Building on a Proud History of City Planning and Civic Engagement

Atlanta faces the dynamics of development head on as one of the cities chosen in City Accelerator’s Cohort 2.
May 26, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Atlanta is a city experiencing rapid growth and has a history of strategic city planning. Midtown, in particular, has one of the fastest-growing residential populations in the city, with more than 30,000 new arrivals in the last decade. (Luciano Mortula)

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I’ve had a long-term, personal relationship with the City of Atlanta. In fact, as a Georgia native and a city planner, Atlanta is my first love. In addition, my home community, Chattanooga, Tenn., is just a little more than 100 miles north on I-75, so I've had a front-row seat as Atlanta has grown and developed over the last six decades. All that being said, it should come as no surprise that I’m thrilled Atlanta has been selected as one of five cities participating in Cohort 2 of City Accelerator.

I have vivid childhood memories of occasional trips to Atlanta from LaGrange, Ga., in the 1950s, riding in a train often pulled by a pre-World War II steam engine. There were frequent stops along the way, and the conductor would call out the names of the smaller towns and villages that were then separate and distinct, but have since been absorbed into the great metropolis that Atlanta has become. How could we have imagined that we were chugging along through an area that in the future would become dominated by Hartsfield-Jackson, one of the world's busiest airports? Without realizing it, we were witnessing the end of one era and the beginning of another. So much growth and so much change. In the words of the Grateful Dead, "What a long strange trip it's been."

In more recent times, it has been my privilege to meet some of Atlanta's leadership, both public and private. I met former Mayor Maynard Jackson once briefly at a national convention in Atlanta, and I had a few conversations with former Mayor Andrew Young when he came to Chattanooga for civic events. I got to know Shirley Franklin rather well during her two terms as mayor — which overlapped with much of my time in office — and was able to have a few face-to-face chats with Atlanta's current Mayor Kasim Reed as he was first coming into the role, just as I was leaving. Being near neighbors, we also share some of the same private business interests, in everything from banks to Coca-Cola. Accordingly, I can say without reservation that Atlanta has been blessed with great leadership in the government and corporate sectors.

Atlanta, however, has also been challenged by the dynamics of development unmatched by most urban areas. Some say that growth is a good problem to have — but it is a problem nonetheless.

In the city’s video presentation to become a City Accelerator participant, Mayor Reed proudly proclaims, "Today the construction crane — the official bird of the City of Atlanta — has returned." Some would argue that it never really left, since that earlier adopted symbol, the Phoenix Statue so prominently displayed in the center of downtown Atlanta, led the city to rise from the ashes of the Civil War in the 1860s. Atlanta has been ascending ever since and even continued to grow and progress 100 years later through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s as "the city too busy to hate."

While working its way through the historic entanglements and ancient vestiges of racial segregation, Atlanta’s dramatic economic development and rapid population growth produced an impressive and successful African American middle class and a clear nonwhite majority in most local elections. Yet the locus of power shifted, as it does in most urban communities, and pockets of poverty, serious income disparities and perceptions of a lack of opportunity remain.

I had an up-close-and-personal experience with civic engagement in Atlanta more than 10 years ago while working as a private planning consultant for a large engineering company. We had a contract to conduct very preliminary public hearings for a proposed high-speed rail link connecting the airports of Chattanooga and Atlanta. Most of the route followed I-75, but as the alignment passed through Atlanta’s urban core, several options impacted older residential neighborhoods west of downtown — some of the same areas presently being affected by the city's new football stadium. I was the man at the front of the room attempting to manage the meetings, and it should be no surprise when I say that the prospect of such an exciting new development was not universally welcomed by residents. We certainly had no problem drawing a crowd. The meetings were somewhat contentious, but for the most part the citizens and their leadership were respectful and responsive in a helpful way. The admittedly long-term project is still on the drawing board, and I’m still permitted to occasionally visit Atlanta.

Some years later, while mayor of Chattanooga, I had another, much more positive civic engagement experience in Atlanta. The experience was highlighted by a tour through the city's transformed East Lake neighborhood by then Mayor Shirley Franklin. East Lake had been the location of an inner-city public-housing project that had degenerated over the years into a crime-ridden slum. Some Atlanta leaders described it as a "war zone" that was having a profoundly negative effect on residents and the entire surrounding community. Through a careful, exquisitely detailed and ultimately successful civic engagement process, the old area was replaced with a carefully balanced mix of subsidized and market-rate housing, an absolutely stellar charter school, and a renovated public golf course. Notably, some of the most outspoken opponents became the most active participants and defenders of the undertaking as the complex effort unfolded. Today, East Lake draws visitors from cities across the nation as an example of effective citizen participation in urban revitalization.

Atlanta has a proud history in city planning and civic engagement. When President Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, he was a well-respected and successful supporter of statewide planning legislation. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Atlanta became known for innovative efforts to plan neighborhoods based on the wishes and wills of the citizens who lived there. It was well ahead of today's trends. Atlanta's long-term and long-retired Planning Director Leon Eplan is still revered as an icon of effective city planning, even though the city is sometimes held up as the poster child of runaway growth and sprawl. If the past is prologue, there are even greater challenges ahead.

The materials submitted with Atlanta's City Accelerator proposal call for "revitalization at a human scale," with a focus on code enforcement and flooding issues. In a large, dynamic city like Atlanta, human scale is a very difficult quality to achieve and maintain. Code enforcement is always popular when it is being enforced on someone else, and obtaining public buy-in and ownership of flooding is not an easy concept to sell. It has been my experience that people almost always want to believe that all responsibility and blame for flood water belongs to the government. In short, it won't be easy.

All of these strategies to revitalize Atlanta's Westside will require new methods of intense civic engagement. In the words of "Moze" in Atlanta's City Accelerator video, most plans are "just bricks and mortar — something's missing." Later in the video, a wise, older gentleman playing chess in the park reveals that it's best to "just use what works." In this case, that means employing interactive technology, innovative public engagement and true collaborative work to achieve radical transformation.

Kristin Wilson, deputy chief operating officer, who will head Atlanta's participation in City Accelerator, says the city looks forward to making great use of the support and technical assistance that comes with the process, as well as the national focus engaging other cities in joint efforts to achieve better governmental services.

It won't be easy, but improving civic engagement through City Accelerator can make a great city even greater.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.