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Roadscapes Wednesday: Is Southern Suburban Sprawl Killing Us?

Roadscapes Geek Alabama

Here is a great question to ask yourself, is suburban sprawl in the south in cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Birmingham, and others killing us?  According to a study from the University of Utah, it is.  The study revealed that residents in sprawling cities are more likely to suffer from societal ills such as fatal car wrecks, high transportation costs, and obesity.  At the same time this study came out from Utah, the organization called Smart Growth America released their list of America’s most sprawling cities.  Number one, Atlanta!  Number two is Nashville, number three is Riverside, CA, number four is Warren, MI, and number five is Charlotte.

Both of these studies should come as no surprise, as cities in the southeastern US are very sprawled.  Sprawl in the Atlanta Metro reaches out for more than 50 miles!  Smart Growth America said that in more compact cities like New York City for example, a child born in poverty has better odds that he/she will become rich.  People living in more compact cities also lives on average three years more compared to people living in sprawling cities.  In the study from the University of Utah, sprawling cities often means more people eat out at fast-food joints and walks less.  And people living in sprawling cities are more likely to be in poverty, because of the much longer distance to get to jobs.

So, are these two studies true, or are they blowing some hot air?  In Alabama, and other southern states.  It is often very true, that you don’t have sidewalks available outside of downtown areas and you have to walk in the grass, that is often filled with broken glass, trash, and even used syringes!  Believe me, I have seen them.  Combine that with drivers, who sometimes throws trash at walkers, honks their horns, or yells out of their windows.  And you can see why it’s dangerous to walk on the side of the road.  In the south, some people actually get in the car and drive, to a walking track, just to walk and get some exercise.  It should be the other way around!

With some people living 10, 20, or even 30 miles away from their jobs, that means they have to drive, and deal with lots of traffic.  When you are driving in your car from home to work, and it takes you an hour or more in your commute to reach your destination, that does not leave you with much time to cook a healthy meal or get some exercise, fast-food joints to the rescue!  In places like Atlanta or Birmingham for example, land to build new homes is very cheap.  And some people can not trust the governments in big cities like Atlanta or Birmingham.  Another problem, crime is up in urban areas and some people determine that urban areas are not safe, that means these people will do anything to live far away from an urban area, no matter how much their health or income suffers.

But I think the mindset is changing, especially in the Millennial age group (people around age 30 and below).  Many Millennials does not want to deal with living miles away from their careers and driving for a long period of time.  If you have noticed, cities like Charlotte, Nashville, and even Atlanta, are investing in new mass transit options.  The results, more people are moving back to the downtown areas, and most of these people are under age 30.  Another benefit to moving back to a downtown area, better social mobility, more sidewalks, restaurants and stores closer together, and more!  More and more Millennials prefers to live in dense, diverse urban villages where social interaction is just outside their front doors.  You only get that in cities, and not in the suburbs.

I found this very interesting study from Nielsen that should surprise you.  Sixty-two percent of Millennials indicate they prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices.  And 40 percent say they would like to live in an urban area in the future.  As a result, for the first time since the 1920’s growth in U.S. cities outpaces growth outside of them.  In a nutshell, Millennials are tired of wasting time and money driving to do simple tasks like buying groceries, eating at a restaurant, going to the gym, going to an event, etc. They want to be in close proximity to excitement, diversity, and vibrancy.  This is why cities like Austin are very popular with the Millennial age group.

So if cities in the south and in Alabama like Birmingham wants to stay competitive and grow, things are going to have to change!  For one, cities must get their crime under control and improve their schools.  With high crime and poor school performances, Millennials are more likely to avoid these cities.  Which in turn means fewer jobs.  Cities must expand their mass transit offerings!  And cities must give people a reason to live in downtown.  In Birmingham, you have the newly build Regions Field, and more things are coming!  But without a good mass transit system, things are being built in a much more slower pace.  If the state of Alabama would invest in more mass transit like light rail for example, cities would grow faster than they do now!

So, cities in the southeastern USA.  Will will continue what you do now, and risk losing out on growth?  Or will you change, and offer more people a reason to live in a city?  I guess we will see!

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