling suburbs into WalkUps, Leinberger and Lynch stress that serious investment into the expansion and maintenance of Atlanta’s heavy rail system MARTA, which the pair describe as “neglected,” is needed.

“The proposed BeltLine rail transit project, a 22-mile ring around greater downtown, along with three streetcar lines, will encourage substantial walkable urban development in the region,” the study reads. “In addition, the residential housing market has already shifted; the highest-priced ZIP codes are the close-in neighborhoods directly adjacent to downtown, many of which were low-income areas 20-years ago.”

Considering that most of the area’s up-and-coming neighborhoods can be found within the Interstate 285 loop, locally known as the “Perimeter,” it seems reasonable to assume walkable urban development will continue as expected.

Going by the study’s Fair Share Index (FSI), where anything above a zero signifies that a metro’s WalkUPs have gained market share, Atlanta’s growth from 2010-2014 has been extremely promising, with only Miami and Detroit boasting high figures. See our graph below to learn more, or read our infograph story!

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