Blueprint for a Boom Town: Potential Pitfalls for Rising Boom Towns (Part 1 of 3)

Downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

Today, GS&P’s Land Planning group is launching a 3-part Blueprint for a Boom Town blog series that will begin with this week’s discussion of the potential problems of booming development. Stay tuned to GS&P Dialogue in the next few weeks for conversations on avoiding low-productivity, low-density development, and on lessons learned for master planning in future boom towns.

 

Accolades for Nashville, Tenn., my hometown and GS&P’s flagship location, just keep piling up. In 2011, Forbes Magazine named Nashville No. 3 on their list of “The Next Big Boom Towns in the U.S,” citing Music City’s low housing prices, business-friendly environment, and expanding educated migrant population. Forbes also ranked Nashville No. 10 on its “Best Places for Business and Careers” list, and, in September of 2012, Nashville was named #13 on a list of America’s 50 Best Cities, as determined by Businessweek.

All of these accolades are wonderful, but they also put a heavy burden of proof on the city. Having worked hard to garner these recognitions, Nashville now must work hard to prove their longevity- to grow and build intelligently. I recently attended a presentation by the Urban Land Institute of Nashville titled “Building a Boom Town: Lessons from Atlanta”. The panel discussion explored land planning and master planning in Atlanta, a previously lauded “boom town” that, though praiseworthy in many areas, has certainly experienced some growing pains. Nashville has much to learn from Atlanta, and the ULI presentation got me thinking about what Nashville—and other growing cities—can do to avoid the pitfalls plaguing Atlanta and other rapidly expanding cities. 

Suburban Alpharetta, Georgia traffic.Traffic tops most lists of Atlanta’s woes (the city was ranked 11th in the GPS company TomTom’s Congestion Index) and those traffic problems point to underlying development issues. In many ways, congested streets are a direct and understandable result of rapid population growth. However, in Atlanta and other cities, sheer numbers have been compounded by the concentration of corporate centers in locations that are difficult for most of their employees to access.

Atlanta is hardly alone in this; the vast majority of cities feature miles of suburban sprawl radiating from downtown epicenters. As desirable centers fill up, demand for space increases, real estate prices skyrocket, and families and businesses are compelled to look outward for affordable options. In this sense, some suburbanization is inevitable and can even be healthy. The unhealthy occurs often in suburban locations that become victims of their own success. The same can be said for development that outpaces transportation infrastructure.

What officials in Atlanta are concerned with, and what officials in next-generation boom towns like Nashville should be concerned with, is developments built in snapshots of time that do not take into account a long-term, sustainable perspective. Spurred by giddy delight over wide open spaces, developers too often embark on building sprees and produce scattered, discordant developments that can actually harm the public sector.

A study of suburbia by SmartGrowth America characterized harmful suburban sprawl as “low density development with residential, shopping, and office areas that are rigidly segregated.” Such developments disperse residents and activity centers over large areas and force extensive reliance on cars as a primary form of transportation. This dependence propagates troubling trends, such as rapidly increasing fuel consumption, living costs, and infrastructure maintenance costs, and also contributes to poor air quality and lacking or underused public spaces. 

Randomized, low density suburban development represents a two-pronged danger to any boom town: massive migration to the suburbs can deplete and depreciate downtown areas, and, in the suburbs, reckless building can burden the community with dysfunctional developments poorly suited to long-term success.

Having seen Atlanta and cities like it fight this problem, our town and other cities on the cusp of a boom can keep a conscientious eye on several warning signs:

FIRST, we should beware of real estate situations that exclude affordable single family homes in the suburbs. Affordability, or the lack of it, is one of the largest drivers of rapid suburban development, and should be monitored accordingly.

SECOND, we should notice corporate headquarter migrations to suburb areas. Though Atlanta is lauded for its high concentration of Fortune 500 companies, many of those companies are located far outside of the city in suburbs like Alpharetta or Gwinnett. Such migrations shift jobs away from city centers and overburden suburban infrastructure, forcing the sort of harmful development described by SmartGrowth America.

THIRD, we should take note of and take steps to rectify reckless near-sighted building. Nashville certainly has its share of suburban sprawl, and steps should be taken to prepare existing facilities for the stresses they will face. The next two posts in this series will examine how well-planned developments can alleviate some of the concerns facing the boom towns of the future.

Let us know what you think, and stay tuned for the next post examining more sustainable high-density development strategies.

Check out the 2nd and 3rd installments of this series- Exploring the Pros and Cons of Densification and Lessons Learned for Master Planning - now published on GS&P Dialogue.

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