Southern Cities that Built Around Cars are Now Building Towards Sustainability

Cities like Atlanta, that have grown up in the age of the automobile and air conditioning, are making efforts to green their environmentally unfriendly buildings and spaces, explains Emily Badger.
April 22, 2012, 11am PDT | Alesia Hsiao
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Badger points to the dual curses of the car and the air conditioner, as causing Southern cities to evolve into places with congested and sprawling interstates and centralized air enclosed buildings with small windows and no natural air flow.

"It's the difference between a city that has grown up in the automobile age and a city that has grown up before the automobile age," says Paula Vaughan, the co-director in Atlanta of the Sustainable Design Initiative at the architecture firm Perkins+Will. Older cities are inherently compact and walkable (and further on their way to sustainability) because no one was driving anywhere when they were built.

Atlanta and its younger Southern counterparts are looking to change their unsustainable ways, however. "The downtown business district has launched a Better Buildings Challenge in which property owners are pledging to reduce their energy and water consumption by 20 percent by 2020." And as of this spring, "Midtown now has a 'greenprint' – a kind of sustainability blueprint that civic leaders hope will lead the neighborhood to become the 'South's first eco-district' (following a model of existing neighborhood-scale plans in Portland and Seattle)." The proposal lays out inclusion of higher-performance buildings, more green spaces and better-connected streets with Zipcar stations and walkable sidewalks.

According to Badger, the city has already made steps to rebuild their urban form and have retrofitted numerous buildings for energy efficiency, but the Big Peach still a ways to go. "People still have that notion of sitting in the highway in your car in the 90-degree heat to get to work," Vaughan says. "We're really changing that. I think it's going to take a while before people in other cities start recognizing that. But yeah, word is getting out."

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Published on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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