Unless you have been living under a rock you have likely used or at least heard about Google Earth. It is available for desktop computer platforms, as browser plug-ins, and also for mobile devices. What you might not have heard about is a much less well known website I also found that allows you to do map overlays called MapFrappe.
Recently, our local newspaper editor was sticking up for the status quo in a development dispute involving some landowners in a residential neighborhood trying to fight encroachment by a strip mall developed called Blackwater. I recently wrote an article defending those residents on Zebulon Rd in Macon, GA.. Go ahead and open up Google Earth and MapFrappe in separate tabs if you wish to do your own experiment as you read this article. I will be using my hometown of Macon, Georgia as examples.
Urban Sprawl isn’t Inevitable
Our local newspaper editor was quoted as saying “That’s what residents along Zebulon Road are fighting. As soon as that road was widened, beginning in 1996, the march toward retail development was on its way. For the residents whose homes share front yards with the five-lane road, its been, and will continue to be, a nightmare. Inevitably, as the neighborhood ages, there will be some residents who will decide to get out while the getting is good and sell to developers.”
Essentially he was defending a model known as “Retail Follows Rooftops” which is an old axiom and means as neighborhoods develop the retail will follow them there. That model works fine while you have constant expansion and growth but it is disastrous when you have a contraction and properties go underwater as happened in 2008.
His comment sounded so defeatist and pessimistic that and I wondered if that was really true or not.They also sound more like a PR mouthpiece for a strip mall developer than the column of a newspaper editor. Should we all just resign ourselves to ever expanding strip malls and just accept that Orwellian nightmare of inevitable urban blight as they inevitably fail which leads to neighborhood decay and then more expansion further out in a vicious cycle?
How to Create a Map Overlay
One of the inspirations for this article was this BusinessInsider Article I recently stumbled on with photos of many map overlays of various countries. When you look at most globes or maps of the world, Russia actually appears at least to be roughly the same size as Africa but in reality you can nearly fit Russia into Africa two times which was a shock to me. Since maps can appear so distorted I was curious about how large of an area I travel routinely would compare with other cities.
The metro population here in Middle Georgia is roughly around 400,000 people. Now the vast number of those people live in just two of those counties which are called Bibb and Houston counties. So Using MapFrappe I made an outline of those areas with the majority of population here in middle Georgia. This isn’t exact science by any means and doesn’t need to be. I was just trying to get a rough estimate to compare size. Simply make an outline of the population area you want to compare. Here is what mine looks like for middle Georgia. I might have missed some areas I should have added but that gives me a fairly good estimate of where most people in Bibb and Houston live.
When you open that link you will have two maps, one on the top and one below. The image you see above was created with the map on the top. Simply type in your hometown and draw lines. Now on the bottom map you can type in any city you want an do a map overlay from the image you created above and it will give you an exact size comparison. Now remember that image above of middle Georgia contains roughly 315,000 people.Below are some images comparing that overlay with various cities. All of these cities have many millions that live in the same area size.
Now it certainly was no surprise that middle Georgia has a lower population density than all these large cities above. But the point that fascinated me and also something that nearly all my friends that have visited me here in Macon from other cities have immediately noticed is why is everything in Middle Georgia so spread out?
There are pockets of shopping and commercial areas all over the county and also vast areas in between of no development at all separating these different zones. To really see how extreme this appears you now will need to open up Google Earth.
Urban Sprawl from a Birdseye View
Below you can see two images, one a view of the all of Bibb county and the next one a slightly more zoomed in image that shows the Zebulon Rd area with the Sonny Carter Elementary school with a red marker. This is where the battle lines are drawn between people trying to protect their homes from an invasion of new strip malls. If you zoom around the area you can see huge pockets of undeveloped land near that area that no not directly border homes. Chances are there are similar fights occurring on towns and communities all over the country. I have no idea who owns all these vast areas of vacant land all over the county. I also do not know why they weren’t developed before choosing to spread our relatively small and stagnant population further and further away but I hope this will at least get other people to wonder the same thing.
What became immediately apparent to me both with the MapFrappe map overlays from above as well as the Google earth images above is just how poorly middle Georgia has developed in any sort of organized way. Our population has changed little in decades but the sprawl grows like a cancer. Bibb’s expansion seems extremely haphazard without any rhyme or reason and there doesn’t appear to be any plan at all in place to manage growth. It would appear that people have been building suburb communities away from the shopping areas but as soon as they grow to a certain size the government expands the roads to 4 or 5 lanes, begins the process of rezoning to allow businesses to move in, then the neighborhoods start to go downhill quickly and the process starts again all over again in a vicious cycle.
Bibb County has an area of 255 square miles. Though small in comparison to Houston county at 380 square miles, that is still a very large area. This is evident with the map overlay photos above where you can see that the middle Georgia area is roughly as large as all of Tokyo even including Saitama and Yokohama in an area that supports over 25 million in that grid. Yes, we all know huge cities have higher urban density than small cities and lots of tall buildings. But if other cities can manage to pack in millions and millions into the same area certainly we can learn a few tips to manage our land development in smarter ways. We only have a few hundred thousand people and yet we are having fights between developers and homeowners. Surely with so few people and so much space we can work together for sustainable growth to make everyone happy.
What is Urban Sprawl?
Urban sprawl is defined as “the increased use of urbanized land by fewer people than in the past”. First disavow yourself of any notion that urban sprawl is a uniquely American or even a uniquely modern phenomenon. It isn’t . It has been around at least since Roman times and likely long before that in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. The wealthy have been moving away from the poor who are largely concentrated in urban centers by building large estates and palaces in the countryside. Today our modern version of urban sprawl conjures up images of McMansions in gated communities, big box stores, SUV’s, gas stations, lots of fast food joints, strip malls, and in Macon at least lots of churches and of course traffic. Urban sprawl is at least understandable for cities that have experienced moderate to high population growth. More people means you need new expansion to feed and house those new additions. But in cities with largely stagnant population or even a shrinking population, it makes much less sense to continue the sprawl as opposed to considering options to clean house a bit and utilize existing space first.
When you look around Bibb county, Georgia with Google Earth at least, you can see that our county has largely used what is known as leapfrog development. Leapfrog development occurs when developers build new residences some distance from an existing urban area, bypassing vacant parcels located closer to the city. In other words, developers choose to build on less expensive land farther away from an urban area rather than on more costly land closer to the city. Urban sprawl has contributed greatly to air and water pollution as well as increased water and energy consumption. Since urban sprawl places people outside of walking distance to shopping areas and work areas, they are forced to rely heavily on cars to get from point A to point B.There is also the loss of farmland which means we are less able to produce food and rely on importing more from other countries. We also are cutting down more forested areas as well as invading wetlands which means the loss of more and more wildlife habitats. More concrete and asphalt creates heat islands in addition to being less attractive than using mother nature as your interior decorator.
Areas that Need to be Addressed
You can’t fight city hall…or can you? Does your city have a mayor and government leaders with a sustainable plan of growth that looks 20 or 30 years into the future to ensure green zones like Eugene, Oregon or does it have a P&Z board, a mayor, a city council, and a newspaper editor that simply look at expansion as inevitable and impossible to formulate any actual controlled and sustainable growth that makes sense like Macon,GA? Do your civic leaders ask for public input and suggestions or issue dictates and decisions as if they were the Roman senate of old and you plebeians better know your place. I will give our Mayor some credit for his efforts to tear down abandoned homes and they just reached their 100th. But the sad reality is that this is but a drop in the bucket. I wonder how many new homes have been abandoned since this project began. I wonder what plans if any we have for all the large abandoned commercial properties all over Bibb county. And finally, I wonder what plans we have to clean up homes and business that are occupied but complete eyesores that need some paint and a lot of elbow grease. I also wonder about all the signage from political campaigns that ended long ago. Why aren’t those running for office forced to clear up those signs after the election is over? No matter where you reside as you read my article, I bet you can relate to similar issues facing your community.
Make a list of those abandoned properties you pass on your daily commutes and ask your city and county leaders what they plan to do with those properties. Start a blog or write articles on existing ones in your community. Join or start groups with like-minded people that support urban revitalization and beautifying your city. Let your civic leaders know you care. Apathy is perhaps our worst enemy.
Often these abandoned buildings and houses are in prime locations. If new businesses were given the proper incentives with tax breaks or abatements it is not inconceivable some of these properties could be redeveloped and reopened as thriving new centers of commerce. I am an optimist but also pragmatic. I understand that some of these abandoned properties also are located in very poor or crime-ridden neighborhoods of the inner city where it may be difficult to ever attract private businesses until crime and poverty are addressed.
If tax abatements and other incentives cannot attract businesses then at least hold the owners or banks that own the deeds accountable to clear the lots and let nature reclaim the lot. Someone has to own all these abandoned homes and businesses and we need a better system to track these people down and make sure that all these condemned properties which are both fire hazards, breeding dens for cockroaches and rodents which can cause health risks, and also can be used for criminal activities are torn down. If current law is slowing down this process, then let’s update the laws to this new reality.
Red Fields to Green Fields Gives us a plan of Action
Green zones and parks are vitally important component to rehabilitate a city. In fact Georgia Tech right up the road in Atlanta did a case study with many videos showing how many cities have done exactly this with great success. The study is entitled From Blight to Beauty. I included just one of the many videos available on that link below.I would be willing to bet if our civic leaders asked Georgia Tech, Mercer, UGA, and other schools in the state for some assistance they would likely give us a lot better a advice than the hundreds of thousand spent on private companies to do similar studies.
We need far more cooperation from our civic leaders and universities and corporations since it in all our best interest to clean up our cities and make them far more livable. Cleaner and better planned cities make for happier people, more tourists, more business looking to relocate, a more productive workforce, and simply a better and happier quality of live for everyone so it also makes economic sense to revitalize our towns instead of continuing past failed policies that led to many parts of our towns that look like third world countries.
I realize this article was all over the place and rather long so thanks for getting this far. I started out with map overlays, and google earth images, then talked about strip malls, blight and parks. But if I made you at least consider what your town or city could do a little different to fight back against urban sprawl which inevitably creates the blight then I have done my job. You don’t have to be a hero but at least don’t be apathetic. Demand better from your civic leaders and especially our P&Z board, demand that they have a plan in place that looks at growth 30 years down the road and not 3 years that takes into account sustainable growth.
Insist on parks and green zones and a plan to redevelop or tear down abandoned properties before more forest and wetlands are cleared. Neither our planet nor our cities have unlimited space or resources. We have to start doing a better job at cleaning up and utilizing all existing space before more trees are cut down. We must do a better job at using and cleaning existing spaces before expanding ever further like an invading army.