Study: Atlanta ranks No. 8 for walkable areas

While the metro area is still tops for sprawl, pockets of walkability are projected to grow.

It often seems that every week brings a new report underscoring metro Atlanta’s woeful sprawl and its host of associated ills. Well, here’s a bit of better news. A report to be released today ranks the growth of walkable areas in the country’s 30 largest areas, and here’s the stunner: Atlanta comes in eighth place. And that’s not all. Our region is ranked No. 5 for future walkability, indicating a demand for denser development and redevelopment both intown and in the suburbs.

Titled “Foot Traffic Ahead,” the study was conducted by researchers at George Washington University and LOCUS, a development group affiliated with Smart Growth America. Rather than assessing overall walkability in a region, the researchers identified sizable walkable urban places—which they dubbed “WalkUPs”—within metro regions. They found 588 WalkUPs within the 30 largest metro areas, including traditional dense city centers and newly “urbanized” suburbs. Of those, 27 were in metro Atlanta.

How do you reconcile the paradox of Atlanta earning a gold star for walkability and also topping rankings for sprawl and pedestrian danger? It helps to visualize those 27 WalkUPs as oases of pedestrian-friendly density amidst a vast desert of traditional car-centric sprawling cul de sacs. Indeed, the researchers note that Atlanta’s WalksUPs account for just 1 percent (!) of the region’s total land area.

Current Rankings for Walkable Urbanism
1. Washington D.C.
2. New York
3. Boston
4. San Francisco
5. Chicago
6. Seattle
7. Portland
8. Atlanta
9. Pittsburgh
10. Cleveland

More interesting than the current rankings are the projections for future pedestrian-centered development. “This is the most significant trend in development since the movement toward drivable suburbs in the 1950s,” said Christopher Leinberger of LOCUS during a briefing call with reporters yesterday. In Atlanta, for example, 50 percent of the hotel, retail, office, and apartment space developed between 2009 and 2013 was in walkable areas, whether intown redevelopment or infill construction adjacent to the Atlanta BeltLine or newer developments such as Atlantic Station. “Despite its sprawling history, the strength of Atlanta’s walkable urban places, relative to its peers, appears to be real,” write the researchers. “This real estate cycle, starting in 2009, represents a major shift for Atlanta.” Mushrooming apartments along the BeltLine and suburban projects like Avalon, the wired and walkable development coming to Alpharetta, contribute to our projected surge in walkability.

Projected Future Rankings for Walkable Urbanism
1. Boston
2. Washington D.C.
3. New York
4. Miami
5. Atlanta
6. Seattle
7. San Francisco
8. Detroit
9. Denver
10. Tampa

Across the country, researchers found a correlation between walkability and higher income and education attainment. Walkable areas also had more premium retail and office space. In other words, walkable areas attract good jobs and businesses and wealthier, educated, workers and residents. And this raises concerns of affordability. “We used to say ‘drive until you qualify,’ but that doesn’t work in walkable developments,” said Leinberger. “Gentrification is a major concern.”