The City of Atlanta, the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the United States and long a symbol of car-dependent American sprawl, is seeing most of its new development taking place in high-density, walkable areas of the city, a new study shows.

US cities are experiencing a slow reversal of a half-century of migration to the suburbs, with people more interested in walkable communities closer to city centres.

Last month, several real estate researchers met in Atlanta to study and discuss the phenomenon. They noticed that, since 2009, 60 per cent of new office, retail and residential rental properties in Atlanta have been built in what they call “walkable urban places.”

The majority of these new buildings are located on less than one per cent of the metropolitan Atlanta region’s land, showing a shift in real estate patterns from expansion at the city’s edges to denser development within its existing borders.

“This is indicative that we’re seeing the end of sprawl,” said professor Christopher Leinberger, a researcher with the George Washington University School of Business who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission. “It does not say that everything turns off. There will still be new drivable suburban development. It’s just that the majority will be walkable urban, and it will be not just in the redevelopment of our downtowns, but in the urbanization of the suburbs.”

Leinberger argued that this phenomenon is not limited to Atlanta. His theory is that a growing demand for “walkable developments” could drive the next generation of construction, and he predicts that most of the new development in America in this new real estate cycle will be developed on less than 10 per cent of land that is already occupied.

Australian cities may follow the same path in the near future, with the country having one of the highest population growth rates in the world. While the average growth of major cities in Australia is slightly above the national rate, many Australian cities have some of the highest growth rates in the developed countries.

melbourne aerial

Aerial photo of Melbourne. The sprawl of suburbia looking from Essendon back to the city.

The State of Australian Cities 2013 report showed that, between 2011 and 2012, the largest capitals in Australia grew almost 50 per cent faster than the rest of the country, with growth rates in Darwin and Perth particularly strong.

The report used Melbourne as a case study to show population change within a major city between 2001 and 2011.

“Immediately noticeable is the fall in the population of peri-urban areas. The areas of strongest growth in Melbourne in the first ten years of the century were on the fringe or in the centre. The middle ring suburbs registered either modest growth or in some cases, declines,” the report said.

For those who believe there is no empty space for new developments in city centres, Leinberger’s noted that there is always room to expand.

“Metropolitan D.C. has half the population of metro Paris, but it is four times the physical size,” he said.

With the end of the government’s Major Cities Unit, the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) is concerned that the long-term strategic plan for Australia’s largest cities may be disregarded.

“The Major Cities Unit has been monitoring established and emerging trends and collaborating with stakeholders to develop a national urban policy,” said PIA CEO Kirsty Kelly. “This approach to a cohesive long term planning strategy for Australia has been seen by planners as an indispensable tool in preparing cities for the future.”

She noted that State of Australian Cities 2013 showed overseas migration accounting for roughly half the country’s population growth, reiterating the fact that population growth in urban centres is outstripping that in less urban areas. Kelly noted that this could add stress in cities.

“Most of the challenges that will be seen in the future will be within the cities, particularly as they become more urbanised and require more infrastructure,” she said.