By Megan Hodgkiss, Hodgkiss Consulting LLC
How should leaders address growing challenges related to the city’s post-pandemic economy and culture? This is a key question that Dr. Tracy Hadden Loh addressed during her recent presentation to Central Atlanta Progress. The program, entitled “Five Ways Everyone Is Wrong About the Future of Downtowns (And What to Do About It)” took place earlier this month at AmericasMart.
Dr. Loh, an urban planning expert and Fellow with the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings Metro, discussed how the converging crises of the pandemic, economic instability, racial justice, and climate change are impacting Downtown – all while creating an opportunity to reset and reimagine. She shared some suggestions about how Atlanta can escape the “Doom Loop” by instituting policy changes that “leverage downtown as a cantilever for shared prosperity.” Keep reading to see Dr. Loh’s insights.
While some may perceive Downtown Atlanta as unsafe, Dr. Loh presented evidence that most crimes that occurred between 2019 and 2022 happened outside of Downtown Atlanta in disinvested neighborhoods. She suggests that the solution to Atlanta’s crime problem is to tailor response strategies, target interventions in higher-crime neighborhoods, and consult with those in the community. She says to invest in lighting, trash collection, and other placemaking to promote a sense of belonging.
Remote and hybrid work may have changed how we operate and do business. But it does not mean that offices and office buildings are obsolete. As long as we have jobs, we will need housing. Dr. Loh suggested that while Atlanta recovers from the pandemic, Atlanta needs to be flexible – it needs to be easy to construct new buildings and upgrade the older ones. City leaders should focus on making Downtown Atlanta a place where people want to be, and they should strive to consolidate jobs, entertainment, and other assets in mixed-use activity centers. “The challenge and the opportunity of hybrid work is not that we don’t need proximity anymore,” Loh said, “It’s that we can reimagine proximity.”
Atlanta residents and visitors use MARTA for both work and non-work transit. People ride MARTA to get to the city’s activity centers, and in turn, those activity centers are successful because people can access them via MARTA. It is a symbiotic relationship. Concerning the future of transit in Downtown Atlanta, Dr. Loh recommended stable, ongoing funding for transit as well as the creation and prioritization of a modern bus network.
Two primary causes of homelessness are increased housing costs and a lack of supportive services. While this is not specific to Atlanta, the downtown area has a concentration of unhoused individuals. This is because people come to Downtown Atlanta for proximity – for human connection, access to information, and for safety. Dr. Loh suggested that Atlanta address homelessness by “building for zero” and doing what we know works.
Finally, Dr. Loh discussed how city leaders can help people most impacted by the pandemic to transition together. She stressed the importance of defining “recovery” and determining exactly who Downtown Atlanta is for. Cities should consider their visitors, residents, businesses, and other assets and create “next-generation policies that explicitly link prosperity and neighborhood well-being.”
By dispelling five myths about the future of downtowns, Dr. Loh kicked off a conversation about a proactive approach to crime, transit, workspaces, and homelessness. Her suggested strategies are designed to create a stronger, more vibrant Atlanta.
“There is work that needs to be done, and we know what to do,” Dr. Loh concluded. “What Atlanta is now is the whole country’s future, and Atlanta can lead the way in helping the nation learn how to create shared prosperity. The whole nation is watching to see if Atlanta and Georgia can figure this out.”
For more news and updates on Downtown Atlanta, follow Central Atlanta Progress on LinkedIn.
Megan Hodgkiss, JD, PhD, is a CAP Member and CEO of Hodgkiss Consulting LLC. She works with businesses, law firms, and nonprofit organizations on their content marketing and copywriting.