PRESERVATION PROMOTES GROWTH
By Sheffield Hale, Former Chairman of The Georgia Trust
The following editorial was printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 3, 2001.
Here in metro Atlanta and throughout the rest of the state we know all too well about the negative effects of sprawl and unchecked development—so much so that you might be thinking about not reading any further.
But I think the prevailing focus on what’s wrong with our cities is misplaced. There are positive examples of thoughtful urban development throughout Georgia. We just need more of them.
Let me explain. On recent visits with The Georgia Trust to Americus, Eatonton, Monticello and Sandersville and other cities throughout Georgia, I have seen communities that are turning their focus back to their downtowns and historic neighborhoods—and they are seeing the results: a remarkable return of businesses and residents of every age group.
For cities to grow smartly, city planners must act before growth comes—when planning can be positive and based on consensus, not a reaction to controversy. And the fact is, nearly all revitalized communities use historic preservation as a smart growth strategy. It is as simple as comparing your community’s historic buildings to a finite natural resource.
Think of our communities as a farmer thinks of land. The thoughtful farmer nurtures the land so it remains productive for generations. Farmers who overwork their land for short-term profits harm their economic future.
The same is true of itinerant developers and community leaders who take the short view of community development. The best way to sustain a community’s long-term prosperity is to plan for permanence and recognize that historic resources are important assets not to be squandered.
Over the next 25 years, you likely will hear a lot about “suburban renewal,” an effort that will eclipse in cost urban revitalization initiatives. It is much more difficult and expensive to recycle poorly planned, disconnected development in areas with no grid streets, such as strip malls and isolated commercial buildings, than downtown commercial buildings.
Midtown Atlanta is an early example of “suburban renewal.” Beginning in the 1960s, Midtown declined sharply as residents left for first-generation suburbs, leaving vast areas demolished and neglected for years. Three things stimulated Midtown’s relatively quick rebirth in the 1990s: existing grid streets and sidewalks; metrowide traffic congestion, which made living near Midtown more attractive; and the vision of local landowners, businesses and residents to develop a comprehensive plan. All these factors potentially exist in towns throughout Georgia.
On a smaller scale, communities all over the state are seeing the impact of strip malls abandoned for larger locations and the kind of seediness and decline in real estate values that follow. However, because people and businesses seek places with a high quality of life and a plan for maintaining it, we have an opportunity to use these lessons and our existing historic resources to Georgia’s advantage.
Many Georgia communities with historic structures and infrastructure already attract smart growth. In places like Eatonton, Sandersville, Bainbridge and Americus, people are moving back to their grandparents’ neighborhoods, while others are restoring historic houses and renovating downtown buildings into apartments.
Although many may seem resigned to a standard that is beneath us, we have not yet accepted the denigration of our communities as inevitable. No easy or obvious cost-effective solutions exist to our traffic problems and visual blight. But the demographic and economic trends created by the downside of sprawl give both small communities and larger cities a chance to form a vision and to secure a sustainable quality future.