Exurbanization in the Southern Apps

In a recent issue of the Smoky Mountain News, Andrew Kasper wrote, “the exurbanites are invading Macon County.” Who are these invaders and how scared should we be? This edition of our column details Macon County’s exurbanites, the process of exurbanization and its long term impacts on the county.

The exurbs and their exurbanite inhabitants draw the attention of pundits, journalists, and scientists because they reveal rapid changes in population, land use, and economic organization resulting from the fast-paced, low-density growth we know as sprawl. Exurbanization therefore raises debates about growth and development. These include how to manage disagreements about aesthetics and risk (as we saw locally in the debate about steep slope development) and how to balance a rising tax base with increased demands for public services like waste management, utilities, emergency response and health care.

Geographically, the exurbs can be found in many parts of the U.S. They lie at the urban-rural periphery where suburbs bleed into small-town communities with an agricultural heritage. While the exurbs exist within the orbit of a big city, they have weak social and economic ties to it.

Many researchers consider Macon County a part of exurbia. Based on census data and information about economic flows, commuting, and regional communication, they include Southern Appalachia within the vast “Piedmont Megapolitan Area,” an 18-million-person region defined by the metro areas of Atlanta, Charlotte, Asheville, Greenville, Birmingham, and Knoxville.

Macon County is classified by the USDA Economic Research service as non-metro and non-core because 0 percent of workers commute to adjacent metro areas, yet it is central to the ‘Ring of Asphalt’ created by I-85, I-75, I-40, and I-26. The most telling statistic: from 2000-2010, natural population growth from births was negative 1.8 percent while net in-migration was positive 13.8 percent. Over 33 percent of the 2010 population of 33,922 was 60 years and older.

But exurbs are not all alike. The unique geographies and histories of the Southeast, Northwest, Rocky Mountain states, and other regions are giving rise to distinct exurban areas. Today’s exurb is expected to become tomorrow’s suburb and potentially a future metropolis, but only long-term research can capture the consequences of this transformation.

That is why Coweeta LTER researchers Ryan Kirk and Paul Bolstad mapped spatial patterns of development in Macon County over the past 100 years. By looking at housing density in neighborhoods and the density of forests within 500 feet of buildings, they concluded that new development in Macon County was rural from 1906 to 1960, exurban from 1960 to 1975, and increasingly suburban since 1975.

Exurbanization in Macon County appears to be creating a special type of “recreation exurb.” Agriculture has become significantly less important to the county’s economy, with farm employment falling from 13 percent of the population in 1950 to only 0.1 percent in 2010. Today, Macon County is a “services-dependent, retirement- destination” where 53.2 percent of employed persons over 16 years old work in entertainment and recreation, the hotel industry, eating and drinking establishments, or real estate.

One feature of the “recreation exurb” is a strong demand for natural amenities like lakes, mountains, forests and temperate climate. Attracted to the beauty of the Appalachian Highlands, exurban invaders have launched a housing boom but not a major land-use conversion. However, housing development is shifting toward more forested areas.

The rates of population growth and new building construction peaked in the 1980s, but the total road length and the rate of development in forested areas continued to increase from 1990 to 2009. There are now 2,265 miles of driveways, private roads and subdivision roads, which account for 65 percent of the impervious road surface in Macon County. By 2030, Kirk and Bolstad forecast that approximately 75 percent of new buildings in Macon County will be constructed at urban and suburban densities, and 67 percent of all new buildings will be constructed in forested areas.

It will take decades before the full ecological, land use, and demographic consequences of exurbanization are known. As Kirk and Bolstad show, the spatial pattern of growth and development in Southern Appalachia is increasingly clear: new, denser developments are being built in previously forested areas. Macon County’s attractive environment and convenient location within the Piedmont Megapolitan Region likely mean that we will experience substantial ecological, economic, and demographic changes well into the future.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. Jan 25, 2013.