Decades ago, when I first moved to Atlanta’s Kirkwood, it was a poor neighborhood. But I found several small grocery stores within walking distance.
These “Korean Groceries,” as I called them after their owners, sold cigarettes, malt liquor, sugary sodas, and lottery tickets. These were the essentials of poverty life in the late 20th century. Some tried to sell fresh vegetables, milk, and eggs, but the neighbors weren’t buying them.
As Kirkwood gentrified in the 1990s these stores disappeared. One is now a medical office. Another is now a bar. A third has been abandoned, a small office built next door.
The newcomers could drive to Kroger.
The 15 Minute E-Bike City
With rising density in the last decade, there have been some attempts to bring small stores back. There’s the Oakhurst Market at Oakview and East Lake. There’s the Candler Park Market at McLendon and Clifton. There are also Savi Provisions in Decatur and Inman Park.
It’s far from perfect. The new stores mostly sell beer and wine. It’s also just a half-measure. But you can e-bike to any of them within 15 minutes, bring the kids, get what you need, and get home safely on two-lane roads. This is Atlanta’s new urbanism, and advocates are celebrating it. Intown is now a 15 minute city if you have an e-bike. Most people still have cars, but those cars spend a lot of time in driveways.
What the advocates want is what I call “Bodega Density.” That is, four-story buildings everywhere, with shops on the bottom, and very limited parking. When they say, “15 minute city,” they mean 15 minutes on foot.
This was the 19th century city, the mixed-use design of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan in New York. Versions of the grid were extended into Brooklyn and Queens. The city was built around walking and public transit, replaced after World War II by distant suburbs and highways where density does not scale.
This is only possible in Atlanta where the grid itself predates World War II, where you can drive around a block without getting lost. North of the 75-85 split, and beyond the Perimeter, the “grid” means roads spaced a half-mile or more apart, and housing projects inside them you can’t drive through. The remaining roads are widened to 5 lanes, people expect to drive them at 50 mph or more, and neither bikers nor walkers stand a chance.
The Bottom Line
You can’t build a 15-minute walking city on a post-war grid. It’s hard enough to build a 15-minute e-bike city, because the roads are so dangerous outside the Perimeter.
The way to change runs through creating denser suburban clusters. Suburbs like Marietta, Roswell, Norcross, and Lawrenceville can have four story high apartments, with retail underneath, where speed limits are low, and parking is pushed off to the side. If they’re attractive, if they’re self-sustaining, if they’re affordable, people will move to them, creating a constituency for greater density, for safe e-bike routes between the clusters, and from the tract suburbs into them. Before density can become real, it must have a constituency.