Breaking Down Atlanta's Suburban Experiment

Time after time, data analysts at Urban3 find that investing in your community’s downtown empowers it to grow financially strong and resilient. But there are always skeptics who believe that Strong Towns members who encourage dense, mixed-use development are actually pushing for a proliferation of skyscrapers and the “Manhattanization” of America’s small towns. These are people who are committed to the rural character of their community; sometimes they even extol the virtues of auto-oriented development.

Let’s take them at their word. What would the opposite of the Strong Towns approach look like? Could it really be that bad for community finances?

Enter Gwinnett County, Georgia. Roughly thirty miles Northeast of Atlanta, is the home of Waffle House HQ and the rap group Migos. It has also been one of the fastest growing areas in the country over the last forty years. What twenty years ago was a sleepy bedroom community of Atlanta has since doubled in size, all under a paradigm of minimal planning oversight.

Imagine a nice small town of 20,000 people. Now imagine building one of these towns every year for forty years. Now imagine that none of these are really cohesive, self-contained towns at all—instead, they're fragments of a place spread out across 400 expansive square miles, with a service here, a store there, and no unified sense of community whatsoever. That typifies the pattern of development spreading across the periphery of almost all of our cities. Gwinnett County makes a particularly good example of what not to do because it’s not just limited to a single municipality. Instead, what happened in Gwinnnett County is what inevitably happens when the Suburban Experiment takes over an entire county.

In a recent video conversation (above), Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn talked to Josh McCarty, Chief Analytics Researcher of Urban3, to discuss this troubling trend. If you have the time, it’s worth watching the whole video to see Josh’s eye-popping data visualizations and to hear the nuances of Chuck’s arguments and anecdotes. If you don’t, here are some of the main topics discussed:

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1. The difference between rural and urban

Gwinnett’s population is nearing one million people, yet many local leaders claim that that their county is anything but urban. They think of themselves as a rural suburb of Atlanta, but the employment data says otherwise.

When you do the math, you discover that there are almost as many people who commute to Gwinnett County for work as there are people who make the drive to downtown Atlanta. On an average workday, they import almost as many workers as they export.

Gwinnett County has all the components of a big city, such as population density and a diverse workforce, but no central downtown to glue them together. It’s essentially a county full of unassembled IKEA parts scattered on the floor.

2. The role of population density

For perspective, Josh and Chuck compared Gwinnett County to other regions in the South, including Orange County, NC.

Orange County fits the definition of “rural” a little better. It’s around the same size, geographically, as Gwinnett, and it looks like Gwinnett looked like in the late 1980s. There are small towns with concentrated urban development amidst a much larger hinterland of countryside.

Orange managed their growth within historic boundaries, while Gwinnett expanded into boundless suburban development with no nucleus.

3. Visualizing the value of the built environment

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The differences between Orange and Gwinnett are even more clear when you map out  how their value per acre varies across the landscape.

If you’ve been reading Strong Towns for a while, the map on the left should look pretty familiar to you. It illustrates the tax value of every square foot of a given place in the form of peaks (high value) and flat areas (low value). Here we're comparing Orange County — home to the towns of Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill — with Gwinnett County.

In most urban areas, the valuable buildings that contribute most to the municipal tax base are clustered downtown. Downtown is easy to point out. But next to Chapel Hill (the big purple peak), Gwinnett County looks like a shag carpet.

Office buildings and retail centers, single-family houses and apartment complexes were all built alongside each other in a hurry with no real sense of organization. With no organizing mechanism and no downtown, there is no sense of place because the difference between urban and rural is blurred.

4. The importance of design

When it comes to creating property value, design matters as much as density. In the video above, Josh and Chuck talk about Carrboro, a well-designed town of 20,000 people in Orange County. It has no skyscrapers, just compact buildings in easy walking distance to amenities and daily needs.

Carrboro itself is the densest municipality in North Carolina, but it has an urban growth boundary that eases the transition to farmland a few miles from the town’s center. Gwinnett County, in contrast, lacks cohesive design and a strategy to improve its financial situation.

5. The Growth Ponzi Scheme in action

When the Suburban Experiment runs amok, it needs miles and miles of roads, sewage systems, and water infrastructure. Every inch of that infrastructure needs to be maintained, and taxpayer-funded police, fire protection, and school busses have a much bigger region to serve.

The Growth Ponzi Scheme is catching up with Gwinnett County, and there is no development pattern with higher costs and lower return on investment than this. And as Chuck has observed many times, as all that overbuilt retail and housing stock ages, growth levels off and the debt only compounds.


As Chuck and Josh tell it, the tale of Gwinnett County is a harrowing lesson of how not to manage suburban growth. If you’ve observed similar development patterns in your community, it’s worth watching them explain in detail how Gwinnett County ended up in this mess, what they can do to get out of their precarious fiscal situation today, and what every town like them can do tomorrow to become stronger.

 (All graphics courtesy of Urban3.)