Urban Sprawl

The environmental impacts of urban sprawl in Georgia are among the most significant and widespread in the nation. The 2000 census report ranked Georgia as the country's sixth fastest-growing state in the 1990s; its population increased more than 26.4 percent during this period. The Atlanta region alone is home to four of the ten fastest-growing counties in the nation. While growth and development have both diversified and strengthened Georgia's economy, rapid and seemingly unchecked growth is responsible for major environmental impacts that will have to be addressed in order to preserve the quality of life for Georgia citizens.

Sprawl in Georgia

Atlanta is the largest metropolitan area in the Southeast. The Atlanta Regional Commission defines the metro Atlanta area as the following ten counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale. There are no large bodies of water, mountains, or major federal land holdings to limit the city's outward growth. With 4.1 million people (up from 1.8 million in 1970), and a growth rate of 38.9 percent, Atlanta also has the fastest growth rate of any southeastern city with a population of more than a million people. Atlanta's urban land area expanded 47 percent between 1990 and 1996, following a 25 percent expansion between 1980 and 1990. These trends are likely to continue. Some experts believe that the region's population could double by 2050.
Although growth tends to be associated with the metropolitan Atlanta area, other regions in Georgia also are experiencing population increases. Coastal Georgia expects to double its population of 760,000 by 2020, and Georgia's mountainous counties could gain 500,000 residents by 2015.

Air Quality

The metropolitan Atlanta region has more than 16,000 miles of roads, the second-highest number of miles per capita of any metropolitan area in the nation. Despite this abundance of asphalt, Atlanta has the fourth-worst traffic congestion in the country. Consequently, the air quality of metro Atlanta is a significant concern; the impacts of poor air quality on human health are substantial. The American Lung Association ranks Atlanta sixth among metropolitan areas in ozone pollution. In 1999 Atlanta had thirty-seven consecutive days when ozone concentrations exceeded healthy levels. According to the Georgia chapter of the American Lung Association, excessive ozone levels make thousands of Atlanta-area emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma cases substantially worse each year. A 1994 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that after ozone alerts, emergency rooms in Atlanta regional hospitals reported a 37 percent increase in admissions for respiratory ailments, and the number of asthmatic children who visit metropolitan emergency rooms increased by one-third. Other cities in the state, including Columbus, Macon, and Augusta, are faced with worsening air quality as well.

Water Quality

The rapid rate of growth in Georgia, coupled with limited water resources, results in concerns about water quality and quantity. Statewide, 67 percent of monitored waters do not meet water quality standards. These waters are threatened primarily by pollution associated with poor development practices and urban storm-water runoff. Half of all Georgians drink water drawn from the Chattahoochee River. The water quality of the Chattahoochee is threatened by rampant suburban growth and inadequate or aging water and sewer systems (in some areas); runoff from paved surfaces, agriculture lands, and lawns; erosion from construction sites; and seepage from septic tanks. One million metro Atlantans still use septic tanks—more than in any other major metropolitan area. At the same time Atlanta has faced serious problems in the maintenance of its wastewater infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency has imposed significant fines on the city of Atlanta for spills and leaks from its overloaded sewer system.
The pressure created by population growth and development has an impact on water quality in other areas of the state as well. Increasing withdrawals of water for public supply, industrial uses, power production, and irrigation are placing stress on Georgia's rivers and making it more difficult to meet in-stream flow needs for such uses as water-quality protection, recreation, and fish and wildlife habitat. Groundwater levels are also threatened by overuse. Heavy groundwater withdrawals in the Savannah area are contributing to saltwater intrusion in the Upper Floridan aquifer, and in Brunswick saltwater has moved up from a deeper zone into the previous freshwater zone and has contaminated wells.

Loss of Greenspace

Metropolitan Atlanta is the least densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, with only 1,370 persons per square mile, compared with 5,400 persons per square mile in Los Angeles. Between 1982 and 1992 the amount of greenspace lost to development in the Atlanta metropolitan area increased by 38 percent. Since 1987 the Atlanta region has lost an average of fifty acres of tree cover per day. Much of this loss is a direct result of encroachment by low-density sprawl development into forested and agricultural areas. This deforestation and loss of vegetation, coupled with increased pavement and rooftops, creates a "heat island" effect (temperatures can be up to twelve degrees higher in heavily paved areas of Atlanta) and contributes to the region's air pollution problems as well. Loss of greenspace is not confined to the Atlanta area; it is a statewide problem. Georgia ranks third in the nation in the amount of farmland and woodland being converted to subdivisions, malls, and other development. Between 1992 and 1997 about 211,000 acres of the state's farmland and forests per year—more than one million acres altogether—were developed. This is nearly three times the 77,000 acres developed per year in Georgia between 1982 and 1992.


Steps are being taken in response to the environmental problems created by rapid growth in the state. For example, the Georgia General Assembly established the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in 1999 to oversee transportation and land use in the metropolitan Atlanta region. Georgia's Community Green Space Program is designed ultimately to protect 20 percent of Georgia's land as greenspace. Atlanta has begun to promote "smart growth" projects in which homes and businesses would be within walking distance of one another.
In addition, residents are starting to move back inside the city limits. The 2000 census shows that population densities are rising, and the actual city of Atlanta reversed its long population decline by adding 22,000 people during the 1990s. Effective remedies against the environmental problems created by sprawl will require growth management strategies that protect the quality of Georgia's water and air and the high quality of life enjoyed by its citizens.


Further Reading
Jim Auchmutey, "Farther Than the Eye Can See: It's ALL Atlanta," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 1, 2001, p. A1.

Robert D. Bullard et al., Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000).

David Kolb, Sprawling Places (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).

James E. Kundell et al., Land-Use Policy and the Protection of Georgia's Environment (Athens: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 1989).

Marlon Manuel, "Jobs Fueling South's Hot Growth, but Residents Are Paying in Sprawl," Atlanta Journal-Constitution , March 29, 2001, p. A1.

Joseph L. McCrary and James E. Kundell, Georgia's Threatened Lands: The Impacts of Sprawl (Athens: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 1997).
Cite This Article
Kundell, James E., and Margaret E. Myszewski. "Urban Sprawl." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 27 August 2015. Web. 26 November 2015.
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