Alycen Whiddon – Atlanta’s unsung visionary city planner
By Guest Columnists JIM KULSTAD, LORI LELAND-KIRK AND CAROLYN H. RADER, environmental advocate, urban planners and friends of Alycen Whiddon
Unsung visionary, landscape architect and urban planner, Alycen Whiddon left a permanent legacy in the urban design of Atlanta that we all enjoy today. Long before linking greenway trails, creating pedestrian and bike-friendly streets and zoning for vibrant urban spaces were commonly accepted concepts, Alycen was their champion.
Alycen Estelle Whiddon, RLA, AICP, age 67, passed away peacefully at her home in August after a courageous 10-year battle with cancer. But through her notion of dreaming big for our cities and her ability to create innovative strategies to make those dreams a reality, she leaves behind a profound impact on the quality of life in Atlanta.
You may not know Alycen Whiddon’s name, but her behind the scenes work and dedication to a more livable Atlanta resulted in zoning innovations that foster a more walkable urban character with higher density near transit. As a collaborative team leader, she spearheaded, drafted and guided the approval of the City of Atlanta’s Quality of Life codes and design guidelines that set the stage for an explosion of vibrant urban development in Midtown and other areas of Atlanta. Shannon Powell, former vice president of Midtown Alliance, observed, “Alycen’s work transformed the city.”
As staff planner for Mayor Maynard Jackson’s Green Ribbon Committee and Project Manager of the 1993 Atlanta Parks, Open Space and Greenways Plan, Alycen was tirelessly laying the foundations for future projects we enjoy today. The adopted 1993 Atlanta Parks, Open Space and Greenways Plan (Parks Plan) enabled the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta to include projects from the Parks Plan directly into their Public Spaces Program. This was a key implementation tool for leaving Atlanta with an Olympic legacy of permanent public space improvements and amenities.
As with her mentors, former commissioners of planning Leon Eplan, FAICP, and Michael Dobbins, FAICP, FAIA, Alycen’s planning and design initiatives always had inclusion and diversity at the forefront. She was regularly out in the communities and neighborhoods getting their input and feedback.
Dobbins, now a Georgia Tech professor of practice and co-author of “Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence,” remembers, “When I arrived in Atlanta, new to the city, Alycen was clearly a leader in the department. Along with her long-time mentor Leon Eplan and others, she quickly oriented me to a big picture understanding of the city, its visions, its opportunities and its obstacles. Her priorities were right on for how to carry forward the Olympic era planning, design, and development transformation that was occurring.”
The Parks Plan proposed the expansion and improvement of Atlanta’s parks, bike and walking paths and trails, and identified the value of greenways, which use floodplains, historic routes, and abandoned rail lines to convert to linear green corridors. One of the many important specific recommendations in the plan outlined the use of the old rail Circle Line (also called the Belt Line), as “a cultural ring around Downtown and Midtown, which is a circular greenway park with a pedestrian/bicycle trail.” The Parks Plan is referenced in Ryan Gravel’s 1999 Master’s thesis, “Belt Line – Atlanta.” Also in the Parks Plan, Tax Allocation Districts (TADs) are identified as potential funding sources for acquisition and construction of trails and bikeways.
Alycen worked with then Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and Mayor Shirley Franklin on the BeltLine Plan and the BeltLine TAD. In a recent interview Cathy Woolard recalled, “As we were gaining much public support and enthusiasm for the BeltLine proposal, one critical question often came up. ‘Great idea, how are you going to pay for it?’ It was Alycen who suggested creating the BeltLine Tax Allocation District.” As Ryan Gravel, AICP, states on his website, “…without the TAD, we literally would not be talking about the Atlanta BeltLine today.”
Barbara Faga, PhD, FASLA, co-chair of Mayor Jackson’s Green Ribbon Committee, former EDAW, Inc. principal, Rutgers professor, and author of “Designing Public Consensus,” said, “Alycen is the epitome of the concerned practitioner. She worked hard throughout her career to promote, educate, and interpret good design to the Atlanta community and elected officials. Alycen could explain the BeltLine TAD, zoning, and historic districts among other landscape and planning terms to many Atlanta neighbors. Alycen made a great career of working with community.”
Alycen used her skills as a listener and initiator to coordinate efforts across multiple agencies and with neighborhood leaders. One example of this is her work with several parties on the design for the Freedom Parkway and Park. Another is her work alongside Ed McBrayer and Pete Pellegrini of the PATH Foundation to help make their work of implementing multi-modal trails possible. She worked on the big ideas and details that lend character to Atlanta including the design of standard street furniture and a set of street lights known as the “Atlanta Light.” Alycen was very talented at creating cross-team collaborations and partnerships to achieve these goals.
Many of the planners Alycen worked with continue to share a unique camaraderie that reflects a mutual respect and admiration for Alycen. She was supportive of the next generation of city planners and created institutional spaces for them to collaborate. The urban design studio within the City of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning (now known as Atlanta City Studio), which encourages planners to work together to develop and implement better city design, is another of Alycen’s legacies to the city.
In this same inclusive mode, Alycen worked to protect the city’s environment. She advocated policies to protect the tree canopy, green downtown and other developments. And crucially, she achieved passage of a new zoning overlay, first in Midtown and Downtown, that enabled the more walkable, livable, and lively communities we enjoy today.
After many dedicated years as a City of Atlanta staff planner, Alycen started her own consulting firm – Alycen Whiddon Associates. AWA focused on community planning, land development policies and regulations. Alycen’s work through AWA stressed her strong commitment to sound urban design and environmental principles to create smart growth solutions for her varied clients.
During her battle with cancer, Alycen focused her boundless creativity on painting landscapes in north Georgia around the mountain home she designed in the 90’s and shared with her life partner Don Rickert. She and her father had moved to the North Georgia mountains to be closer to her brother, Jon Whiddon, who was a folk artist. When her brother died, he left behind paints, brushes and canvases that she wanted to put to good use and took up painting.
Alycen’s passion and energy for making Atlanta the best it could be knew no bounds. She loved to travel and paint and always saw enormous potential in Atlanta. She borrowed ideas from other cities around the world and applied them to Atlanta in unique ways. The Chattahoochee River Park and Greenway is an idea that Alycen fostered with the PATH Foundation and is being re-explored and carried forward in planning circles today.
Atlantans pay tribute to Alycen Whiddon’s vision every day with their enthusiastic use of Atlanta’s BeltLine, parks, greenways and urban spaces. Alycen was a creative visionary who understood great cities have public spaces that draw people together.
A mentor to many herself, Alycen was always happy to pass the torch of her visionary ideas to those who came after her. She had a collaborative spirit and never sought credit for her ideas or achievements. She called it the “Zen of Planning.” She will be remembered as a great friend and colleague who had a twinkle in her eye, good mischief in her grin, and a bounce in her step.
Note to readers: The authors have advocated for environmental protection and urban planning since the 1980s. The work provided each with many opportunities to intersect with Alycen Whiddon:
Jim Kulstad is a retired public interest lobbyist who specialized in environmental policies and ethics in government. He worked closely with Alycen as chair of the Greenways Sub-committee on Mayor Maynard Jackson’s Green Ribbon Committee.
Lori Leland-Kirk, AICP, is a city planner and urban designer who worked with Alycen in the years leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games Olympics in positions with at EDAW, Inc., the Atlanta Department of City Planning, and the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta. More recently she was an urban planner in the Atlanta Department of City Planning and is currently with the Collaborative, Inc./City of Sandy Springs.
Carolyn H. Rader is a city and environmental planner. She was the executive director of Park Pride Atlanta for a year before working with Alycen on many parks and environmental initiatives as the City’s first environmental planner and later, as the coordinator of the Atlanta Urban Resources Partnership. More recently, she was the planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Lifelong Communities initiative. She is currently a project manager for the City of Avondale Estates.