Atlanta region faces a number of tough issues over the next decade

By Maria Saporta

Metro Atlanta in 2023 will be older, more diverse and more compact.

Those were some of the conclusions that several local leaders shared at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable on Friday, Jan. 11.

Their task was to describe how Atlanta might evolve in the next decade.

Moderator Dan Reuter, chief of the land use planning division for the Atlanta Regional Commission, set the stage. Between 2000 an 2010, the Atlanta region added more than 1 million people, but the greatest growth in population was among Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans.

“We are living much longer,” Reuter said, adding that the region’s population also is getting older. And people’s choices also are changing. “Many of us want the same thing _ we desire to be in an urban lifestyle.”

But that urban lifestyle is not exclusive to inside the perimeter, Reuter said. Town centers throughout the 10-county region are offering opportunities for a more pedestrian-oriented communities where people can live, work and play.

Reuter asked the panel what it will take for Georgia to be competitive.

Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity and director of partnerships at Emory University, said metro Atlanta will need to become more inclusive — inviting Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian Americans to be a more important part of the community.

“We have to create opportunities for these young people,” Smith said.

Kate Kirkpatrick, a senior vice president for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the region must make itself alluring to the “young and restless” generation — people needed to keep our economy vibrant.

“They are looking for not just a salary and benefits but the social benefits — green space, great bars and restaurants, wide sidewalks…,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that the region will need to provide those amenities “if metro Atlanta is going to continue to retain this talent.”

Beth Schapiro, founder of the Schapiro Group research consulting firm, said Atlanta already has “a terrific civic infrastructure in place.” The community has “ways of getting people plugged in.”

Smith, however, said that while that is true for established organizations, there’s a large part of society that is being left out of the civic conversation.

“We have a great civic infrastructure bringing the usual suspects together,” he said. But that becomes less true “as we move further away from established organizations” in the region. “We have to acknowledge the fact that every one’s opinion matters, not matter how uncomfortable that might be.”

In fact, Smith said that communities that are able to bring every one to the table with a sense of equity will find that to be a “superior growth model.”

One member of the audience questioned why no one was talking about climate change and the impact that could have on the region in the next 10 years.

The panel did say the region still needs to address its transportation issues despite the failure of the regional transportation sales tax last July.

Reuter predicted “that we will find new transportation revenue.” There also seemed to be consensus that perhaps the transportation issue is too complex to be addressed in the whole 10-county area at the same time. Perhaps the five core counties or a different segment of the region might be able to come up a plan that can gain support.

Schapiro said that she has surveyed people in the northern suburbs with a majority saying they want increased options for public transportation in their communities.

Smith, however, said the elephant in metro Atlanta room continues to be race. “The history of transportation and race hurt us in our ability to grow,” Smith said, adding that the issue will only keep getting worse with a majority of senior citizens living in the region not having access to transit.

No matter what, Smith said the region needs to do a “deep dive and a deeper analysis” on why the regional transportation sales tax failed.

“We have got to go back to basics on why regionalism is important,” Smith said. “Until we take an opportunity to reflect on our failures, we will continue to be in this holding pattern.”

Kirkpatrick also said that it was inaccurate to equate the failure of the referendum with the sentiment that regionalism is dead in metro Atlanta. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District is an example of how the region is working together.

But Smith said metro Atlanta reportedly has the greatest inequity in the nation in terms of income, an issue that needs to be addressed.

“Nobody likes to call the ugly baby and ugly baby,” Smith said. “It’s time for us to say the baby is ugly, but we have an opportunity.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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