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I Wish I Was in Dixie? Culture, Planning and the Future of the Southern “Boom“

Polycentric cities will continue to grow, and they will continue to attract new residents-for now.

In addressing the growth of sprawling, low-density, autocentric communities around much of America, Joel Kotkin, a ‘New Suburbanist,’ states the case for a new outlook:

Rather than reject such cities, we are committed to their improvement. All of our analysis of current and likely future trends reveals that sprawling multipolar cities with overwhelmingly auto dependent suburbs will continue to enjoy economic and demographic growth over the next several decades. [1]

Despite what many New Urbanists might want to believe, Kotkin – though a sprawl apologist – is likely correct. Polycentric cities will continue to grow, and they will continue to attract new residents-for now. Much of that growth will occur in the South, now the most populous region in the United States.

Ultimately, however, this is an unsustainable trend. Attempting to sustain it will have enormous portends for one of the most complicated and ecologically fragile areas of the country. The American South, long a sparsely populated region with a unique agrarian culture and mindset, is transforming dangerously. How will it react to the potentially fatal economic, environmental, and cultural challenges presented by growth and sprawl in a time of climate flux?

A Nation within a Nation

The eighteenth-century South represented a firmly agrarian, slave-dependent system that was qualitatively different from the Northern colonies. Slavery remained a presensce in the North as well-and it would remain an important part of places like the future District of Columbia well into the next century. Yet a rising merchant class in the North felt threatened by the neo-feudal South. The Three- Fifths Compromise might have prevented Southern representatives from walking out on the Constitutional Convention, but as time passed, the regional divide between the two only grew.

Southern culture placed a heavy emphasis on honor, family, and “ease.” Morris Berman views the South of this era as a historically traditional society. It was the rapidly growing and entrepreneurial North that proved to be the historical anomaly. The North, far from inspired by abolitionist rhetoric, saw the Southern outlook on life as the primary impediment to the spread of industrial capitalism.[2]

According to historian Barrington Moore, “It is difficult to find a case in history where two different regions have developed economic systems based on diametrically opposed principles and yet remained under a central government that retained real authority in both areas.” [3] No longer reliant on the Southern cotton economy by the mid-nineteenth century, the North viewed the opening of territories in the West as the next frontier in capital expansion; they viewed the possible expansion of slavery into those territories as an economic and cultural threat.

After the Civil War and the calamitous defeat of the Confederacy, the seed of a more urban and industrial mindset was planted in the beleaguered South. In the words of Thaddeus Stevens, this was “intended to revolutionize their principles and feelings… (to) work a radical reorganization in Southern institutions, habits, and manners.”[4] With this in mind, Reconstruction ended and the North abandoned African Americans to the machinations of Jim Crow.[5]

Still, the South remained a seemingly perpetually backward region, one in thrall to racism and ignorance. Aside from a few industrial cities like Birmingham, Alabama, the region remained predominately rural in character in almost every sense. But as the industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast entered an era of decline in the post-World War II era, the South began to rise on the rays of an ascendant ‘Sun Belt.’

Atlanta: Capital City of the New South

On the eve of the Civil War, Atlanta, Georgia, resembled a township more than it did a city. Only 9,000 souls called the ramshackle city home in the years before William Tecumseh Sherman put the torch to it in 1864. The Union army also destroyed the railroad system that gave Atlanta the nickname “Terminus” and made it a hub for the shipment of Confederate goods. But despite the decimation of the Civil War, the population quickly grew by over 100 percent inside a decade. Atlanta continued to grow until technology (air conditioning) allowed a new wave of migrants to comfortably live in what became the unofficial capital of the post-war South.

Atlanta’s population almost reached 500,000 in 1970, but the confluence of white flight, freeways, and a penchant for suburbanization and political decentralization changed the metro area into a sprawling ball of humanity, concrete, steel and seemingly unstoppable outward momentum. Even though the population of the city proper dropped by 40,000 from 1960 to 2010, the metro area grew into the ninth largest in the country; it’s now home to 5.5 million people.

Metro Atlanta’s awesome economic might made itself felt in the post-war years. Atlanta’s economy grew into the seventeenth largest in the world. The city “too busy to hate” also attracted a plethora of Fortune 500 company headquarters. The seemingly ever-expanding Hartsfield-Jackson airport became the world’s busiest. Atlanta even regained its important position as a railroad and shipping center.

Despite such success, several converging problems are casting a shadow on Atlanta’s future. Aaron Renn, noted urbanist, sums up the immediate challenges facing the city in the second decade of the century: “With over one million new people, Atlanta added almost no jobs in the last decade. From 2001-08, its GDP per capita actually declined by 6 percent. And over that same period its per capita income declined from 109 percent of the U.S. average to 95 percent, a stunning 14-point drop that was the worst of any large city.”[6] As Renn mentions, the city’s freeways are inadequate; suburban roads are outdated, and public transportation funding is grossly inadequate. In 2012, residents voted down a $7.2 billion transportation plan designed to deal with the city’s enormous traffic problems. A distrust of government and a fractured voting public seemed to contribute to the defeat. While Renn sees Atlanta’s sagging competitive spirit as the ultimate problem, the real issue remains sustainability.

Atlanta’s storm sewer system is grossly insufficient. There’s a projected 60 percent increase in demand for water by 2020, at a time when the city has been unable to expand water access in any meaningful way. In 65 years the average summer temperature will be around 96 degrees with highs of around 115 degrees. Formerly tropical diseases will likely spread into the region, including yellow fever and dengue. According to researchers at Georgia Tech, business as usual will lead to “water shortages and further declining air quality, as businesses and industry decide that Atlanta’s environment cannot sustain long-term operations for their companies nor provide a desirable quality of life for its employees.”[7]

But the city is not an anomaly. Atlanta’s rise – and its current difficulties – is also reflected in the fastest growing region of the South.

Florida: The Southern Boom State Extraordinaire

Long before America fell in love with the sub-tropical temptations of the Sunshine State, Florida was a backwater with seemingly few charms and even fewer people.

Less people lived in Florida in at the beginning of the twentieth century than live in Detroit today. Marshes, mangrove swamps, and the feared bloodsuckers-Ceratopogonidae-or ‘no-see-ums,’ hindered development and made much of the state deeply unpleasant for human settlement. Florida was an agricultural state, and beaches were considered frontier lands with little practical use or commercial value. Much like other parts of the South, air conditioning helped make Florida suitable for mass development. Bulldozers, retirees, and DDT spread quickly over the land in the post-war years.

Between 1970 and 1990, Florida outpaced even the massive growth of the South as a whole. By 2000, over fifteen million people lived in Florida. In 2014, the Sunshine State surpassed New York as the third largest state. After a brief pause during the Great Recession, Florida’s seemingly unstoppable production homebuilders returned to churning out their barely differentiated wares all over the state’s low-density developments. But Florida’s rapid rise has reshaped the culture – and much more ominously – the delicate balance of its ecosystems.

Interestingly enough, Florida is the only former Confederate state where the majority of citizens fail to consider themselves “Southerners.” Florida’s culture could be, in this sense, divorced from the rest of the South. However, Florida, like much of the South today, revolves around small government and endless growth as its “theme, mantra, and creed.”[8]

The business of growth as usual is now threatening the very future of the state’s most important city. After sinking into decline in the 1970s, and after suffering one of the worst race riots in post-1960s era, Miami roared back and became the key city at the crossroads of Latin America and the US. A growing financial center and a receptacle for large amounts of foreign investment, Miami is a critical part of the Florida economy.

Accidents of geography, poor planning, and a changing climate now threaten to undo all of that. Miami is threatened by rising waters due to its proximity to sea level and by an even more difficult problem. The city itself is situated on a bed of porous limestone; seawater is coming up from below-threatening infrastructure and fresh water supplies. The Guardian paints a picture of city already under a slow siege:

Today, shop owners keep plastic bags and rubber bands handy to wrap around their feet when they have to get their cars, while householders have found that ground-floor spaces in garages are no longer safe to keep their cars. Only those on higher floors can hope to protect their cars from surging seawaters that corrode and rot the innards of their vehicles.[9]

The problem, as The Guardian points out, is that climate change deniers are running the show in Miami. Sadly, that’s the case for the entire state-and much of the South in general. The current governor, Rick Scott, former governor and now presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, and Senator Marco Rubio, are all climate skeptics. While these growth obsessed misleaders fiddle, the state continues a binge of unsustainable development.

For the past two decades the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has consistently underestimated global sea level rise by as much as 80 percent. [10] In Florida those effects are currently showing up in Miami, but they will soon make themselves felt in Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, and in tidal rivers around the state.[11] Unlike the Florida of yesteryear, development in the past half-century focused on coastal cities, directly along eroding beaches, and on endangered barrier islands. And development continues unabated, even as the scientific evidence against it continues to accumulate.

Hurricane Katrina and the Future of Catastrophe

Florida is not the only Gulf Coast state facing serious problems. The category five-Hurricane Katrina helped reveal some of the serious structural, economic, and social weaknesses undergirding the other states of the Deep South. While Georgia, Florida, and the Southeast have economically prospered, Louisiana and Mississippi remain the poorest states in the country. The coastal areas of these states offer vacation playgrounds that belie the deep poverty that dominates the interior.

In New Orleans, inner city poverty-especially concentrated in fierce housing projects like Magnolia, formerly located in Central City-provided the dark side of Mardi Gras and the endless party of the French Quarter. That dark side came into full view when Katrina struck the Gulf.

Katrina is perhaps most remembered for the Bush administration’s failure to respond to the aftermath of the storm, but state and local government also failed on multiple levels. The city government improperly implemented an evacuation procedure with the storm less than a day from landfall. Hundreds died because of that mistake, and more joined them in the hasty evacuation that took place after the storm had already made landfall. The poverty-stricken and the most helpless were left to fend for themselves as local government collapsed. The state government also neglected to issue an evacuation order within time. Perhaps most disturbing, President Bush and Governor Blanco knew of the distinct possibility that the levees would fail. Blanco insisted that a poor state like Louisiana couldn’t have possibly handled such an event; however, the truth is Louisiana is poor for a reason. Like the Bush administration, the state’s political culture has long viewed government and governing as the problem-an acute problem throughout the South.

Katrina also brought to the surface old racial and economic rifts that are imbedded throughout cities in the South. While hundreds of local police abandoned their posts and government officials high-tailed it out town, well-armed mercenary forces (from Blackwater and ISI) arrived, not to keep order, but to safeguard the mansions of the city’s elite. In the neighborhood of Algiers Point, white homeowners armed themselves and fired on desperate African Americans trying to reach high ground in the neighborhood. Several police officers were convicted of beating and murdering a man who sought their help (they burned his remains with his car). Seven other officers were convicted of killing unarmed civilians in a case where the lead investigative officer himself was later convicted of conspiring to falsify and cover-up damning evidence.[12]

Damage done in other parts of the Gulf Coast was aided and abetted by government officials and developers. As social scientists have pointed out, developers, wealthy homebuyers, and local planners share blame for wrecking the natural ecosystems that help protect coastal areas from storm surges: “Instead of leaving wetlands and swamps-natural buffers for flood prone areas-local authorities ‘develop’ them into residential and commercial areas and assure their residential safety through participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.”[13]

The economic, social, and planning problems that were brought to the harsh light of day by Katrina have not dissipated; to the contrary, they are growing worse. Yet the environmental damage done to the Gulf Coast might pale in comparison to the next round of development that threatens the very existence of what is left of the old Southeast’s rural landscape.

The Rise of Charlanta

Six of the ten fastest growing cities are already in the South. However, future development in the region could be even more rapid and all encompassing. For some years now, researches have been studying the rise of the “Charlanta” mega-region. Mega-regions, or ‘endless cities,’ are a global phenomenon: continuous growth pushing out from cities is creating contiguous urban areas from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro. These connected ‘megapolises’ are now driving much of global economic growth.

This appears to be the destiny of what is being called the Charlanta corridor, which consists of almost fifty metropolitan areas stretching from Charlotte to Atlanta. Between now and 2060, researchers are predicting a nearly 192 percent increase in development in the corridor. [14] Yet this future development is likely to resemble current development in the South: low density urban areas that are mainly dependent on automobiles as the major locus of transit. A model of this nature goes directly against United Nations recommendations that growing cities should be both well regulated and built around sustainable public transit.[15]

The environmental costs of the Charlanta growth model, on the other hand, are likely to be extreme, according to researchers:

The changes we project would have significant and lasting effects on the region’s ecosystems. The increasingly fragmented natural landscape would reduce habitat availability, suppress natural disturbance processes (such as wildfires) hinder management actions that come into conflict with urban areas, and likely eliminate existing corridors. Furthermore all these impacts could occur simultaneously, posing a particularly devastating threat to already vulnerable species and systems.[16]

The proliferation of urban heat islands, ecosystem destruction, and the forced migration of wild life; an overreliance on the automobile at the expense of public transit; and, ultimately, the erasure of the character of the Southeast’s rural areas and wilderness, will be the result of business as usual development. In a call for smart growth and a reevaluation of future development in light of the revelations made by the Charlanta study, SustainAtlanta writes that the South’s “constant connection to the environment has allowed us to enjoy the simple, important things in life and not stress about the complications of human society.”[17]

Unfortunately, that statement is already outdated. Irresponsible development and an embrace of the Northern fixation on boundless growth and “industriousness” have already changed the face and character of the South.

A Question of Culture

In some real sense, Thaddeus Stevens and the North did succeed. There has been a radical reorganization in the institutions and the culture in the South. In a time where the industrial heartland of the Midwest is barely beating, the South has become a growth engine. The South as an alternative to the “hustling” culture of America-as Morris Berman views the antebellum South-is now a thing of the past. Real estate hustling, corporate culture, and even the big banking industry, is now firmly rooted south of the Mason Dixon.

But the South is still the most distinctive region of the country; unfortunately, much of what makes it distinct now is unlikely to help the region deal with future challenges.

In My Tears Spoiled My Aim, and Other Reflections on Southern Culture, John Shelton Reed gives some glimpse into the changing Southern mindset: “And finally, individualism may be reflected in a sort of economic libertarianism that was apparently suppressed during the hard times of the past 120 years, but that seems to be coming back in our own times, at least among Southern whites.”[18]

The rise of the Tea Party in the South and the election of libertarian-inspired senators like Rand Paul and former congressman Ron Paul are symptoms of that change. Nor is this a trend reserved for native Southerners. As early as the 1980s, Robert H. Freymyer showed that migrants to the South tended to be more economically conservative than native Southerners.[19] Migrants for example, have driven Florida’s remarkable growth, but it remains a conservative state, despite the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.

The South’s justified reputation as the most violent region in the nation has not changed either. After Alaska, the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama lead the nation in gun deaths per hundred thousand residents.[20] A growing body of research is showing that higher temperatures cause increased violent crime rates. Matthew Ranson’s groundbreaking analysis of fifty years of monthly crime data and daily weather data for almost every county in the country gives further credence to such analysis. According to Ranson’s projections – under a “business as usual” approach to controlling CO2 emissions – the country could see an additional “30,000 murders, 200,000 cases of rape, 1.4 million aggravated assaults, 2.2 million simple assaults, 400,000 robberies, 3.2 million burglaries, 3.0 million cases of larceny, and 1.3 million cases of vehicle theft in the United States” over the course of the rest of the century. With large projected increases in summer highs in cities from Atlanta to New Orleans, and with water shortages and increasingly destructive storm systems, this could prove catastrophic for a region already burdened with inordinately high crime rates.

If Southern culture transformed over the course of the twentieth century to embrace a Northern ‘grow at any cost’ mentality, it surely must now change again. Cities and state governments in the South are going to have to jettison Tea Party leaders and climate denying business elites who seek to strip mine the region and cover some of the most ecologically delicate and important land in the country with blacktop and endless sprawl. At the same time, the ghosts of racism and inequality, which still haunt the Deep South, will have to be confronted. If not, the future of Dixie seems grim – and the entire country will be all the more impoverished for it.


[1] Joel Kotkin, “What is the New Suburbanism?” in Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning, ed. Abhijeet Chavan, Christian Peralta, and Christopher Steins (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007), 28-31.

[2] See Morris Berman, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2011).

[3] Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

[4] C. Van Woodward, Origins of the New South: 1877-913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 142.

[5] ibid.,

[6] Aaron Renn, “Is It Game Over for Atlanta?” The Urbanophile Blog, (Accessed February, 7, 2015).

[7] Georgia Tech, “Local Warming: Consequences of Climate Change in Atlanta,”
2008, Judith Curry. (Accessed February 6, 2015).

[8] Gary R. Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005), 16.

[9] Robert McKie , “Miami, the Great World City, is Drowning While the Powers That be Look Away,” Guardian, July 11, 2014. (Accessed February 9, 2015).

[10] The Florida Oceans and Coastal Council, Climate Change and Sea Level Rise in Florida: An Update of the Effects of Climate Change on Florida’s Oceans and Costal Resources. (Tallahassee, FL, 2010).

[11] ibid.,

[12] See A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” The Nation, December 17, 2008

[13] Susan L. Cutter and Melanie Gall, “Hurricane Katrina: A Failure of Planning or a Planned Failure?” in Naturrisiken und Sozialkatastrophen, ed. C. Felgentreff and T. Glade (Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2008), 353-366.

[14] Terando AJ, Costanza J, Belyea C, Dunn RR, McKerrow A, et al. (2014) The Southern Megalopolis: Using the Past to Predict the Future of Urban Sprawl in the Southeast U.S. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102261. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102261

[15] UN Habitat, State of the World’s Cities 2008-2009 (Sterling, VA, 2008), 16.

[16] ibid., 16

[17] “The Death of the American South,” SustainAtlanta, (Accessed February 9, 2015).

[18] John Shelton Reed, My Tears Spoiled My Aim: and Other Reflections on Southern Culture (New York: Mariner, 1994), 60.

[19] “Two-Party System in South Forseen,” Gadsden Times, March 27, 1981.

[20] “Which is the Most Dangerous State?” (Interactive Map) Rolling Stone, (Accessed February 10, 2015).

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