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The South's Big Cities Moment

Originally published on New Geography

2017's tragic events in Charlottesville kickstarted a somber debate about the appropriate way to commemorate the war that gave all Americans their freedom. It also triggered a conversation about whether the south’s legacy of rebellion and independence – with slavery a painful and regretful part of its past – is a legacy worth remembering.

These discomforting conversations are a reminder that the south’s antebellum past continues to affect it in the present. Beyond civil rights, these impacts are profoundly felt in the south’s continuing urbanization, which is among the most rapid in the country despite occurring largely within the frameworks of cities whose prewar, pre-industrial bones were never suited for the “big city” qualities filled by their northern cousins. Today’s globally-connected southern cities grew largely from antebellum-era towns that were not the commercial or industrial powerhouses of the past, and yet they are growing dramatically anyway.

The result is a murmuring culture war about the future of southern cities. The media may be fixated on statues, but the real issue is how these cities – thanks to a variety of historical and developmental factors that differentiate them from those in the north – are growing in ways that may not appeal to many planners and local boosters.

Many of the south’s transformations have been enviable and measurable: between 2000 and 2012 most large southern metro grew by at least 20 percent, with some like Charlotte and Austin growing at more than twice that rate. Since air conditioning became a norm rather than an exception, growth has trended toward warmer climates, with half of America’s population growth in the last 50 years going to the eight states with the warmest climates. Southern cities have been particularly successful in attracting black families, a declining demographic in nearly every large northern city. They have by and large remained affordable, and continue to be attractive relocation destinations for big companies: metro Atlanta, for instance, is now home to more Fortune 1000 companies than vaunted San Francisco.

The result is a set of increasingly economically significant and connected large cities with ever-larger suburbs and de-centralized economic gravity. Compared to northern cities, southern ones are less urban, less clustered, and less tall, on average with about half the number of skyscrapers per capita as major northern cities, based on data available from This dispersion reflects their expanding ethnic diversity. Counties that were once entirely rural are now increasingly suburban, and attractive to minorities and immigrants. Georgia’s recent 6th District election in 2017 and Hillary Clinton’s victory in Fort Bend outside Houston reflects this unpredictable new southern political world.

Planners have celebrated the urban revitalization in many large existing cities in the north, but largely have been less enthusiastic about this continued growth of sprawling cities in the south. In turn, they have sought increasingly to steer their growth in a more traditional northern pattern. Foremost among the goals of these planners is to densify and re-orient these cities around downtowns that have generally never embodied a strong urban character. This has created a number of awkward dualities: the push for walkability in places that have never before been walkable; the push for rail in cities where the density doesn’t support it; and the push for outdoor living in cities where being outside is uncomfortable for much of the year. This push for glassy Chicago-style downtowns does not always come naturally to cities whose strongest urban legacy is that of sleepy tree-lined Georgian mansions, and it has forced cities from Charlotte to Charleston to contemplate what kind of cities they want to be in the future.

Conventional urban planning is simply not well-suited to the south’s dynamic new urban environments. New urbanism, for instance, while influential in the south, has made its name through quaint town making largely in the suburbs. Typical urban approaches like the repurposing of downtowns back into modern reinventions of what they once were – do not reflect the development, demographic, infrastructural, or character-driven challenges of cites without urban or industrial legacies.

Now, the south has begun inventing its own new brand of experimental urban development, often heavily fueled by the private sector. In Atlanta, for instance, the public-private development of the Battery and Sun Trust Park is a public-private typology virtually unimaginable in the north. Boldly, the Atlanta Braves major league baseball team uprooted from its perfectly acceptable downtown home to move closer to its suburban fan base; a county without a discernible center delivered on much of the financing, and worked with the Braves to develop, from scratch, an entire new ballpark-oriented urban district to compete with downtown Atlanta and help fund both the cultural evolution and the cash flows needed to sustain the ballpark.

The Battery was a form of urbanization and regional re-positioning delivered through a single project. Rather than a renewed focus on the urban core through adaptive reuse and infill, all gospel to planners in the north, metro Atlanta has shaped its own new downtown at a convenient juncture in the sprawl. These kinds of large-format development projects that create their own energy and introduce their own anchors are a hallmark of southern city-making, and build upon the “edge cities” idea first extensively written about by Joel Garreau in the early 1990s.

The most impressive forms of project-driven development have been those where private developers have taken on urbanization efforts too massive for governments. In Florida and Texas, for instance, private developers are trying to implement high-speed rail lines by leveraging potential profits from real estate development around stations as part of the funding package. And Sandy Springs, Georgia received abundant attention in 2012 when it became a “contract city”, the ultimate privatization experiment when it bid out nearly all of its city services to outside contractors. By relying on private industry to take on these kinds of complex development and governance projects, southern cities are trying to avoid the government boondoggles as well as budget and debt ceiling shortfalls many northern cities face. In turn, however, those delivering on the projects have tremendous power over the formation of these cities, while urbanization is rarely happening according to plan.

Acknowledging the power of these leaps and bounds innovations, some cities are trying to better channel the urbanization through example projects designed to inspire the private sector to develop in a more organized way. In Raleigh, for instance, the development market has been slow to deliver on high-quality urban projects, so in response the City is taking on the challenge itself: its own new City Hall campus may end up being the most powerful piece of modern architecture in the city. In turn, it is hoped to have catalytic potential to induce dramatic change across a downtown smattered with low-rise buildings. In many such cities, there is an underlying belief that channeling the pent-up private development market toward areas where land values are already the highest will maximize tax revenues and fiscal stability, and improve those cities’ urban qualities. Whether it’s a strategy with staying power is yet to be seen.

There is no rulebook for how urban change is occurring in the south, but there is no doubt it is occurring more rapidly there. The universal themes in southern city-making today are diversification and creativity, ideas imbuing innovation that would be unlikely if they borrowed conventional approaches verbatim from the north. This new creativity on behalf of big steps and bold visions belies many recommendations from nationally-focused planners toward government consolidation and the belief that all new good things must happen through incremental steps in traditional downtowns. Perhaps this new form of southern rebellion will have staying power; much better, and better for its citizens, than the last one.

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