History and the Built Environment’s Role in Creating an Income Inequality Epidemic in Atlanta, Georgia
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Atlanta has the highest 95/20 ratio of income inequality out of the fifty largest cities in America. The 95/20 ratio is used to represent the top five percent of earnings made by city residents, divided by the bottom 20 percent of earnings made by city residents (Berube). The prominence of income inequality in the city of Atlanta can be detected in the built environment and its rhetoric, the things the man-made landscape conveys to its inhabitants. The rhetoric of the built environment of Atlanta shows that racial discrimination, white flight, car dominated transportation networks, and segregation by race and class are responsible for Atlanta’s high level of income inequality, and these same factors that brought on severe income inequality in Atlanta are perpetuating the problem today.
Historical Impacts on Income Inequality and the Built Environment
In order to understand and evaluate the built environment’s current impact on income inequality in Atlanta, we must first look at the history of the city. In the 1960s, many white residents of Atlanta responded to racial integration by fleeing the city and creating suburbs to keep racial segregation intact, this phenomenon is commonly referred to as white flight (Paget-Seekins). Racism was the foundation of these suburbs in their birth, therefore racial discrimination continued to be a significant factor shaping the built environment as they grew. The suburban communities in Cobb County declined the offer to be connected to the city by the MARTA rail line because they did not want to allow poor African Americans access to their white-only communities (Paget-Seekins). Today, Atlanta’s suburbs still do not have public transportation connecting to the city. As a result of suburban sprawl and a lack of public transportation linking the suburbs to the city, Atlanta became characterized by its congested highways and car-dominated transpiration network. Recent efforts to reduce traffic congestion during rush hour, when people are commuting to and from work, have been focused on changing the highways, but suburban counties have still rejected extending public transportation lines to help solve the problem. The free HOV lane on I-85, connecting downtown Atlanta to many suburbs, was recently repurposed as a paid HOT lane or high-occupancy toll lane. They are commonly referred to as “Lexus lanes,” insinuating that only Lexus owners could afford to pay to use them (Khoeini and Guensler). The built environment of Atlanta taking shape to accommodate suburban residents, because of white flight and suburban sprawl, in the form of car dominated transportation networks continues on today. Atlanta continues to expand and improve transportation networks for cars, while making less improvements to its mass public transit network. Consistent, safe, and reliable public transportation routes are currently only present in the center of the city and the immediately surrounding areas. If you live more than a few miles outside of the center of Atlanta, it is likely that you would need a car to access certain necessities. The included images of maps, depicting the official MARTA public transit rail line and the Metro Atlanta area as a whole, are present to illustrate that only a small portion of people in the Atlanta area have access to public transportation. The small loop surrounding the city of Atlanta, in the map of the full Metro Atlanta area, is the same area represented in the MARTA rail line map.
The Role of Transportation in Perpetuating Income Inequality
While there are some public transportation options for people living further away from the downtown area, the current accommodations are insufficient for people who do not own cars. Laurel Paget-Seekins brings up the inadequacy of transportation routes in Metro Atlanta in her article, “Atlanta: Unsafe at any Speed: Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice.” She recounts the 2011 conviction of Metro Atlanta resident Raquel Nelson, after her four-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver, in her scholarly research article. Paget-Seekins reveals that Nelson, an African American single mother with three young children and no car, was attempting to cross a busy Cobb County highway with her children to reach the first of two busses that took them to and from the grocery store, when the drunk driver struck them. Before being granted a retrial, Nelson was sentenced to serve three years in prison. Once caught, the driver only received six-months jail time, although he confessed to being under the influence and had been convicted twice in the past for hit-and-runs. Raquel Nelson’s tragic story paints a picture of problems that exist in the Atlanta, such as inadequate public transportation available to the poor in suburban areas, underfunding of transit, scarce transportation infrastructure in car dominated areas, and a continuation of the long history of race and class divisions. The built environment of suburban neighborhoods has been shaped around car owning middle to upper class white residents and serves as a barrier excluding many low-income families from living in these areas. According to Sarah Schindler, intentional and unintentional barriers preventing poor and African American people from accessing certain areas of the community are prevelant in United States cities. She describes how planners can limit access for these groups of people in certain areas of the city through the built environment, such as making bridges too low for public transit busses to pass underneath or placing bus stops across from a destination but separated by a busy highway.
Gentrification as a Means to Meet Growing Demand and a Cause of Growing Levels of Income Inequality
Historically, low-income families reside in the inner-city close to public transportation because it is expensive to own a car, while middle and upper class families reside in the suburbs and commute into the city for work. However, this trend is shifting. Middle and upper class white families are increasingly moving into the city (Carlson). According to the documentary The Human Scale, this is occurring in part because it takes so much more time out of someone’s day to commute from the suburbs each day for work, and people come home from work when it is already dark and feel drained. Upper and middle class white families desiring to move into the city of Atlanta have created more demand for high quality housing in upscale neighborhoods. Therefore, neighborhoods in Atlanta that have housed mostly low-income people are being gentrified, renovated to cater towards the middle-class, to meet the growing demand. When neighborhoods are gentrified, the cost of rent increases and drives out low-income residents. The Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta could be seen as a microcosm of the city of Atlanta, as when you visit you see people from all walks of life existing in the same space and participating in all different kinds of activities. A 1998 Atlanta Journal and Constitution article discusses the plans at the time for gentrifying the neighborhood, including adding a miniature police precinct to help clear out the homeless population, “people just sitting around and taking up so much more space than their bodies take up” (Turner). The police precinct’s presence in Little Five Points today, along with fairly high rent prices in the area, shows that the gentrification plans did indeed go through. In addition to pushing for a new police precinct, the plans also called for street lights and benches to attract people to the area and make it more enjoyable.
An article titled, “How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away,” describes the methods different cities have used to prevent homeless people from sleeping in public spaces. The author also includes many images as examples of “homeless deterrence technologies” from different cities around the United States, to explain to the reader that many instances of homeless deterrence commonly go unnoticed. The photo I have included of a bench in a Salt Lake City park, illustrating how bench design can discourage sleeping, looks almost identical to the benches seen in Little Five Point’s Findley Plaza. The armrests in the center of the bench make it very difficult for someone to use it as a place to sleep.
However, today if you visit Findley Plaza in the Little Five Points neighborhood you will notice that the benches have all been removed, the shops are booming with customers, and it is difficult to even find a space to park your car. While there is still a relatively large homeless population, it is clear that they are not wanted and efforts have been made to clear them out.
Inadequate Amenities for Low-Income Families Pushed Further Away From The City
As previously stated, the quality and quantity of public transportation decreases the further you move away from the center of the city. Consequently, low-income families, particularly those that do not own a car, who have had to moved away from the cities because of increased rent prices are in a worse situation because they do not have the same amenities available to them. An example of this occurring in Atlanta is with the Cobb County resident Raquel Nelson who lost her son when he was hit by a car as the family had to take two busses and cross a busy intersection just to reach the grocery store, as they did not own a car (Paget-Seekins). While this is just the way one person was negatively impacted by having to move away from the center of Atlanta, to a place they could afford that did not offer adequate amenities, Catherine Ross’ “Health Impact Assessment of the Atlanta BeltLine” provides a more widespread illustration of the issue. The BeltLine is a redevelopment project for underused land, through the creation of paved trails, increasing pedestrian accessibility and connecting people to destinations such as health clinics and public schools. However, the problem is that in all cases the percentages of the population from the low-income Southeast, Southwest, and Westside planning areas that will have access to the benefits of the BeltLine are significantly less than the percentages of population of the much more affluent Northside and Northeast planning areas. A comparison of maps included in this study clearly illustrates unequal access, one map shows BeltLine access to grocery stores and the other showing average median household income. Insufficient pedestrian infrastructure providing access to grocery stores is a huge problem for low-income families without cars. In addition to this, it is apparent that racial discrimination still affects the built environment of the Cobb County suburbs to some degree. Cobb County and other metro Atlanta suburbs plan to expand their public transportation services, but the plans seem to be aimed at benefiting middle-class white collar workers, by giving the option to take public transit into Atlanta for work instead of driving. The low-income residents of Cobb County without cars, like Raquel Nelson, will likely not benefit from the transit expansions as a result of insufficient pedestrian infrastructure and unreliable bus services (Paget-Seekins). These issues demonstrate the impact of income inequality on the changes to the build environment, as high-income areas are provided with higher quality infrastructure than low-income areas. In turn, the lack of quality infrastructure in low-income areas, where pedestrian infrastructure makes a greater impact, enforces income inequality severity in Atlanta.
As seen in the map above, depicting median household income, the city of Atlanta is very segregated by income. The following map depicts the racial segregation that is present in Atlanta as well. The neighborhood one grows up in has been shown to impact their chances for upward economic mobility, therefore gentrification and segregation of neighborhoods by class perpetuate income inequality. A Harvard University study analyzed the tax records of over five million children who, at some point, relocated to a different county, in order to examine the impact that the neighborhood a child grows up in has on their income as an adult. The data was found to verify the claim that hometowns significantly affect children’s future chances for upward economic mobility. The same study also found that qualities that decrease the chance of upward economic mobility include segregation by class and race, high levels of income inequality, high rates of violent crime, car dominated transportation networks, and more African American residents than residents of any other race (Chetty and Hendren).
Therefore, we can conclude that the high levels of income inequality in Atlanta can be attributed to many of the qualities found in the study, “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940.” Included maps, created using U.S. Census Bureau data, illustrate the prevalence of these issues in the city of Atlanta. Analysis of the studies that have been discussed, in relation to income inequality, support the idea that these issues have not only caused high levels of income inequality, but also that they are perpetuating the issue. A legacy of racial discrimination in Atlanta is the driving force in this perpetuation. According to Schindler, “employers in the suburbs of Atlanta, in some cases, have had to pay higher than minimum wage to attract workers, as low-income workers in the city cannot access the suburbs.” Also, the implementation of HOT lanes, to help relieve Atlanta’s severe rush hour traffic on I-85, is one of very few congestions relief options currently executable (Khoeini and Guensler). The suburbs needing minimum wage workers and low-income individuals without cars needing minimum wage jobs, along with the absence of many viable traffic relief solutions, shines light on the reality that expanding public transportation lines into suburban areas could benefit everyone involved. However, these counties continue to vote against inviting MARTA to expand. As in the past, the counties are trying to prevent low-income and black individuals from accessing their communities (Paget-Seekins). Expanding public transportation could effectively help integrate areas that are currently segregated by race and class, as people who cannot afford cars could live in less expensive suburban neighborhoods that are currently predominately white and remain unaccessible due to their lack of public transportation. As Chetty and Hendren explain, growing up in a low-income community negatively impacts a child’s chance for upward economic mobility and growing up in a high-income community positively impacts their chance for upward economic mobility. Integration of races and classes could be the key to bringing Atlanta down from its number one slot for the highest income inequality in the country. All of the evidence points towards transportation barriers being the largest reason segregation by race and class is perpetuated. However, policymakers and planners will have to rid themselves of racial discrimination in order to shape the built environment to be more inclusionary, consequently decreasing the income inequality ratio.
Berube, Alan, “All Cities Are Not Created Unequal.” Brookings. Brookings Institution, 20 Feb. 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/research/all-cities-are-not-created-unequal/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.
Chetty, Raj and Nathaniel Hendren. “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940,” NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 23002, Apr. 2015, http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/nbhds_exec_summary.pdf. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.
Carlson, Adam. “Study: Black Atlantans prefer suburbs, whites moving to city ‘core’” The Atlanta Journal the Atlanta Constitution, Jan 8, 2015, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.
The Human Scale. Dir. Andreas Mol Dalsgaard. 2012. Andreas Mol Dalsgaard, Film.
Khoeini, Sara and Randall Guensler. “Using Vehicle Value as a Proxy for Income: A Case Study on Atlanta’s I-85 HOT Lane.” Research in Transportation Economics, vol. 44, no. Road Pricing in the United States, 01 June 2014, pp. 33-42. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.retrec.2014.04.003.
“MARTA Map.” MARTA Guide, martaguide.com, https://martaguide.com/rail-station-map/.
“Metro Atlanta Regional Map.” Metro Atlanta Chamber, metroatlantachamber.com, https://www.metroatlantachamber.com/resources/most-popular/map-of-metro-atlanta.
Paget-Seekins, Laurel. “Atlanta: Unsafe at any Speed: Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice.” Race, Poverty & the Environment, no. 1, 2012, p. 22. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.41762530&site=eds-live.
Rosenberger, Robert, “How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 19 June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.
Ross, Catherine L., et al. “Health Impact Assessment of the Atlanta Beltline.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 42, no. 3, Mar. 2012, pp. 62-213. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2011.10.019.
Schindler, Sarah. “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation through Physical Design of the Built Environment.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 124, 01 Apr. 2015, p. 1934. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edslex&AN=edslex375D9927&site=eds-live.
Trincia, Beau. “Little Five Points” New Public Domain, newpublicdomain.com, 9 Nov 2011, http://www.newpublicdomain.com/2011/11/obstructing-public-gathering-space.html.
Turner, Kimberly. “How Segregated is Atlanta? This Race Map Reveals the Truth.” Curbed Atlanta, Jun 2, 2014, http://atlanta.curbed.com/2014/6/2/10092862/how-segregated-is-atlanta, Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.
Turner, Melissa. “CHANGING BOHEMIA Little Five Points, a Haven of Counterculture, Faces Gentrification and Dissension.” The Atlanta Journal the Atlanta Constitution, Jun 29, 1998, pp. E;01, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, http://ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.gsu.edu/docview/247585702?accountid=11226.