The projections for metro Atlanta’s growth over the next three decades point to some hard truths not only for people who live there, but also for people who live in Georgia’s other major cities and its rural areas.
The latest forecast comes by way of a new report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The headlines from the report, which is updated every four years, have mostly focused on how metro Atlanta in 2050 will be much bigger – the population is projected to grow to 8.6 million, an increase of 2.9 million – and much more diverse: 33 percent black, 31 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 14 percent other.
A quick aside before I continue: If you’re wondering whether I remember that I wrote recently about the difficulty humans have in predicting the future, the answer is yes. But I also noted we are good at seeing trends, just not anticipating disruptive change. Looking at the projections made me wonder whether we ought to seek some disruptive change to alter the trend.
What really interested me, though, was the question of how much of the state’s overall growth might be going to metro Atlanta vs. other areas. The ARC report didn’t address statewide growth, but its projections for the region are in line with state estimates.
The current forecast by the state Office of Planning and Budget is for metro Atlanta to continue to get the lion’s share of growth. Whereas the 21-county metro area accounted for 56.5 percent of the state’s estimated population in 2017, it’s expected to be 62.4 percent in 2050.
The inverse of course is also true: The other 138 counties will account for a smaller proportion of the state’s total population.
Some 55 counties are projected to lose population over the next few decades. We are accustomed by now to seeing rural counties on that list. What’s striking is how many of Georgia’s other urban counties join them: Richmond (where Augusta is located), Muscogee (Columbus) and Bibb (Macon).
Could those counties simply be losing people to their own suburbs? In Augusta’s case that’s true: Neighboring Columbia County will more than make up for Richmond County’s losses.
But metro Columbus is expected to lose about 41,000 people by 2050, and metro Macon about 8,500. The Albany metro area is also projected to shrink by more than 22,000 people.
Among the state’s other metro areas, only Athens and Savannah are forecast to grow faster than the state average, though neither is expected to keep up with metro Atlanta’s pace. Areas including Brunswick and Dalton figure to grow, but slowly.
For me, all these data boil down to two essentials.
First, reviving rural Georgia will be nearly impossible if the state’s second-tier cities are stagnant or shrinking. Southwest Georgia needs a strong Albany to be its regional hub. The same goes for middle Georgia and Macon, west Georgia and Columbus. At the moment, that’s not how things are shaping up.
Second, it’s in metro Atlanta’s own interest for the rest of the state to grow more quickly than the current trends.
The population declines in some counties may mostly be about deaths outpacing births. But in many, maybe most, cases, one big factor is the continued migration toward the state’s biggest city.
That shift puts a strain on their resources, but also on metro Atlanta’s. For the declining counties, depopulation means a smaller tax base to maintain vital services. For metro Atlanta, such rapid population growth will be difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate with infrastructure, from roads to schools.
I’m not suggesting Albany or Dalton will, or should, challenge Atlanta’s status. The big city is going to get bigger. But more balanced growth would alleviate some of the inbound pressure Atlanta faces, while also better distributing the burden of maintaining state services and functions.
The trick, naturally, is how to do that. But acknowledging how much worse the imbalance stands to grow is a necessary start.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.