Healthy cities are key to future prosperity

This post by SGA President Geoff Anderson originally appeared on the Georgia Municipal Association’s “Georgia Cities – 2010 Connection.” The GMA Connection is a project to educate Georgia gubernatorial candidates on the issues facing Georgia cities ahead of this year’s election. This post originally appeared here. Our thanks to GMA for letting us reprint it.  – Stephen Davis, Smart Growth America

Geoff Anderson MugIn case any doubt remains, let me remove it. The fortunes of our country will rise and fall with the fates of our cities and metropolitan areas. For the first time in history, more people worldwide live in cities than anywhere else. In the United States, our largest 100 metropolitan areas house a staggering 65 percent of our population.

Numbers from the Brookings Institution make it clear that how we govern and grow our cities and metro areas will determine our success or failure. Those same 100 largest metro areas — including metropolitan Atlanta — produce 75 percent of our nation’s GDP yet occupy just 12 percent of our country’s land area. Places where people congregate and concentrate are incredibly efficient generators of wealth, jobs and economic activity.

State leaders need to recognize that for the whole state to prosper, Georgia needs to ensure the health of its economic engines, large and small: Georgia cities (and their suburbs), towns and metro areas. Leaders need to help the bigger cities, yes, but they can’t stop there. Even in largely rural areas in central and southern Georgia, economic energy is also primarily focused around small towns and cities.

In many states however, these areas are neglected. Metros and cities are often generating more economic benefit for the state than they are receiving back in aid. And in many cases the aid they do get comes with a price. Rather than being able to make their own decisions about growth or transportation, city or metro regional leaders are at the mercy of state leaders as they decide where and how to spend scarce state and federal dollars.

In this difficult and changing economy, states that are allies and partners in helping cities prosper — creating a rising tide to lift all boats — will be the models of success.

State, regional and city leaders also need to look to the future and work together to capitalize on the changing trends in real estate and development to remain prosperous. Drive 20 miles out of Atlanta, and you’re likely to see at least a few subdivisions with streets, curbs, light posts — but no houses. Not only are we in a troubled economy, but signs point to numerous consumer preference and demographic shifts that are upending the twentieth century model of development: drive a little further out, bulldoze trees and build a new subdivision.

The newest buzzword is “walkability,” which serves as a really good shorthand for the kinds of livable, sustainable, enjoyable places with a high quality of life that people are demanding like never before. There is still demand for housing in the exurbs, but a growing number of people are looking to move to places where they can live in closer proximity to work and daily needs; places where they can walk, ride their bikes or take a train to get where they need to go.

There is plenty of evidence pointing to this shift, but one need look no further than this year’s edition of the trustworthy “Emerging Trends in Real Estate” report from the Urban Land Institute — where they offer advice on investing in real estate:

“Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities-gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs.”

One notable demographic group that is increasingly looking to live in places where walking is a convenient option is empty nesters and seniors. Georgia’s 65 and over population will grow 143% by 2030, with more than 2 million seniors living in Georgia by 2030. This is just one significant group driving this shift toward more walkable, convenient neighborhoods.

In some states, economic development and infrastructure dollars are spread across the state like peanut butter, ignoring where targeted investment can have the greatest impact. Those paying attention to the forces driving our economy know this won’t cut it in the 21st century. The opportunity is there for the State to give metropolitan areas — cities, towns and their suburbs — the tools and funding they need to succeed, ensuring the continued success of the whole state.