Reigning In Urban Sprawl For Communities And Climate

When we think about the range of climate solutions, it isn’t often that we consider systemic choices made by city planners and commercial developers over a span of many decades. This may be beginning to change. Suburban sprawl is the process whereby residents, over long periods of time, radiate out from denser urban centers, to often more affordable, newly developed areas.

The costs and benefits of this phenomenon is something that has long been on the radar of academics and municipal workers. Suburban sprawl generates logistical transportation challenges like controlling traffic for workers needing to commute, the need for increased mass transit options for residents and city-dwellers, and a greater dependency on large-scale infrastructure for these complex transportation endeavors. Incidentally, these requirements put major strains on the environment—resulting in large carbon footprints, and higher levels of air pollution.

Due to the environmental and quality of life challenges presented by urban sprawl, many city leaders and mayors are beginning to consider possible solutions. Fortunately, bold leaders in some of America’s biggest cities are providing a roadmap for addressing urban sprawl.

While the challenges to a more diffuse population are clear, mayors and municipal leaders need to have real options for affecting successful climate action. Such work is already underway thanks to the commitment of city and community leaders in Atlanta, GA. 

With its congested city streets, sprawling neighborhoods, and lack of walkable neighborhoods—Atlanta is finding new and innovative ways to transform the city. A massive new project is now underway called the Atlanta BeltLine, which promises to reinvigorate urban communities by connecting them with their suburban neighbors—all the while providing environmental and community benefits.

The Atlanta Beltline project is so innovative because it repurposes existing infrastructure to improve the lives of residents, the livability of the city, and helps address climate change. The details are simple; the BeltLine will transform roughly 22 miles of old rail line which circles the city, to a path for biking, walking and the development of a new streetcar line. With construction underway, the Beltline has already proved to be a success, and a major source of pride for the residents of Atlanta.

“The Atlanta BeltLine is the most transformational transportation project in the City of Atlanta… It is already connecting neighborhoods and changing the fabric of our city’s urban core…” Mayor Kasim Reed, Atlanta

The success of the Atlanta Beltline project is due, in part, to the multisector nature of the plan. The city worked closely with leaders from the local school district, businesses, and communities in the region to develop a project that would bring the greatest benefits possible.

The wide scope of the effort has paid off. Businesses have successfully relocated to be adjacent to the Beltline, gaining valuable access to the many residents and visitors. Property values for those living near the Beltline have increased, proving beneficial to residents. And the increased paths and public transport options have helped to make intercity travel quicker, more efficient, and enjoyable.

Climate Consequences

The benefits to residents are beyond question, and are often the impetuous for action. However, the greening of cities and addressing urban densification have the added benefit of bold climate action.

Greener cities, thanks to programs like Atlanta’s Beltline, are better able to regulate air quality, energy use, and pollution. More trees and foliage are able to filter harmful pollutants from the air, leading to a decreased incidence of asthma and respiratory illness, and therefore healthier citizens. Green spaces provide shade, and counter the urban heat-island effect—decreasing the need to run the A/C during hot summer months, and saving residents and businesses money. Finally, with proper landscaping, green spaces can prevent harmful runoff into lakes, streams, and water supplies, all while helping to recharge local aquifers.

More Action is Needed

While providing a model example for city-climate action, there is always more that can be done—particularly when it comes to addressing city planning and urban sprawl.

In an attempt to stop sprawl in its tracks, cities like Reykjavik, Iceland are now implementing bold new requirements that all new construction be limited within designated, existing urban geographic zones. The goal is to increase urban density, thereby increasing the efficiency of mass transit and helping the country to reach its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2040.

“Cities play a key role in the fight against climate change. They can react quickly … and are more often than naught far more progressive than the world’s governments.” Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson

Whether a public-private partnership, like in Atlanta, or mandated action as demonstrated internationally, cities have multiple approaches to affect positive climate change in their toolkit. To sharpen these, mayors and community leaders can utilize tested communication techniques to relay the benefits and need for bold climate action. These resources, along with a community devoted to local climate action, can be easily accessed at Path to Positive Communities.

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at

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