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Clayton named metro area's sixth most connected county

JONESBORO — Clayton County is the sixth most connected county in a metro area that was noted in a new study for having more urban sprawl than any other metropolitan area in the country, according to the report.

Smart Growth America examined decades of data from 221 small and large metropolitan areas across the country. Those metro areas include 994 counties. In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, the group looked at how communities have done in four areas: development density, land use mix, activity centering and street accessibility.

A higher score means a community is more connected than others. By contrast, a lower score means less community and more urban sprawl.

Metro Atlanta fell in the latter category.

“What this says about metro Atlanta as a whole is that there have been decades of unchecked growth and that’s largely fueled by a lot of independent decisions about land use,” said Georgia Clean Air Campaign spokesman Brian Carr. “This report is kind of pointing out some of the things that have happened in the past that we now have every opportunity to correct.”

Carr said the report shows a need for more connectivity between counties in metro Atlanta. In Clayton County alone, 62 percent of its employed residents work outside the county, he said. He added that 16 percent of Clayton residents also carpool to work because of a lack of transit in the county.

That’s one issue Clayton County economic development Director Grant Wainscott is looking at. One issue the county has to look at is the fact that it doesn’t have many large tracts of land left to development, he said.

That means the county has to look at how it can develop smaller tracts of land, and that could mean building upwards instead out outwards, which will in turn mean more urban density in the county, Wainscott added.

“Our sprawl days are over,” said Wainscott. “Now, we have to work on infill development.”

While Carr said more carpooling will help with connectivity, he said transit that connects the county internally as well as with other counties is an issue county leaders have to address.

In recent months, county leaders have been ratcheting up talk of possibly bringing back transit to the county. Last month, county commission Chairman Jeff Turner announced he supports a revival of mass transit on economic development grounds.

“For us to have sustainable economic growth, in my opinion, we need a transit system,” said Turner during his State of the County address. “Not everyone has a reliable form of transportation to get to work, shop, doctor visits or even to school.”

Carr said the county has been one of the leaders in metro Atlanta in terms of pushing forward with plans to address transportation issues in the aftermath of a regional T-SPLOST’s defeat at the polls in 2012. He said the county needs to look at more than just putting buses on the roads, however, and address the issues of carpooling and the number of people traveling outside the county for work.

Currently, the Georgia Rapid Transit Authority’s Xpress buses, carpooling and driving solo on the roads are the main options available to get residents to work places that are outside the county, according to Carr. He said getting more residents to use mass transit, such as the Xpress buses, will help with connectivity to Atlanta while also reducing gridlock on I-75.

“Every Xpress bus that is fully loaded takes 53 cars off the road,” Carr said.

Getting voters to join MARTA, which is an option state legislators granted during the 2014 legislative session, would also help improve connectivity with the metro area’s urban core, he said. MARTA already operates in Fulton and DeKalb counties, which had the highest composite scores in metro Atlanta, according to the report.

“Transit certainly is an advantage and that’s something that Clayton County is hopefully going to be able to restore after being absent for so many years now,” said Carr. “It would certainly be a step in the right direction, but I also think it’s bigger than just transit and looking at the fact that four major interstates run through Clayton County”

Clayton County got high marks for its development density score (106.35) and its land-use mix score (106.15).

Development density looks at the density of urban and suburban census tracts, the percentage of residents who live in low-density suburbs, percentage of people living in medium-to-high density areas, the urban density, employment density and the concentration of urban density around the metro area’s core, according to the report.

Land use mix looks at the jobs versus total population and what type of mix of jobs exists in a one-mile census block.

However, while Clayton County did best in those categories, it also got lower marks for its activity centering score (84.62) and its street connectivity score (98.10).

Activity centers, Carr said, can be gathering spots ranging from public parks and schools to commerce areas such as shopping malls, retail corridors and business centers. The report looked at how accessible those areas were to the rest of the community, he said.

But boosting economic development in the county will help improve its activity center score, said Carr. Efforts such as the Mountain View Tax Allocation District and the proposed TriCity Opportunity Zone in Forest Park, Lake City and Morrow may help, Wainscott said.

“One of the things an economic development department should be doing is looking at ways to try to bring in more jobs so residents don’t have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to get to work,” said Wainscott.

But Carr and officials from the Atlanta Regional Commission said it is important to consider the fact that it doesn’t fully represent efforts made in recent years to improve connectivity in the area. One key tool in improving the area has been the ARC’s Livable Center and its impact on the area over the last 15 years.

“Since 2000, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative has helped 113 communities create more livable, walkable environments,” ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker said in a statement. “ARC has provided $15 million in planning grants and more than $170 million in transportation investments that have helped revitalize downtowns throughout the region and energized major employment centers like Midtown Atlanta and Perimeter Center.”

The report can be viewed at www.news-daily.com.