Atlanta Unbound

Enabling Sprawl through Policy and Planning

Carlton Wade Basmajian
Book Cover

PB: $32.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0940-9
Publication: Jan 15

HC: $76.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-0939-3
Publication: Sep 13

Ebook: $32.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0941-6
Publication: Sep 13

288 pages
7 x 10
32 color photos

How metropolitan Atlanta’s regional planning groups accelerated the sprawl they were trying to control

Read the Introduction (pdf).


Looking at Atlanta, Georgia, one might conclude that the city’s notorious sprawl, degraded air quality, and tenuous water supply are a result of a lack of planning—particularly an absence of coordination at the regional level. In Atlanta Unbound, Carlton Wade Basmajian shows that Atlanta’s low-density urban form and its associated problems have been both highly coordinated and regionally planned.

Basmajian’s shrewd analysis shows how regional policies spanned political boundaries and framed local debates over several decades. He examines the role of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s planning deliberations that appear to have contributed to the urban sprawl that they were designed to control. Basmajian explores four cases—regional land development plans, water supply strategies, growth management policies, and transportation infrastructure programs—to provide a detailed account of the interactions between citizens, planners, regional commissions, state government, and federal agencies.

In the process, Atlanta Unbound answers the question: Toward what end and for whom is Atlanta’s regional planning process working?


"Interesting and innovative, Atlanta Unbound will have a strong impact on the field of planning, urban history, and urban politics. Basmajian’s claim that ‘progressive’ institutions like regional planning are empty shells until activated by community/political will needs to be recognized. He also effectively shows how such entities exercise substantial power through their role as quiet intermediaries and their claims to professional expertise." Carl Abbott, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University

"Building on the classic University of Chicago studies of planning in its political context, Basmajian’s analyses dissect the relationships between the first publicly funded regional planning agency in the U.S. and development interests, federal policy, state and local politics, a nearly independent state transportation agency, and an evolving but always active business elite. His knowledge of the never-neutral technical intersections of transportation models and the politics of policy choices reveals the undercurrents of often-opaque debates. His familiarity with the institutional history of water resources planning shines welcome light on contemporary policy conflicts. Overall, his analyses are thorough, his interpretations are accurate, and his conclusions are important." Larry Keating, Professor Emeritus at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning, and author of Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion (Temple)

"Rendering the opaque and superficially bland language of regional planning into a comprehensible and compelling narrative would be a daunting task...(b)ut studies like this--which delve deeply into the internal working of plans and planning, without genuflecting to the assumptions of the participants--offer valuable insights." Planning

Basmajian challenges the notion that Atlanta's urban sprawl resulted from the failure of regional planning to coordinate decisions across political jurisdictions.... Ultimately, Basmajian suggests that the explanation for Atlanta’s built form is subtle, hidden between the cracks in the planning process, and only fully understood by studying its structure and the diverse interests of the individuals and agencies governing it.... Summing Up: Recommended.”—Choice

"(A) welcome addition to the literature. In examining how federal rule changes, geography, and competing stakeholders interacted with the imperatives of metropolitan growth, Basmajian illuminates and evaluates processes that too often remain obscure. Atlanta proves a worthy case study.... Among the important contributions of this study is its success in making visible the considerable impact of federal programs...there is a larger lesson here as well. As much as historians have described the uneven effects of urban restructuring over the last half century, it is difficult to appreciate just how those effects came about without the kind of multilevel accounting of public power that Basmajian provides." Journal of American History

"Atlanta Unbound is in effect a history of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s planning efforts between 1970 and 2002.... (Basmajian's) exhaustive research into what he admits is often 'boring' material illustrates, on the one hand, the considerable political effort and skill it took to establish any type of meaningful regional planning apparatus in a conservative political climate such as Georgia, and, on the other hand, the utter inability of this regional planning mechanism to challenge received development priorities.... (The) book illustrates the value and future potential of meticulously researched explorations of activities of state and quasi-state institutions in illuminating spatial processes and policymaking, whether the activities in question are covert or merely opaque." Perspectives on Politics

"Basmajian explores how regional planners engaged with Atlanta and post–World War II expansion.... (He) has masterfully charted the course of the Atlanta Regional Commission.... Threaded with both thoughtful analysis and rambunctious newspaper accounts.... Atlanta Unbound provides a powerful resource for considering an evolving relationship between ideology and material landscapes." American Studies

"Atlanta Unbound offers a compelling historical overview of regional planning in Atlanta. Using painstaking archival research, interviews with key actors, and an assessment of the intent and quality of ARC (Atlanta Regional Commission) plans produced over the years, Basmajian has authored a powerful book that ultimately pokes holes in the simplistic idea that regional planning can be the means to promoting fiscally sound, equitable, and environmentally sensitive development outcomes…. Atlanta Unbound is a rich, quality study of an important regional planning case.... For those professionals who work in or are interested in the Atlanta region, this book is certainly a must read. More important, for planners who see only benefits in the empowerment of regional planning bodies, there is an abiding lesson to be learned from Basmajian's excellent book: It is not the quality of the vehicle that guarantees you reach your destination, but the quality of the driver." Journal of the American Planning Association

"Based on detailed analyses of the post-war development of planning processes and regional institutions, the author makes the provocative argument that the extensive decentralization of Atlanta was a process actively enabled and coordinated across political scales by public institutions engaged in regional planning…. The book is a valuable resource for people with a specific interest in American metropolitan regions and Atlanta. However, there is also an overall argument about recognizing the importance of regional planning agencies relevant to city sprawl as critical actors that bridge local and national level government." Environment and Urbanization

"It is important to highlight the emphasis Basmajian places on urban sprawl as the outcome of the presence of regional plans rather than the consequence of an absence of regional planning. This point in particular makes Atlanta Unbound an important contribution to contemporary planning debates. Basmajian's book further makes this contribution through a sustained, nuanced, and empirical study of the development of the Atlanta metropolitan region from 1970 to 2002. This book provides a compelling example of why in-depth case studies matter to urban planning—both as a practice and a discipline.... Books like Atlanta Unbound remind readers of what is learned from broadening one's scope and moving beyond the descriptive to ask questions about who, and how, and why."
Journal of Planning and Education Research

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 1 Introduction: An Intentional Region? 2 Building the Atlanta Regional Commission 3 The River and the Region: The Chattahoochee River and the Atlanta Regional Commission 4 Projecting Sprawl? The 1976 Regional Development Plan of Metropolitan Atlanta 5 Growth Management Comes to Georgia 6 Atlanta’s Transportation Crisis and the Battle of the Northern Arc 7 A Regional Story Notes Index

About the Author(s)

Carlton Wade Basmajian is an Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University.


In the Series

  • Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin

    The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational.