As lovers of the built environment, planners have a robust cache of spaces to explore. Yet tourists and planners alike tend to focus their energies on metropolitan cities. Certainly, with public transportation and successful tourism industries, cities are easier to explore than the American hinterland.
Lonely Planet doesn’t publish a tour guide to the suburban or country town, but that doesn’t mean a careful planner can’t find lots worth seeing. For example, let’s spend a day in Newton County, Georgia.
Covington Square. Photo by Ruth Miller.
As reported in an earlier series on its aggressive 2050 Comprehensive Development Plan and Leadership Collaborative, Newton County is more than meets the eye. Thirty miles east of Atlanta, this county of 100,000 people straddles the edge of Atlanta’s sprawl. The county has absolutely no public transportation, and the only way to or from Atlanta is by car. The county’s western half is covered in sprawling subdivisions of single-family homes, while the eastern half is largely agricultural. Let’s take a look its suburban and rural identities, as well as the structures that keep these psyches working together.
10:00 a.m. Alcovy High School
For a cautionary tale in the wrong way to develop, drive down Highway 36 until you see an enormous, sprawling high school. Ten years ago, this was all farm and forest. Under state law, public school systems can’t even acquire the land for a new school until the new students already live in the distrct. During the unprecedented growth of the 2000s, Newton County built schools as fast as it could, but every school still opened with classroom trailers.
A Google Maps view of Alcovy High School.
The school system began looking for land for a new high school. Georgia law also sets the minimum acreage for a new high school. The closest sites of the appropriate size were 10 miles from the country seat. Sewer was unavailable that far south, forcing the school system to find an even larger piece of land.
Since opening in 2006, the Alcovy High School has lured new subdivisions south from the city. These subdivisions collectively wear and tear the county’s rural roads, water, and other services. The county’s taxpayers will continue to carry the burden of this shortsighted planning.
Newton County learned from this mistake. After developing the 2050 Plan, the county’s elected officials formed a multi-jurisdictional taskforce to review the siting of all new public infrastructure, not just schools. When the economy eventually rebounds, the local governments will take action, such as exacting easements from developers, to ensure that future schools will be built in walkable neighborhoods. Newton County’s governments are working together to identify and acquire future school locations now, before all the good sites get squeezed out.
11:30 a.m. Clark’s Grove
For a much happier tale of development, head north to Clark’s Grove. During the suburban sprawl of the 1990s and 2000s, a group of civic-minded financiers wanted to prove that a walkable, neighborhood-oriented development could exist, and be profitable, in a small southern town.
Cottages in Clark’s Grove. Photo credit: www.clarksgrove.com
Today, Clark’s Grove’s residents enjoy walking trails, a soccer and baseball field, and a community Victory Garden. The housing stock is varied, encouraging a mixture of household types. Trees shade the sidewalks, and a network of alleys directs parking away from pedestrians. The surrounding community supports a local cafe, salon, and Montessori school on the central plaza, and a University of Georgia dormitory and landscape design studio occupy the two floors above the salon.
Did the experiment work? After a stop for lunch at the cafe, notice the newly opened downtown apartments and renovated affordable housing on your drive to the Porterdale Lofts.
1:30 p.m. Porterdale Lofts
The former mill town of Porterdale has had its ups and downs, but thanks to a focus on pedestrian-scaled redevelopment in its tiny downtown, Porterdale has put itself back in the “up” direction.
For decades, Porterdale was home to three successful mills. The mill company took good care of its employees who comprised the majority of the city’s residents. When the Porterdale mill closed in the 1970s , the town fell into disrepair. Without significant jobs or retail, there wasn’t much in Porterdale except a large brick mill building on a beautiful river.
Porterdale Mill. Photo credit: http://www.porterdalemill.com/
Seeing an opportunity, a local resident developed the Porterdale Mill into lofts in 2006. At the time, this did not seem like an obvious choice. Lofts are for auto-independent city hipsters, not country folk. Residents and neighbors doubted anyone would want to pay $800 a month to live in 800 square feet in their rural, struggling town.
Fortunately the first phase did extremely well, and it catalyzed a resurgence in the forlorn downtown. Retail spaces opened nearby and new restaurants found success. A community garden opened in 2010, and last year, Newton County’s only farmers market opened across the street in a newly restored train depot. Later this spring, a kayak rental operation will open in the old depot. Downtown Porterdale even has that flagship of a hip downtown – a cupcake shop. Porterdale proved you don’t have to live in a big city to love your downtown.
3:00 p.m. The Center for Community Preservation and Planning
Bringing people together is a lot easier when you have the right space. The same thing can be said for elected officials. One former city mayor compared the feeling of meeting with the County Commissioners to getting called into the principal’s office. How can you move past politics and into planning if even the venue is politicized?
Conscious of this effect, concerned Newton County residents formed The Center for Community Preservation and Planning in 2002. The Center looks and feels like a place to plan. Maps and analyses cover the walls. Tables are covered in butcher paper and markers. The Center’s staff include a facilitator and two landscape architecture graduates. Planning and design students rotate through internships year-round.
Main room at The Center for Preservation and Planning. Photo by Ruth Miller.
On any given day, you might run into a meeting of a Leadership Collaborative working group. The Leadership Collaborative is the formal name for the elected and appointed officials that meet regularly to set a thoughtful and cooperative course for the county. Its cross-jurisdictional working groups implement changes in their agencies on specific topics, like finance, communication, and development.
Though the Center facilitates formal meetings for mayors and the like, it is also a resource for anyone in the community who wants to learn more about planning. As a tourist, prepare yourself for a hearty dose of southern hospitality while you learn about transferable development rights.
5:00 p.m. Covington Square
After a long day of driving, leave your car near the Square in Downtown Covington and take a walk. This is the historic center of Newton County, with a nice assortment of local shops and restaurants. Main Street Covington, the Newton County Arts Association, and others coordinate outdoor events on and around the Square, including parades and weekly summer concerts.
If you’re lucky, you might run into a severe traffic jam a few blocks away. This isn’t just congestion – it’s Hollywood. With its mix of historic buildings and airport access, Covington and Newton County have attracted television and film projects for decades.
Currently, Covington is disguised as Mystic Falls, the set of the CW hit show The Vampire Diaries. A sign for Mystic Pizza hangs over the exterior of a local accountant’s office. In the 1990s, the Mississippi flag flew over the Newton County Library, part of its disguise as the police department for In the Heat of the Night. Before that, Covington filled in as Hazard County in the television show The Dukes of Hazard. Take an official Vampire Diaries tour, or find out where else you might recognize Newton County.
Ruth Miller is from Newton County, Georgia. What would a day spent in your hometown include?