How to Green Southern Cities Built in the Age of Cars and Air Conditioning

U.S. cities in the South have their own set of challenges to face in going green. But Atlanta, for one, is trying.

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Poor Atlanta often stands in as the model for how cities ought not to grow. The place is sprawling and congested and weirdly linear. Its skyline has, from afar, what looks like three disconnected focal points, which rise from the neighborhoods of Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead, nearly eight miles apart. Just about all of the most important Interstates in the South converge on the city, bisecting many of its communities. And the local metro system – with four lines covering roughly two routes – looks on a map like the toenail clippings from the London Underground.

Today, leaders in the city are about as enthusiastic as their counterparts in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest to embrace sustainability. But they have all of this to contend with.

“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. “You gauged distance and travel by how many blocks it was to walk somewhere. Now you get in a car and drive for ‘20 minutes.’ It’s not the same kind of measurement.”

The car changed the whole scale of Southern cities that ballooned in the post-war era. And it was helped along in transforming these places by the other great Southern game-changer of the last 50 years: the air conditioner. Air conditioning enabled people to move here, and to this day it is single-handedly responsible for making long car commutes marginally bearable. It also fundamentally changed the architecture of our buildings in a way that presents yet more obstacles to greening.

Atlanta shares these problems with a whole generation of younger cities in the South. And so the thinking goes: If Atlanta can figure this out, any of them can.

“That’s what we started off saying: If we can do it, why not Charlotte and Raleigh, Tampa, Orlando, Houston, all those cities?” Vaughan says. “They all are starting to look at [sustainability] more and more. Atlanta is one of the leading cities in the South. It’s our responsibility to show how it can be done.”

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. Already, 21 million square feet of property are signed up. The area around the convention center, which includes the Georgia Dome, is also trying to become a zero-waste zone.

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 envisions new Zipcar stations, higher-performance buildings, a better-connected street grid, new green spaces and additional miles of walkable sidewalks. Until now, the neighborhood has been disconnected at points by Atlanta’s rocky geography.

“People took the easy lots to develop, which left some really gaping holes,” Vaughan says. “It’s hard to think that Peachtree Street has surface parking lots, and that there are lots that are completely undeveloped.”

Perkins+Will’s own office on Peachtree in Midtown recently re-opened in a 1985 office building that has been dramatically retrofitted to cut energy use by 58 percent. Along with properties like this one, the Atlanta area now has more buildings with Energy Star certifications from the Environmental Protection Agency than any other city in the U.S., outside larger Los Angeles and the nation's capital in Washington, D.C.

The old Perkins+Will building was emblematic of the air conditioning age: built for central air, not natural ventilation, with small windows and a harsh western façade. It wasn’t energy-efficient, because it was built at a time when we seldom worried about such things. This is the building before and after the revamp:

Perkins+Will

As a major office building (which also includes a public library and museum), it also mirrored the ways in which even homes in Southern cities have evolved around the air conditioner, away from the thick walls, porches, high ceilings and large windows that are today considered essential to harnessing daylight, conserving energy and naturally cooling interiors.

Cities like Atlanta won’t be able to change overnight their fundamental urban form. A place built around cars can’t be rebuilt around recycling bins. But all of these small steps may add up: creating in-fill, retrofitting individual buildings and better connecting them to each other along tree-lined streets where people might actually want to walk. In the process, a whole lifestyle (which has equally grown up around the car and A/C) could start to change, too.

“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.”

Top image: Otokimus / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.