082620_MNS_tree_canopy Atlanta tree canopy and skyline

Pictured is metro Atlanta’s tree canopy and skyline.

Metro Atlanta led the nation in urban sprawl from 2000 to 2010, spreading 683 square miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The region was first by nearly double the amount of land compared to the second-place city, Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, at 372 square miles. Those numbers have Leon Kolankiewicz, an environmental scientist and planner, worried.

“There are two main factors (determining) sprawl: one is population density, … per capita land, … and the other is the number of residents,” said Kolankiewicz, an independent consultant based in State College, Pennsylvania. “Atlanta has been booming for 40 to 50 years now, and our indication is the growth has caused the lion’s share of that sprawl and the loss of trees that particularly comes with it.”

Kolankiewicz, Eric Ruark and Roy Beck co-authored “Paving The Piedmont: Weighing Sprawl Factors in the Emerging Piedmont Megalopolis,” a 2017 report from Arlington, Virginia-based NumbersUSA that analyzed urban sprawl data from at least two organizations.

The study area stretched from Atlanta to Raleigh, and the Piedmont is defined as the Southeast’s area from the coastal plains to the east to the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, going from Virginia southwest to Alabama. Kolankiewicz said 85% of the Piedmont’s urban sprawl can be attributed to population growth.

In metro Atlanta, he said he’s “very concerned” about how urban sprawl is decreasing its tree canopy and the amount of different types of undeveloped land.

“It relates to loss of open space, the loss of rural lands, which consists of natural/wildlife habitat and/or farmland, which can’t be replaced, and it relates to such issues like traffic,” Kolankiewicz said.

In the five counties the Neighbor covers, he cited data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and its Natural Resources Inventory reports from 1982 through 2015 that raise concerns over urban sprawl and the loss of the tree canopy.

♦ In Bartow County, during that period, developed land jumped from 20,900 acres to 46,500 acres, a change of 123%; crop land decreased from 33,700 to 21,100 (-37%); pasture land increased from 14,100 acres to 23,200 (+65%) and forest land dropped from 197,200 to 170,800 (-13%)

♦ In DeKalb County, developed land went from 93,700 acres to 139,400 acres (+49%), crop land plummeted from 400 acres to zero, pasture land decreased from 8,200 to 1,400 (-83%) and forest land dropped from 58,000 to 19,800 (-66%).

♦ In Douglas County, developed land rose from 31,400 acres to 55,500 in 2015 (+77%), crop land fell from 40,000 acres to 1,000 (-75%), pasture land plummeted 9,300 to 4,800 (-48%) and forest land decreased 77,100 to 60,000 (-22%).

♦ In Fulton County, developed land jumped from 145,600 acres to 231,200 (+59%), crop land plummeted 3,800 to zero, pasture land fell from 35,900 to 12,700 (-65%) and forest land decreased from 129,700 to 74,600 (-42%).

♦ In Paulding County, developed land skyrocketed from 6,600 to 52,400 acres (+594%), crop land plummeted from 8,000 to 100 (-99%), pasture land fell from 16,200 to 13,700 (-15%) and forest land dropped from 159,400 to 125,300 (-21%).

“(With) the amount of sprawl for the five counties, for four of the five, 100% was related to the population growth, not increasing per-capita land consumption,” Kolankiewicz said. “The only one was DeKalb, which was 72% due to population.”

Metro Atlanta, which has a population of just over 6 million, according to the bureau’s 2019 estimate, is the nation’s fourth-fastest growing city.

“In general, Atlanta’s sprawl rate has slowed some in recent years because of the Great Recession, but the population has only increased,” Kolankiewicz said. “Previously, both in Atlanta and elsewhere around the county, roughly half of the sprawl was related to population growth and also was related to low-density development like strip malls, residential and commercial development, McMansions and roadside construction. I think it’s both good and bad. Certainly in this age of COVID-19, there’s been an increase in concern on taking mass transit to make us more vulnerable to contracting the (virus). A lot of times people don’t want to see density increase in their neighborhood.”

When asked what residents can do to restore metro Atlanta’s tree canopy and reduce sprawl, he said, “In terms of sprawl, local governments, if they want to minimize the amount of sprawl, should look at smart-growth measures.”

Kolankiewicz also pointed to the city of Charlotte, which is planting new trees in areas where the tree canopy is low and where there was tree canopy removal to help restore the tree canopy.

“It can take place, but it will take 50 to 100 years,” he said. “The citizens should be engaged and do what they can to protect their tree canopy.”

To view the “Paving the Piedmont” report, visit https://bit.ly/3fVPp47.

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