Look to Your Neighbor: How Georgia’s Cities are Advancing Sustainability Through Housing Choice

April 5, 2021

By Nick Johnson, Senior Planner, Georgia Conservancy

Through the course of my work at Georgia Conservancy, I am often asked a question that goes something like this: Why does a conservation-focused non-profit care so much about housing?

To answer, let’s zoom out before zooming very close in. Georgia is a land-rich state, and we rely on that land and what grows on it for much of our economic output.

Our agriculture and forestry sectors are responsible for billions in revenue every year, and they employ hundreds of thousands of residents across the state. Then there’s the massive impact of outdoor recreation, a $27-billion industry.

These industries are supported by hundreds of small and mid-sized cities across our state, all of which are passionate about creating livable, vibrant communities for their residents and those they hope to attract. That intersection—between preserving our state’s natural resources and fostering thriving communities—is where Georgia Conservancy seeks to make an impact.

Housing choice is imperative for our communities’ long-term economic and environmental sustainability, especially those beyond the borders of our biggest cities. It is tempting to think of growth simply as new jobs and revenue, yet behind every new job is a household in need of a place to live. Built the right way, housing can form the backbone of a strong and prosperous economic development strategy.

So, what is the right way?

The short answer is, we’re still learning. Different communities need different things, just as people need and want different types of housing. One thing is undeniable: In the past few decades, we have perfected and institutionalized housing types that consume increasingly large amounts of land far away from our historic and vibrant city centers, placing undue burdens on city resources.

In this article, we’re highlighting examples of Georgia cities that have tried something “new” by drawing on our historical approach to housing. Each one has focused on bringing housing closer to downtown through policy, design and sometimes resident organizing. Each one has something to teach us about turning our gaze inward, to look at our cities’ downtowns and their historical development with fresh eyes. By learning from our history, we can advance sustainable housing as the driving force behind improving our quality of life.


Towns of all sizes are contemplating how to make their downtowns more vibrant through housing. The town of Woodbury is a great example. Shortly after receiving their Rural Zone designation through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the town has invested in new loft apartments that will be completed this year. The town took advantage of a public-private partnership model to house the units in a building owned by its Downtown Development Authority.


Nicknamed the Hollywood of the South, Covington’s historic downtown features a majestic court- house and picturesque storefronts, some of which have appeared on TV. In recent years, citizen leaders have walked the walk of downtown development by opening new retail establishments and advocating for the Cricket Frog Trail, a rails-to-trails project finishing this year. Housing is also top of mind for residents and city leaders. The mixed-use neighborhood of Clark’s Grove provided a prototype for how varied housing options can strengthen Covington’s charming community character. Now, the city is empowering several housing influencers, including private developers and its own Covington Housing Authority, to bring varied housing types closer to downtown.


Several innovative projects have popped up in Bruns- wick in the past few years, all of which show how unique housing solutions can drive good urban design and ultimately build a more vibrant downtown. Utilizing Brunswick’s network of streets and alleys, developers have experimented with small-footprint housing types that pay homage to Brunswick’s coastal aesthetic. Some have even explored repurposing vacant commercial properties to bring residents closer to downtown.


A new project in Perry demonstrates two important lessons for sustainable housing development: use what you have and start small. The retrofit project, located on Perry’s “main street,” will convert a vacant, two-story restaurant space into a mixed-use building. The first floor will remain for dining, while the upper floor will include two apartments and a balcony event space. Though the footprint is small, the project holds great potential for the city as a proof of concept for one-of-a-kind developments that could lend vibrancy to Perry’s downtown.

GMA Now Offers Development Authority Consultation

This new program provides city leaders, authority members, development staff and community stakeholders with development methodologies strategies, and best practices tailored for their individual vision and goals. The focus of the program is authority-led development project design, funding and implementation. For more information or to schedule a consultation meeting, contact Stephanie Russell at srussell@gacities.com or 678-244-0511.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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