Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

Note: this was originally part of Sprawl and Economic Mobility but the main point of that post ended up being the continuing impact of discrimination, and this isn’t really related.

In his series of posts on sprawl and economic mobility, Krugman used a comparison of Boston and Atlanta when talking about the relationship of sprawl and economic mobility, which he said “many people have pointed out . . . as the most obvious comparison among major US metro areas”.

In a word, no. Leaving aside New York as unique among American cities, ATL vs BOS is perhaps the most obvious comparison – if you are a typical East Coast resident who thinks that the country ends at Allegheny Front.

In reality, Boston and Atlanta are similar and in the last 60 years, they have developed in similar ways. The only difference is that Boston grew to be a much larger city earlier than Atlanta did. Check out a comparison of the populations of the metro areas and the cores at the dawn of the Auto Era in 1950 and in 20101:

BOS-ATL

Or how about this: take a look at the two aerial images below, which are at the same scale. Which one is Boston’s beltway and which one is Atlanta’s? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

boston hotlanta

Both cities have had virtually no growth in their historic core communities. The difference is that Boston had a sizable core when the sprawl era began. Atlanta started sprawling out around very little other than a new skyscraper CBD. But every dense neighborhood that exists in Boston today existed in more or less the same form in 1950. Same goes for the denser suburban town centers. The current growth mode in Boston and Atlanta is the same: low density sprawl.

Even with the resurgence of Boston’s core cities since 1990, it’s still 200,000 below peak. Somerville – and you keep hearing about what an awesome place Somerville is, right? – has actually lost population since the Red Line Extension opened. The story of urban revival is about the core gaining population, but it is just as much about what kind of people are moving there. Somerville has more young professionals than it used to, but it also has less blue collar workers and immigrants than it used to.

Really, the same can be said for almost any East Coast city. The dense neighborhoods of Washington, Baltimore, Philly, and so on – they all predate the auto age. So does any smaller node of density like, say, New Haven or Albany. If you want a real comparison with a place like Boston or Atlanta, you need a place with a different growth mode. You need Los Angeles, or at least a city doing a decent impersonation, like San Jose or Houston.

New England is the land of two-acre residential zoning suburbs. The governor of Massachusetts wants to promote dense development around transit stations – dense being 4-8 units/acre, or in other words, about the default density allowed anywhere by the generic residential zone in far-flung LA suburbs like Lancaster and Adelanto. Let’s have a look at some recent LA growth, shall we?

lancaster

I don’t expect Lancaster to be winning any awards from the CNU anytime soon (though they did get one from EPA). James Howard Kunstler probably woke up in a cold sweat when I grabbed that screenshot. But as far as I can tell, the primary problem with LA seems to be that people don’t like how it looks. That’s fine, but if we’re talking about the viability of a development pattern, we need to put our architectural preferences aside. If you want to compare Boston or Atlanta to anything, this is what you should compare it to, and fact is, it stacks up pretty well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I used to live in Boston, and it’s a great city – they should build more of it. I’d be very happy to see the Boston region resume its pre-WW2 growth pattern so that more people could take advantage of that. Knowing the ferocity of NIMBYism, even in the near suburbs, and the strong level of local control afforded to New England towns2, I’m not going to hold my breath. If the choice is between low-density East Coast sprawl like Atlanta and high-density LA style development, LA wins every time.

Boston is on the top, Atlanta on the bottom.

1For the region, for Boston I used the MSA less the New Hampshire counties, plus Worcester and Bristol Counties; for Atlanta I used the MSA. For the core, for Boston I used Suffolk County plus Quincy, Newton, Brookline, Waltham, Watertown, Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, and Everett; for Atlanta I used just the city itself.

2One of the ways that not having counties hurts the Boston region.

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5 thoughts on “Forget About Boston vs Atlanta

  1. Pingback: Urban sprawl, transportation, and poverty | FortLeft

  2. jseeherman

    The sad part is that the photo of Route 128 in Waltham is looking squarely at an abandoned ski area. Powder Day Prospect Hill !
    Somerville losing population says a lot about reduction in family size, not so much its popularity as a nice place to live. The school issue is a big barrier, as well.

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      Indeed, the fundamental problem with growth in the Boston area is that so little new housing stock is built, few people can take advantage of Somerville being a nice place to live.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Can’t Get Where You Want to Go Without Knowing Where You Are | Let's Go LA

  4. Pingback: What Do You Mean By Suburb? | Let's Go LA

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