Atlanta’s story

History quantified: Examining the damage in Atlanta

The devastation, disconnection, and displacement of highways plowed through cities and neighborhoods is easy to see, but rarely do we quantify the costs in terms of lost wealth, land, residents, and businesses. The damage also could have been much worse, with many planned highways never built or completed. We examine current and historical data on the impact of one built and one unbuilt highway in Atlanta (and in Washington, DC here) to quantify both the damage and what could have been. 1

I-20 (built) and I-485 (unbuilt)

Note: Click either tab below to toggle between I-20 and I-485 data and animations


  • Length analyzed: Approximately 11 miles
  • Six lanes with an estimated minimum 284-foot wide impact zone

While Interstate 20 runs from West Texas to South Carolina, we examined the approximately 11 miles within the Atlanta city limits, including the massive intersection with the Interstate 75/85 downtown connector.2 I-20’s route was chosen deliberately, as noted in the story below, to divide white and Black neighborhoods at the time. Its meandering route was designed to protect certain neighborhoods and devastate others, as well as to provide a barrier that would last for decades to come.

What was lost in Atlanta? How did I-20 devastate and transform the city, and the people within it? This animation visualizing before and after construction of I-20 using historic satellite imagery was produced in partnership with @Segregation_By_Design

What was lost with the construction of Interstate 20 (within the city limits):

I-20 consumes at least 572 acres and $150 million in taxable land, according to 2021 Atlanta land assessments3

Without the homes that previously existed within the I-20 corridor, the city lost the ability to tax at least $676 million in homevalue, costing the city at least $6.4 million in property taxes each year

I-20 displaced at least 7,500 people in 1960, 40 percent of whom were Black.

It destroyed an estimated 2,200 homes, wiping out $596,000 in average home equity, if those homes existed today.

Also, roads are liabilities, not assets, and maintaining or rehabilitating them require significant costs. Highways are the most expensive kind of road to maintain due to their width, material (often concrete), and traffic volumes. Figures vary, but according to a Strong Towns analysis of 2014 FHWA numbers, it can cost upwards of $7.7 million per mile to reconstruct an existing lane of a freeway like this one.

Note: Scroll up and click a tab at the top of this box to toggle between I-20 and I-485 data and animations.


  • Length analyzed: Approximately 11 miles
  • Four lanes with an estimated minimum 260-foot-wide impact zone

Interstate 485 would have created a second north/ south interstate parallel to and east of today’s massive I-75/85, running (roughly) all the way from today’s SR 400 on the north to I-675 on the south. Only the segment within the city limits was studied here, leaving off the southern portion connecting to I-675. The interstate would have traveled through or near some of the wealthiest white neighborhoods in the city north of I-20, including Morningside-Lenox Park, Virginia-Highland, and Inman Park, where massive opposition helped defeat the project, though it remained active on the books until 1975.4 GDOT razed numerous homes and seized land for its construction, much of which sat fallow for years before becoming part of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, new parkland, and a short parkway built in the 1990s. 5

If Interstate 485 had been built through Atlanta, GA as originally planned, what could not exist today? This video shows where a portion of that highway would be today, using a conservatively estimated 260-foot impact zone for four planned lanes, from Ponce De Leon north to Rock Springs Rd.

What would have been lost with the construction of Interstate 485?

The city would have lost at least $473 million in taxable land value.

At least 5,300 people would have been displaced, 40 percent of whom were Black.

At least 1,400 homes would have been destroyed, wiping out at least $371,000 in average home equity for homeowners.

In 2021, within the 260-foot-wide impact zone of the proposed route, there were 3,300 residents and over 1,700 homes.

Without the homes in this corridor, the city would have lost the ability to tax approximately $1.3 billion in home value, costing the city about $12 million in property taxes per year. 6

According to CoStar data, within this entire unbuilt corridor in 2023 there were 199 active businesses, 95 multifamily buildings, and 62 office buildings.

Note: Scroll up and click a tab at the top of this box to toggle between I-20 and I-485 data and animations.

Atlanta’s story

Mayor Ivan Allen is widely credited with popularizing “The City Too Busy to Hate” as a slogan for Atlanta. But in reality, that was as much about marketing the city to the rest of the country and the world as the aviation industry exploded and Atlanta’s economy was on the rise.

The city was a nexus of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and progressed ahead of other southern cities through what could charitably be called a more pragmatic approach to integration, but Atlanta was also not radically different from the rest of the South. Black Americans, including GIs returning from WWII, were moving to the city in search of economic opportunity, and white Atlantans were making every effort to segregate a city in which the KKK was still very active.

Street names were routinely changed so that white residents would not have to share similar addresses with Black residents and streets were built around Black neighborhoods to create physical barriers. Even Mayor Ivan Allen, who defeated a staunch racist segregationist for his first term as mayor and is rightfully celebrated for his support of the civil rights movement, was central to an effort to put a physical wall across a southwest neighborhood to keep Black people from moving northward.

This aerial view looking west shows the 75/85 Connector under construction from left to right, with a massive chunk of land being cleared and prepared for the east-west segment of I-485 segment which was then never built, lying fallow until repurposed for today’s John Lewis Freedom Parkway in the 1990s. Credit: The Atlanta History Center.

Progress was more mixed and uneven than the popular slogan suggested.

With the creation of the Interstate Highway System, Atlanta’s leaders (and perhaps more so the state) now had a powerful tool for removing certain people and building even more walls. The east-west Interstate 20 was used deliberately to create a boundary between white Atlantans on the north and Black Atlantans to the south. Even in the city “too busy to hate,” Black neighborhoods were targeted to make way for new interstates, primarily designed to carry white suburban commuters into the city, fueling the next several decades of incredible suburban expansion in nearly all directions.

As just one example, Sweet Auburn (Avenue) was one of the centers of Black culture and life in Atlanta, full of residents, businesses, culture, and nightlife, once called the richest African American street in the country. 7 Even before the creation of the interstate system, a north-south expressway through downtown was proposed to curve east and slice directly through Sweet Auburn to avoid cutting through the central business district just to the west.

Life on Sweet Auburn after Interstates 75/85 were deliberately routed through this historically Black neighborhood in Atlanta, visible at the top of the photograph. Credit: AJCP145-014BH, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

While advocates were able to successfully convince planners to shift what ultimately became the downtown connector (I-75/85) several blocks to the east to save some notable buildings in the commercial core of Sweet Auburn, the neighborhood was still sliced in half and pierced with a massive interstate viaduct (and accompanying ramps) that weakened the neighborhood, impoverishing it over the intervening decades. Sweet Auburn has never been the same.

a street scene with a person biking on a city street with an interstate viaduct visible in the distance
Looking east on Sweet Auburn in 2011. The historic Odd Fellows building is at left, one of the few spared by construction of the Connector, visible in the background. Flickr photo by Ken Lund.

The many interstates (and massive interchanges) that followed separated white and Black communities in Atlanta and accelerated the flow of white Atlantans to the suburbs. (And in later years, many Black Atlantans as well.) Over the course of the 1960s, 60,000 whites left the city, and many interstates later, in the 1970s, they were joined by 100,000 more. Locals quipped that Atlanta was “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.”

Today, crisscrossed by interstates that dispersed the metro area’s population and jobs, Atlanta is home to some of the worst traffic in the nation. The Tom Moreland Interchange—the complicated intersection of Interstates 285 and 85 and other roads on the north side, often called “Spaghetti Junction”—is consistently ranked as one of the top three worst truck bottlenecks in the nation. The state has created massive traffic problems by spending billions to disperse people, homes, and jobs. And today, they continue to try and solve the traffic congestion they’ve created by turning to the same “solution” that created the problems in the first place.

While some of the proposed highways were never built, the two examples we analyze from Atlanta above are instructive for what does and doesn’t get built, and why.

Interstate 20 largely followed an east/west line between predominantly white neighborhoods on the north and Black neighborhoods to the south. As Kevin Kruse wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20…was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor [William] Hartsfield, as ‘the boundary between the white and Negro communities’ on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected.”

And then consider Interstate 485, the unbuilt massive north- south highway, proposed to be built directly through some of the most prosperous and politically powerful white neighborhoods in the eastern side of the city near Piedmont Park, which was ultimately defeated and never built.

Read the rest of Divided by Design

Explore the report’s full content using the sidebar menu at right (or below if on a mobile device), or jump to one of the three parts with the graphics below.

report cover graphic showing a stylized highway cutting through a city.graphic showing a stylized scene of construction of a highway through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene a few blocks away from a highway running through a city neighborhoodgraphic showing a stylized scene of what a neighborhood could look like after tearing a highway down

Don’t miss supplemental maps, videos, and animations in the DC and Atlanta case studies which are not in the hard copy. Download a PDF version of the report.