It Takes Time to Turn the Titanic...

I saw an interesting tweet a few days ago from Alpharetta city councilman Jimmy Gilvin that referenced some 2010 US census stats. He was basically pointing out that during that timeframe people flocked to suburban environments while urban places didn't fare as well. Here’s his tweet:

"From 2000 to 2010 the City of Atlanta added 3500 residents. Suburban Alpharetta added 22,600. Please spare me the urbanism talk."

First off, if you would like to follow Jimmy on Twitter his handle is @jimgilvin. He is often entertaining and I appreciate an elected official being active in social media. It is definitely a risk.

That being said, I had to take a look at his stats (which are correct) out of curiosity since my blog is primarily about New Urbanism.  The data from 2000 to 2010 pretty much shows that it was business as usual for the suburban experiment. This isn’t really much of a surprise. I wondered if anything had changed since those nubmers came out last year because everything that I’ve read recently points to a renewed interest in walkable urban environments as a preference over the drivable suburban environments that have dominated population growth over the last 40-50 years. 

Interest in walkable urban environments started to pick up around 2004-2005 and a lot of condos started to go up in the denser areas of the region, most notably in Midtown and Buckhead. But, there was also a lot of development that broke ground around our traditionally suburban city centers that could also be deemed walkable even if it wasn't as intense as what was going on in the urban cores. A lot of this development was crushed by the economic downturn and still hasn’t fully recovered.  All types of development suffered this fate whether it was walkable urban, drivable suburban, single-family, multi-family, single-use or mixed-use.  There was no single boggieman here.

We are starting to see some signs of recovery in all of the aforementioned areas.  My expectation is that over the next two to three years, we will start to see more walkable development pick up steam again as you see condos, townhomes and apartments start to go up around the region.  Most of this will occur in the centers of our suburban towns. I think this is ringing true in the more current stats. The latest population estimates as of July 2011 show a much different story.

In the period from April 2010 through July 2011, the City of Atlanta's population growth, 3%, exceeded much of the region as new buyers and renters started filling in much of the empty development that was left unoccupied after the real estate crash.  The Atlanta condo market is healthier than it has been in years. Many of the high profile condo buildings that were noticeably empty for years have hit the tipping point where 70% of their units have been sold.  This threshold makes financing much easier and will accellerate the sale of the remaining units.  Additionally, a significant amount of apartment capacity is going up intown.  What I'm saying here is that the trend is looking favorable for walkable urbanism.  Most drivable suburban areas are growing but at a slower clip.

In fact, the ONLY suburban market that exceeded the city of Atlanta's growth on a percentage basis between April 2010 and July 2011 was North Fulton.  The US Census estimates show that the city of Atlanta added 12,424 residents during that 15 month period.  This was the most of any city in the metro area.  There were only 7 cities with over 20k residents that exceeded that growth.  Five of them were in North Fulton (Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Roswell, Sandy Springs).  The other two were East Point and Union City.

If these trends continue, traditional suburbia may be in for a tough road ahead.  Here are some key points:

  1. North Fulton, specifically Alpharetta, is not your typical suburban environment. It is a Technology hub that functions as a job center. It has much more wealth than most of the other suburban areas on the region. Most suburbs do not have the same inherent benefits that North Fulton does.
  2. All of the cities in North Fulton have either approved, planned or built walkable urban environments
    1. Alpharetta – City Center, Avalon
    2. Roswell – Groveway, Historic Roswell Master Plan, Centennial Walk
    3. Johns Creek – Johns Creek Walk
    4. Milton – Crabapple Area
    5. Sandy Springs – New Town Center
  3. Boomer and Millennial demographics are pointing toward a very large demand for walkable urbanism over the next 10 to 15 years as boomers downsize and millennials buy homes.
  4. Much of this growth in walkable urbanism will be in areas that have been traditionally labled the suburbs.  Just look at where the most talked about areas are in your suburban city.  They aren't the newest golf, tennis or gated subdivision.  They are the city centers with lively environments of shops and restaurants.

The suburban experiment is almost over and it is even coming to an end here in North Fulton.  People want places where they don't have to rely 100% on their cars to live their lives.