Photo credit: AtlanticStation.com
On a recent trip to Atlanta to visit friends and catch a ballgame, I saw the city a little differently than in previous trips. My office’s work with NashvilleNext, the countywide plan to determine Nashville’s civic planning over the next 25 years, has forced me to notice my built environment a lot more. Now, whenever I see new developments or empty storefronts, I think about returns on investment, density levels and public-private partnerships. Really nerdy stuff, I know.
As we drove through the mega-highways that connect Atlanta and its seemingly endless suburbs, I remarked to my wife that such urban sprawl was a planner’s nightmare. On our way to our friends’ house, we passed construction to extend six-lane highways even farther away from the city. As anyone who has been to Atlanta knows, few people actually live within the city limits. Residents define themselves by their suburbs and surrounding counties, and attached to those locations are subtexts regarding income levels, demographics and overall quality of life. Those realities are not unique to Atlanta, but they are perhaps more pronounced due to the city’s many tentacles.
In Nashville, we like to remark that we never want to be like Atlanta when it comes to traffic and sprawl. But there are also a few positive examples we can take from Atlanta as we consider what kind of city Nashville wants to be. Inside the Perimeter (as the notorious I-285 is called), we found neighborhoods that incorporated housing for a variety of incomes, as well as restaurants and small retail that encouraged foot traffic. Atlantic Station, a mixed-use Midtown development on the site of the old Atlantic Steel mill, has gained attention for its focus on reuse, energy efficiency and density. (It also attracts a jealous side-eye from Nashville toward its IKEA.)
As is often mentioned at NashvilleNext events, our population is going to increase by more than a million people over the next 25 years. Surrounding counties like Rutherford and Williamson will grow at a faster rate than Davidson, but the jobs will continue to be in Nashville. We’re going to have more commuters, meaning we’re going to have to come up with solutions that use our existing infrastructure – our highways – and encourage sensible transit options. That’s where we can avoid a lot of the gridlock and asphalt that Atlanta has created.
But we’re also going to need to create spaces that allow people to live, work and play where they are, without having to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on transportation and housing. That’s where we can look at Atlanta’s examples like Virginia-Highland and Atlantic Station to see what we can incorporate both within our urban core and in our suburbs.
NashvilleNext is encouraging such discussions in a very accessible and open way. People don’t have to be city planners to get involved; they just have to care about their communities. We can learn a lot from cities like Atlanta as we plan for the future, but it’s going to take everyone’s involvement to ensure we create a plan that is uniquely Nashville.